A war of words between 2 faiths

The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops, looking to clarify their position on interfaith dialogue with Jews, have instead caused an uproar by issuing a recent statement that appears to endorse attempts to convert them.

The bishops’ action threatens to further erode Catholic-Jewish ties that have been strained in recent years by other controversies, including a decision by Pope Benedict XVI two years ago to revive a Latin Mass that contained a passage calling for the conversion of Jews.

The heads of several major U.S. Jewish organizations said the bishops’ statement in June touched historic sensitivities among Jews about persecution by Christians. And they questioned whether the bishops were retreating from a carefully crafted 2002 document that spoke of dialogue between the two faiths as a “mutually enriching sharing of gifts devoid of any intention whatsoever” to proselytize.

That text was inspired by several decades of warming relations between Catholics and Jews that followed the Second Vatican Council, the landmark conference in the mid-1960s that sought to ease centuries-old tensions between the two religions.


“The whole basis of dialogue has had a major monkey wrench thrown into it,” said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, U.S. director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. “What it feels like to Jews is that this is a major breach of trust.”

The trouble stems from a recent decision by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to clear up what its members viewed as ambiguities in the 2002 document, “Reflections on Covenant and Mission.”

The bishops said they were prompted to review the text because theologians had been citing it as authoritative even though it did not represent the bishops’ formal position. Instead, they said, it was meant only to reflect dialogue between members of the two faiths.

The original text, issued in conjunction with the National Council of Synagogues, featured separate Catholic and Jewish sections.

In the Catholic portion, scholars explained that the central mission of the church was to “bear witness in the world to the Good News of Christ so as to prepare the world for the fullness of the kingdom of God.” The document also noted that “Jews already dwell in a saving covenant with God” and that “their witness to the kingdom . . . must not be curtailed by seeking the conversion of the Jewish people to Christianity.”

In their statement last month, however, the bishops said the 2002 document contained statements that were “insufficiently precise and potentially misleading.”

The initial text, the bishops said, diminished the role of evangelization for Catholics and “could lead some to conclude mistakenly that Jews have an obligation not to become Christian and that the Church has a corresponding obligation not to baptize Jews.”

Bishops who oversaw the development of the new statement, titled a “A Note on Ambiguities Contained in Reflections on Covenant and Mission,” said they believed it would answer questions Catholics might have about how to relate to the Jewish community.


The bishops’ conference “reaffirms what the Holy See has stated repeatedly: that while the Catholic Church does not proselytize the Jewish people, neither does she fail to witness to them her faith in Christ, nor to welcome them to share in that same faith whenever appropriate,” Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., said in written remarks after the June 18 release of the new document.

Lori, who heads the bishops’ committee on doctrine and pastoral practice, could not be reached for further comment, nor could Archbishop Wilton Gregory, who chairs the conference’s committee on ecumenical and interreligious affairs. The two panels prepared the “Note on Ambiguities.”

Father James Massa, chief ecumenical and interreligious officer for the Catholic bishops, hoped the new document would provide clarity on a complex and confusing subject.

“It is not on the agenda of the Catholic Church in the U.S. or anywhere else to promote any kind of missionary effort that targets Jews for conversion,” said Massa, who participated in a recent conference call with Catholic and Jewish leaders to address the controversy. “Dialogue for us is not a disguise for proselytizing.”


Rabbi Gilbert S. Rosenthal, director of the National Council of Synagogues, said he gave Massa and the other Catholic leaders credit for listening to the Jewish perspective during the call. Still, Rosenthal and others said that the conversation had not resolved the situation.

“If you want to covert us, just say so candidly and overtly,” Rosenthal said of the bishops. “Then we know where we stand. This is just another episode that develops a sense of uneasiness and a concern that we are witnessing a retreat from the remarkable advances of the Second Vatican Council.”

Rosenthal and others pointed to other troubling signs from Catholic leaders since Benedict was elected pope four years ago, among them the revival of the Latin Mass long sought by traditionalists within the church. (The passage in the Mass about conversion of Jews was later revised, although Jewish leaders remained critical.)

Jewish leaders also cited the pope’s decision this year to lift the excommunication of four ultra-conservative Catholic bishops, including one who denied that Jews died in Nazi gas chambers.


In addition, they criticized a proposal by U.S. Catholic bishops to eliminate a sentence from the church’s catechism for adults that says the covenant God made through Moses remains “eternally valid” for Jews. Catholic leaders called the revision minor, saying it was meant to reflect Catholic understanding that God’s covenant with the Jewish people is affirmed on its own but also through Jesus.

“At the end of the day, there is a backtracking from where we thought we were,” Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said of Catholic-Jewish relations. “There are things happening in the church. The unintended consequences are to chisel at that relationship.”