The Vatican has said Catholics don't need to convert Jews: What does this mean?

The Vatican has released a report called 'The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable', clarifying the relationship between the Catholic Church and Judaism. Importantly, it is not a doctrinal teaching but a "reflection" that opens things up for discussion. 

Cardinal Kurt Koch and Rabbi David Rosen attend a news conference to present a major new document, that drew the Church further away from the strained relations of the past with Judaism, at the Vatican December 10, 2015.Reuters

It clearly states that Christians and Jews are on the same side, making explicit that it is impossible to be an anti-Semite and a Christian. It both condemns missionary work aimed at converting Jews and includes Jews within God's salvation, affirming God's un-revoked covenant with Israel, referring to Judaism as Christianity's elder brother.

These statements from the Catholic Church concerning Judaism both that "the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards the Jews" and that they are not excluded from God's salvation "because they don't believe in Jesus Christ as the messiah of Israel and Son of God" are unprecedented, both in content and in clarity, even if they don't change anything doctrinally.

What's the big deal?

It might not sound like a huge deal; most people know that Jesus was Jewish, most of the Old Testament is the from the Torah (24 books – 1/3 of the Bible) and Christianity was borne out of the Jewish tradition.

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However, until the 1960s, the official teaching of the Catholic Church was more than a bit disparaging towards the Jews and the Church has a history besmirched by anti-Semitism. Although Catholics revered the Jewish scriptures, they have traditionally placed a collective guilt on the Jewish people for the death of Jesus.

It was not until 1962, in the wake of World War II, when Pope John XXIII hosted Vatican II – a pastoral ecumenical council – that this was officially repudiated as a position in a document called Nostra Aetate.

The Nostra what?

The Nostra Aetate, translated from Latin to "In Our Time" was a document published in 1965 which changed the Catholic position concerning Jews radically. It officially exonerated Jews of any collective guilt for the death of Jesus and affirmed God's covenant with them was intact.

"True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. The Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ."

50 years ago, this declaration opened the door for a theological dialogue and positive relationship between the two faiths.

It's no coincidence that this new "reflection" has been released by the Vatican on the 50th anniversary of the Nostra Aetate, both continuing the theme and moving it forward.

What is new about what the Vatican is saying now then?

It manages to sum up - in one document - 50 years of theological discussion and change in the church's approach to Jews, according to Rabbi David Rosen, the international director for the inter-religious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

Rosen is right in saying that the document moves further than Nostra Aetate concerning the evangelisation of Jews. But his claim that the document explicitly says that the church does not want to convert Jews is not accurate.

However, the change is still signifcant, in that the Church drops its support of instituionalised mission towards the Jewish people and urges Christians to 'bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews' but that they should do so in 'a humble and sensitive manner, acknowledging that Jews are bearers of God's word.'

So, the Vatican is not saying don't witness to Jews, but they are saying do it in a way that recognises the place Jews hold in salvation history.

How?

The Church is holding two things together: that salvation is through Christ alone but that Jews - whether or not they believe in Jesus - are included in this.

What?

The statement explicitly says that, although Christians believe that salvation comes through Christ alone, "it does not in any way follow that the Jews are excluded from God's salvation because they don't believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God."

That Jews are included in God's salvation has never explicitly been stated by the Church before.

"You could deduce it from 'Nostra Aetate,' you could deduce it from subsequent comments, but I don't think it's ever been written down explicitly this way", said Rabbi Rosen, who took part in the Vatican's official presentation.

"The new 'Reflection' document clearly repudiates replacement or supersessionist theology and expresses an increasing appreciation and respect for Jewish self-understanding, reflected in recognizing the place of Torah in the life of the Jewish people," he added.

So, this reflection holds that salvation is solely through Jesus, unless you are Jewish? Does that make sense?

The Church has affirmed that while it is through Christ alone that all people have the chance of salvation, Jews can benefit from this without believing in Him.

Within Catholic thought since 1965 there have been some theologians who have posed the possibility of there being two covenants – one between God and the Jews and one made through Jesus. This document, however, rejects this, retaining that "there can only be one single convenant history of God with humanity."

The relationship between God and man has developed throughout history, with Noah, Abraham and Moses. 

"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."

Christ's death and resurrection beckoned "neither the annulment nor the replacement, but the fulfilment of the promises of the Old Covenant."

So, the Vatican has maintained that salvation is universally and therefore exclusively mediated through Jesus, but that it is not up to Christians to determine that God can save only those who explicitly acknowledge Christ as son of God and saviour.

"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."

The Church admits that how the two are held together theologically is a "mystery", but that does not negate its truth.

How will this Vatican statement affect views in the pews?

This is a concern held by many of those involved. Speaking at a Vatican news conference yesterday, Dr Edward Kessler, director of the Woolf Institute for the study of inter-religious relations in Cambridge, shared a warning that the Christian sense of "fulfillment easily slides into replacement," seeing Christians as "the successor covenant people, elected by God to replace Israel because of the latter's unfaithfulness."

Rosen praised the new document's emphasis on education and the integration of the Nostra Aetate and this subsequent document into training of priests, saying "this remains the most notable challenge in taking the achievements from their Olympian heights down to the grassroots universally."

Kessler said that both Jews and Christians had to "ensure the transformation in relations is not limited to the elite, but extends from the citadels of the Vatican to the pews of the Church as well as from the offices of the chief rabbis to the floors of the synagogues."

That the Catholic Church has formally – although not doctrinally – recognised the salvific significance of the Jewish faith and condemned missional efforts to the Jews is hugely significant. The document's way was paved by the Nostra Aetate, but the explicit nature of this latest document takes new ground in progression of Judeo-Christian relations.

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