New Vatican document reflects on relations between Catholics, Jews


By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — 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.

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

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

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

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

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden.

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