Revised note on dialogue boost to Catholic-Jewish relations

Rabbi Alan J. Katz, Sister of St. Joseph Lorraine Julien and Paula Franco, a teacher from the Albany, N.Y., diocese take a close look at a Torah scroll at a synagogue in Rochester, N.Y. They were participating in the Bearing Witness Program, an effort of the Anti-Defamation League to give Catholic school educators a better understanding of Jewish culture.. (CNS)

Updated from Oct. 6.
The revision of a U.S. bishops' public note on Catholic-Jewish dialogue and a new statement of dialogue principles, which was announced Oct. 6, do not resolve all the issues raised by the earlier, controversial note, but they "should be sufficient to allow the Jews to return to the dialogue," says a leading authority on Catholic-Jewish relations and longtime Vatican consultor on the topic.

The U.S. bishops' conference announced Monday that five key officials of the conference had excised a controversial passage from a public note on Catholic-Jewish dialogue issued in June by two bishops' conference committees.

U.S. Jewish leaders had found the passage offensive and said faithful Jews could not enter into dialogue with Catholics if those Catholics were always at least implicitly seeking their conversion.

The church officials, who included Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, bishops' conference president, also issued a six-point "Statement of Principles for Catholic-Jewish Dialogue" that clearly affirms that God's covenant with the Jews has never been revoked.

"Jewish covenantal life endures till the present day as a vital witness to God's saving will for his people Israel and for all of humanity," it says.

The six-point statement and an accompanying letter to heads of five leading U.S. Jewish organizations were dated Oct. 2 and released by the bishops' conference Oct. 6

Eugene J. Fisher, who directed Catholic-Jewish relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for 30 years until his retirement in 2007, told NCR that the revision of the note and the new statement of dialogue principles should be able to restart the dialogue.

However, he said the note and the six-point statement still do not address the "eschatological caveat" regarding Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. Eschatological refers in Christian theology to the end-time of the resurrection of the dead and Christ's return in glory.

While the original note referred to Christ as the fulfillment of the God's covenants with Israel, Fisher said, it does not include the distinction made in 1985 by the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. According to that document, he said, the fulfillment of the old covenant "was not perfected with the first coming of Christ, but awaits its perfection with his coming -- or return -- at the end of time."

The "crisis" in Catholic-Jewish dialogue generated by the June note may be over, Fisher said, "but we are, as Cardinal [Walter] Kasper [president of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with Judaism] has said, only at the beginning of the beginning of working our way through such theological questions as the nature of [the covenant's] fulfillment in Christ."

Christians and Jews stand together in expectation of the Messiah – for Jews, his first coming, for Christians, his return – Fisher said.

The six-point statement and an accompanying letter to heads of five leading U.S. Jewish organizations were dated Oct. 2 and released by the bishops' conference Oct. 6

Signing the letter and statement, in addition to Cardinal George, were Cardinal William H. Keeler, retired archbishop of Baltimore, the episcopal moderator of Catholic-Jewish relations; Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta, chairman of the bishops' conference Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs; Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., chairman of the bishops' Committee on Doctrine, and Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., Catholic co-chair of the bishops' consultation with the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America.

The original note in question had been issued jointly by the bishops' conference doctrinal and ecumenical committees.

The most controversial passage in the note had said, "Though Christian participation in interreligious dialogue would not normally include an explicit invitation to baptism and entrance into the church, the Christian dialogue partner is always giving witness to the following of Christ, to which all are implicitly invited."

That sentence and the immediately previous sentence, leading in to it, will be deleted from the note, the bishops said.

When the note was released, it immediately provoked criticism from several leading scholars in Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

Philip A. Cunningham, director of the Institute for Catholic-Jewish Relations at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, told NCR at the time that the statement about implicitly inviting dialogue partners to enter the church reopened "a can of worms … a Pandora's box that most of us who have been involved in dialogical work had thought had been resolved a long time ago."

In August, in a rare joint letter, five of the leading U.S. Jewish organizations protested that the note "is antithetical to the very essence of Jewish-Christian dialogue as we have understood it in the post-Vatican II era."

They said even an implicit invitation to enter the church in the context of interreligious dialogue amounts to inviting the Jewish participants to apostasize. Further, the language saying that "interreligious dialogue would not normally include an explicit invitation to baptism" implies that in some situations it could include such an explicit invitation, they said.

The Jewish organizations expressing concern were the Rabbinical Council of America, American Jewish Committee, Orthodox Union, Anti-Defamation League and National Council of Synagogues.

The Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council America, the respective synagogal and rabbinical organizations of Orthodox Judaism, have an ongoing joint consultation with the bishops' conference .

The National Council of Synagogues, representing the synagogal and rabbinical organizations of Conservative and Reform Judaism, has a separate ongoing consultation with the bishops' conference .

While the AJC and ADL are not in formal consultation with the bishops, both are important voices in the Jewish community and longtime advocates of improved Catholic-Jewish relations.

In their letter to the heads of those organizations, Cardinal George and his fellow bishops' conference officials said their new six-point statement on dialogue and the amendment to the original note "make clear our intentions and hopes for future dialogue between committed Catholics and committed Jews."

In the six points they reaffirmed Catholic belief that "Jesus Christ is the unique savior of all humankind" and that Catholics must "bear witness to Christ at every moment of their lives."

But they added that "lived context shapes the form of that witness to the Lord we love. Jewish-Catholic dialogue, one of the blessed fruits of the Second Vatican Council, has never been and will never be used by the Catholic Church as a means of proselytism – nor is it intended as a disguised invitation to baptism."

"In sitting at the table," they said, "we expect to encounter Jews who are faithful to the Mosaic covenant, just as we insist that only Catholics committed to the teachings of the church encounter them in our dialogues."

The six point statement can be found at www.usccb.org/seia/StatementofPrinciples.pdf

The bishops' letter can be found at www.usccb.org/seia/ResponsetoRabbis.pdf

[Jerry Filteau is NCR Washington correspondent.]


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