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Contrary to headlines, Church has no plans to stop missionizing
New Vatican document precludes "institutional mission work" but says believers are "called upon to bear witness" to Jews.
Though it has been widely reported that the Vatican now guides Catholics not to try to convert Jews, theologist Yoram Hazony proves from the statement itself that this is not at all the case.
Hazony, President of the Herzl Institute, is a prolific writer in the fields of philosophy, theology, political theory and intellectual history. In an essay last week on TorahMusings.com, Hazony noted that many prominent news sites misreported the new Vatican document in question as having stated that "Catholics Should Not Try to Convert Jews" (both BBC and The New York Times), and "Catholics Shouldn't Convert Jews" (Ha'aretz).
However, as Hazony quoted a "Catholic scholar with many years of experience in these matters" as saying, it was simply “just the media making things up again.”
At first, based on the reports, Hazony opined that the new document, authored by the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, was a dramatic change of Catholic theology of historic proportions. He therefore carefully perused the document - entitled “The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable: A Reflection on the Theological Questions Pertaining to Catholic-Jewish Relations" - and concluded the following:
"The words 'Catholics should not try to convert Jews' do not appear anywhere. Nor is it possible to find anything remotely resembling this proposition in the 25 pages of the document in question."
On what is the mistake based? Probably on this passage from Section 20, which states that "the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews." In the next sentence, however, the document makes it clear that "Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus… also to Jews."
Interestingly, the Vatican adds here that this evangelization must be done "in a humble and sensitive manner." Why? To acknowledge "that Jews are bearers of God’s Word, and particularly in view of the great tragedy of the Shoah."
As such, it is not accurate to say, as the headlines blared, that the Vatican says Catholics should not try to convert Jews. Rather, they are still "called" to "bear witness" to Jews, albeit with humility and sensitivity.
Hazony acknowledges that the document "does demonstrate an intense desire on the part of the Church to rebuild Catholic theology so as to put an end to nearly two millennia of Christian hostility toward Judaism." It states that the Church "does not question the continued love of God for the chosen people of Israel,” and emphasizes that Christian teaching does not exclude Jews "from God’s salvation because they do not believe in Jesus.” (Sect. 36)
Perhaps most interesting of all is that, according to the Vatican Commission, "the Word of God can be learned through the Torah and the traditions based on it. The Torah is the instruction for a successful life in right relationship with God. Whoever observes the Torah has life in its fullness."
At the same time, the Vatican contradicts itself (from its standpoint) by stating that "the theory that there may be two different paths to salvation" – without Jesus (for Jews) and with Jesus (for everyone else) – "would in fact endanger the foundations of Christian faith." Hazony says that the Commission admits it has not completed the theological work of reconciling these two views, and that it concludes that how these two positions can be reconciled “remains an unfathomable divine mystery.”
As previously reported here, Rabbi Shmuel Lifschitz – head of the anti-missionary organization Yad L'Achim - stated that in any event, the practical impact of the declaration is quite limited – largely because it does not affect Protestants. He admitted that the document was "an important matter, but not as big as the noise it's made."