New Vatican document reflects on relations between Catholics, Jews

VATICAN CITY — Catholics are called to witness to their faith in Jesus before all people, including Jews, but the Catholic Church “neither conducts nor supports” any institutional missionary initiative directed toward Jews, says a new document from a Vatican commission.

An illuminated Hanukkah menorah stands in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in this Dec. 23, 2014, file photo. Although Catholic are called to witness to their faith, the church "neither conducts nor supports" any institutional missionary initiative directed toward Jews, according to a new document from a Vatican commission. (CNS photo/Rainer Jensen, EPA)

An illuminated Hanukkah menorah stands in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in this Dec. 23, 2014, file photo. Although Catholic are called to witness to their faith, the church “neither conducts nor supports” any institutional missionary initiative directed toward Jews, according to a new document from a Vatican commission. (CNS photo/Rainer Jensen, EPA)

How God will save the Jews if they do not explicitly believe in Christ is “an unfathomable divine mystery,” but one which must be affirmed since Catholics believe that God is faithful to his promises and therefore never revoked his covenant with the Jewish people, it says.

In the statement, “The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable,” the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews gives thanks for 50 years of Catholic-Jewish dialogue and looks at some of the theological questions that have arisen in the dialogue and in Catholic theology since the Second Vatican Council.

The topics covered in the document, released Dec. 10, include: the meaning of “the Word of God” in Judaism and Christianity; the relationship between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament; the relationship between God’s covenant with Israel and the New Covenant; the meaning of the universality of salvation in Christ in view of “God’s unrevoked covenant” with the Jewish people; and what evangelization means in relation to the Jews.

The document explicitly states that it is not a “doctrinal teaching of the Catholic Church,” but a reflection based on doctrine and flowing from Vatican II’s declaration “Nostra Aetate” on Catholic relations with other religions.

Like “Nostra Aetate,” the new document condemns all forms of anti-Semitism and affirms that Christianity’s relationship with Judaism is unique in the field of interreligious dialogue because of the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. In addition to believing that the Jewish Scriptures are God’s revelation, Jesus and his disciples were practicing Jews, and many elements of Catholic liturgy developed out of formal Jewish prayer.

“One cannot understand Jesus’ teaching or that of his disciples without situating it within the Jewish horizon in the context of the living tradition of Israel,” the document says. “One would understand his teachings even less so if they were seen in opposition to this tradition.”

The Jewish roots of Christianity, it says, give the Christian faith its necessary “anchoring in salvation history,” showing how the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are part of the story of God’s saving work since the beginning of time, and that Christianity is not a system of religious belief that appeared out of the blue with the birth of Jesus.

Because Catholics recognize their faith as having its roots in the faith of the Jews, the document says, dialogue and joint study bring obvious advantages to Catholic knowledge of the Bible and faith in the one God.

The first Jewish Christians continued to go to the synagogue and, the document said, historical evidence indicates the break between Christianity and Judaism — between the church and synagogue — may not have been complete until the 3rd century or even the 4th century. In addition, modern rabbinical Judaism developed after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, the same time as Christianity was developing. For those reasons, the document says, Jews, too, can learn from Christian historical studies.

Within Catholic theology over the past 50 years, some scholars have hypothesized the existence and validity of two “covenants,” one that God made with the Jews and one made through Jesus. The new document, however, insists “there can only be one single covenant history of God with humanity.”

At the same time, however, the document says God’s covenant with humanity developed over time: it was first forged with Abraham, then the law was given to Moses, then new promises were given to Noah.

“Each of these covenants incorporates the previous covenant and interprets it in a new way,” the document says. “That is also true for the New Covenant which for Christians is the final eternal covenant and, therefore, the definitive interpretation of what was promised by the prophets.”

The covenant sealed with the death and resurrection of Christ, it said, is “neither the annulment nor the replacement, but the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Covenant.”

However, one expert in Jewish-Christian relations said a belief that Jews have been replaced by Christians in God’s favor still “is alive and well in the pews.”

Speaking at a Vatican news conference Dec. 10, Edward Kessler gave “a warning” that the Christian sense of “fulfillment easily slides into replacement,” which sees Christians as “the successor covenant people, elected by God to replace Israel because of the latter’s unfaithfulness.”

The expert in the study of Jewish-Christian relations and founder and director of the Woolf Institute in Cambridge, England, welcomed the new document and said he hoped the progress being made in Catholic-Jewish relations would not be “limited to the elite,” but trickles down to everyday Catholics and Jews.

The Vatican document also rejects the notion that there are two paths to salvation, one for Christians and one for Jews. “Confessing the universal and therefore also exclusive mediation of salvation through Jesus Christ belongs to the core of Christian faith.”

But that does not mean it is up to Christians to determine that God can save only those who explicitly acknowledge Christ as son of God and savior, it says. “Here we confront the mystery of God’s work, which is not a matter of missionary efforts to convert Jews, but rather the expectation that the Lord will bring about the hour when we will be united.”

A week before the Vatican document was released, two dozen Orthodox rabbis signed a “statement on Christianity” circulated by the Israel-based Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation.

“We acknowledge that Christianity is neither an accident nor an error, but the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations,” the statement said. In separating Judaism and Christianity, God “willed a separation between partners with significant theological differences, not a separation between enemies.”

In addition, the rabbis said, now that the Catholic Church has acknowledged the eternal covenant between God and Israel, “we Jews can acknowledge the ongoing constructive validity of Christianity as our partner in world redemption, without any fear that this will be exploited for missionary purposes.”