|Jesus teaching in the Synagogue|
Why then, did we wake up to headlines this morning such as the following?
- "Vatican says Catholics should not try to convert Jews" (Reuters)
- "Vatican tells Catholics not to attempt to convert Jews" (The Guardian)
- "Catholics should not try to convert Jews, Vatican says in landmark document" (Jerusalem Post)
We could cite many others. What is this? Why would the Catholic Church issue a new "landmark document" forbidding Catholics from even attempting to evangelize to the Jewish people? It makes no sense on the face of it. It would mean either one of two things. It would mean that the Jewish people do not need Christ for salvation; that the Mosiac covenant is, on its own, salvific for them. In that case, one would have to ask, "Why Jesus?" Why would the Messiah, the Savior of the world, have come first to the Jewish people? Why would He have had to come at all if the old Law was sufficiently redemptive? Theologically, this position makes no sense.
The alternative explanation is that the Catholic Church is no longer concerned with the salvation of the Jewish people. While we strive to evangelize the rest of the world, the Jewish people are on their own. They "missed the boat," so to speak. This, also, is an untenable position. One cannot imagine the Catholic Church advocating either of these things. So what is going on here?
I've said it before, but it bears repeating. We need to learn to take any news about the Catholic Church reported in the secular media with a grain of salt. This is not always due to anti-Catholic bias in the media (though that sometimes can be the case). Very often it is due to the fact that secular reporters are simply unfamiliar with the organization, methods, and teachings of the Catholic Church. Whenever we read a headline reporting, "The Vatican Says..." we need to ask the following questions:
- Who is saying it?
- How are they saying it?
- What, exactly, are they saying?
The "who" is rather important. Most people read "the Vatican" as synonymous with "the Catholic Church." Anything "the Vatican" says is taken to be official teaching (or at least an official position) of the Catholic Church. This is simply not true. The Vatican is a city-state with all kinds of offices, committees and congregations. Some of these have quite a bit of teaching authority. Others function more as advisory committees. So it is very important to know just who is doing the talking when "the Vatican says."
In this case, the document in question comes from the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, which is part of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The Commission was created in 1974 with the mission to promote and foster relations between Jews and Catholics. In terms of magisterial weight, it has no teaching authority on its own. It simply does not have the power to issue a teaching that would be binding on all Catholics, as today's headlines seem to suggest.
But is this even what they are attempting to do? No, of course not. The question, "how are they saying it?" is important because there are various types of documents that represent different levels of teaching that even someone with obvious authority, such as the Pope, may use. At the highest end of that spectrum would be a papal encyclical. Much lower down on the spectrum would be an apostolic exhortation. (Much lower still would be an interview given to reporters on a plane). In other words, Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si carries a higher weight of authority than his apostolic exhortation Evangelium Gaudii, though both were documents issued by the pope. His 2013 interview published in America magazine carries no authority at all. In other words, the pope has different vehicles he can use when he makes a statement, depending on how much of his authority he wishes to put behind that statement.
When it comes to a Vatican body such as the Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, they don't have the option of issuing different types of statements carrying differing levels of authority, because they have no binding authority at all. So it matters less in this case "how" they are saying it. Nevertheless it is still good to know exactly what sort of statement is being reported on. In this case, it is a document called "The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable," issued in a press statement on December 10. It is a reflection on the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate (the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) that was promulgated on Oct. 28, 1965.
The Second Vatican Council was held from 1962-1965. During that time the Council issued 16 formal documents addressing (among other things) the Church and her mission in the world. We are at the tail end of a series of events going on throughout the Catholic Church marking the 50th anniversary of the Council. This recent statement should be understood in that context. Rather than being a "landmark document," as the Jerusalem Post reported, it is actually a reflection on a document that was issued fifty years ago.
And now we come to the final question: what, exactly, is this document saying? Does it in fact say that Catholics should not evangelize Jewish people? The answer is no. In fact, it says the exact opposite.
In "The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable," the commission notes that the relationship between Christianity and Judaism is unique. The Jewish people are the ancestors in faith of all Christians, and worship the same God as Christians, the God of Abraham and Isaac. Under the heading, "The Church's mandate to evangelize in relation to Judaism," the commission echoes the sentiment of Nostra Aetate that in light of this unique relationship the Church views "evangelization to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views. In concrete terms this means that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed toward Jews."
In other words, there is no official and specific organized mission to the Jews conducted by the Catholic Church. However, in the very next sentence, the commission reminds us that "Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews, although they should do so in a humble and sensitive manner..." Far from saying Catholics should not attempt to convert Jews, this document encourages individual Christians to bear witness to their faith to Jewish people; but while doing so to be mindful of the unique relationship we have with them. Our efforts to evangelize Jewish people, who worship the same God as we do, who share the same Hebrew scriptures, and who possess much revealed truth (though not the fullness of Revelation found in Christ), and who already await a Messiah will look very different from our efforts to evangelize Hindus, Buddhists, or atheists, with whom we have substantially different relationships.
This recent document also reminds us that Jesus was sent first to the Jews, that He is the universal savior of mankind, and that His Church consists of both Jews and Gentiles. Far from being a declaration that "Jews don't need Jesus," it is a reminder of the fact that all of us stand in need of a savior, not the least of which are our elder siblings in the faith. The Jewish people were the first to receive the light of Revelation. The first Christians were all Jewish converts. Jesus still calls to them, through His Church, to recognize and rejoice in their Messiah. Let us keep this in mind as we continue to prepare to enter the Christmas season, celebrating the birth of our universal Savior into a Jewish family in Bethlehem.