Southern Baptists, Catholics argue over conversion of Jews

AP, Aug. 31, 2002
By Richard N. Ostling, Associated Press

Jewish leaders are assailing the Southern Baptist Convention — and the Roman Catholics are to blame.

The trio of faiths, all major forces in American religious life, are embroiled in an unusual three-sided dispute stemming from the question of whether Christians should attempt to convert Jews.

Southern Baptists say yes — and have criticized a committee of U.S. Catholic bishops that took a different tack.

Jewish spokesmen, in turn, have accused the nation’s largest Protestant denomination of hypocrisy, arrogance and prejudice. Speaking on Phil Donahue’s TV talk show, one rabbi even called a Southern Baptist official a “spiritual Neanderthal.”

Southern Baptist relations with U.S. Catholicism, meanwhile, are as rocky as those with Judaism.

The nation’s two largest Christian faiths have 81 million members between them and share many conservative beliefs and moral tenets. But last year the SBC ended three decades of low-key talks with Catholic leaders, part of the conservative shift that also revived the Baptists’ Jewish evangelism efforts.

What sparked the new dispute was a joint statement issued Aug. 12 by Jewish and Catholic leaders — specifically the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and the National Council of Synagogues, representing Conservative and Reform Judaism.

The key passage said: “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.”

Writing separately, Catholic negotiators explained that the church will always profess its faith in Jesus Christ to everyone, and will welcome any individuals who desire conversion, Jews included.

But, they said, the church believes Judaism is Jews’ response to “God’s irrevocable covenant,” so “the distinctive Jewish witness must be sustained” rather than being absorbed into Christianity.

Southern Baptists disagree strongly.

Jim Sibley, coordinator of the denomination’s ministry to Jews, said that when it comes to Judaism, Catholics have gotten it wrong twice.

For centuries, he said, Catholics violated Jews’ religious freedom and tried to force them to convert, with the end result being that persecution “hardened (Jews) against the good news of their messiah.”

In recent years, Sibley said, Catholicism has moved too far the other way — excluding Jews from the Christian message. “There can be no more extreme form of anti-Semitism” than “withholding the hope of Israel,” said Sibley. Such beliefs undergirded the Baptists’ controversial call to pray for Jewish conversions during the High Holy Days of 1999.

The Catholic-Jewish statement also has raised some eyebrows among conservative Catholics.

Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, a member of the bishops’ committee, originally hailed the accord but later issued a follow-up statement, clarifying that it is not a “formal position” of the U.S. bishops or even of the committee.

Eugene Fisher, the U.S. bishops’ staff expert on Jewish relations for 25 years, said the Catholic negotiators “did not intend to go beyond what was said previously,” but if the Vatican “thinks the statement is not quite right, we are more than happy to change it.”

In practice, Fisher said, the church no longer sponsors Jewish evangelism. He believes the August text merely expresses the implications of various official Catholic statements dating back to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

For instance, during a 1980 visit to Germany, Pope John Paul II told Jews that God’s covenant with them “has never been revoked.” The church’s 1992 worldwide catechism similarly cites the Apostle Paul’s biblical statement regarding Jews, that “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29).

Sibley, however, cited such Bible verses as the Apostle Peter’s message to 1st century Jewish leaders concerning Jesus: “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4:12).

A prominent Jewish leader thinks that what’s most important is not the Baptist-Catholic tiff but what the Catholics are saying.

Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee, said that whatever the status of the new Catholic statement, “many leaders of the Catholic Church are saying, in essence, there’s no reason to convert a Jew.”

As for Southern Baptists, Resnicoff said they have the right to speak their mind, and he understands that when they seek out Jews for conversion “we have to appreciate it’s a good faith effort.

“But we have the right to thank them and make that the end of the conversation.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday September 1, 2002.
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