The Boston Globe, Aug. 13, 2002
By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 8/13/2002
The Catholic Church, which spent hundreds of years trying forcibly to convert Jews to Christianity, has come to the conclusion that it is theologically unacceptable to target Jews for evangelization, according to a statement issued yesterday by organizations representing US Catholic bishops and rabbis from the country’s two largest Jewish denominations.
Citing teachings dating back to the Second Vatican Council, and statements by Pope John Paul II throughout his papacy, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops declared unequivocally that the biblical covenant between Jews and God is valid and therefore Jews do not need to be saved through faith in Jesus.
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”A deepening Catholic appreciation of the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people, together with a recognition of a divinely-given mission to Jews to witness to God’s faithful love, lead to the conclusion that campaigns that target Jews for conversion to Christianity are no longer theologically acceptable in the Catholic Church,” declares the document, ”Reflections on Covenant and Mission.”
The declaration, which was negotiated by the bishops and an organization representing Conservative and Reform rabbis, demonstrates the dramatic changes in Catholic thinking about Jews and Judaism in the wake of the Holocaust. In the decades since Hitler’s attempt to exterminate Jews during World War II, the church has rejected its longtime position that Christianity superseded Judaism and instead has embraced Judaism as a legitimate faith both before and after the life of Jesus.
”The significance is far more than theological, because for centuries it was the refusal of Jews to embrace Christian teachings that legitimized the persecution, and often murder, of Jews in communities throughout Christendom,” said Robert Leikind, New England regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. ”What the bishops have done here is decisively separated themselves from that history and indicated once and for all that Jews have an authentic relationship with God and an authentic mission in the world, and therefore there is no reason for, or logic in, trying to evangelize Jews.”
However, the declaration puts the Catholic Church at odds with evangelical Protestants, particularly the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the country. In a 1996 resolution, the Southern Baptists declared, ”whereas Jesus commanded that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem … we direct our energies and resources toward the proclamation of the gospel to the Jewish people.”
At the time, the Southern Baptists decried ”an organized effort on the part of some either to deny that Jewish people need to come to their Messiah, Jesus, to be saved; or to claim, for whatever reason, that Christians have neither right nor obligation to proclaim the gospel to the Jewish people … we are not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.”
The Southern Baptists’ stance has not changed since, according to spokesman John Revell. ”The drive behind not just the Southern Baptists but all evangelical Christians is the conviction that Jesus Christ is the only way to have eternal life with God the Father, and anybody who seeks eternal life through any other means will fail,” Revell said. ”There is a misconception that Southern Baptists have targeted Jews. We haven’t targeted Jews. Our focus is to get the good news of Jesus Christ to all people, including Jews.”
Eugene J. Fisher, the director of Catholic-Jewish Relations for the bishops’ conference, said the document issued yesterday acknowledges the divide between Catholics and evangelical Protestants on the issue.
”This is a free country and that principle of freedom of faith means I can’t complain about their freedom, but here there might be a theological difference as well as a pastoral difference in understanding the relation of Christ’s church to the Jewish people,” he said.
Fisher said Catholic efforts to convert Jews ”dried up” after the Second Vatican Council.
Yesterday’s declaration ”caps a development in a certain theological direction, by pulling it all together,” he said. ”In the US, the motivation of the American bishops to watch that development closely is very strong, because of the dialogue with the world’s largest Jewish community, which is in the US.”