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U.S. News
Catholics divided on statement against evangelization of Jews

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A statement issued as a result of a Catholic-Jewish dialogue that calls for Catholics not to try to convert the Jewish people to Christianity is dividing some prominent Catholics.

Scott Hahn, a theology professor at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, said the statement went beyond recent Vatican affirmations of Judaism.

Hahn says the most recent statement from the Pontifical Biblical Commission, for example, asserts that the New Testament views Jesus as the messiah who was awaited by Israel. The Catechism of the Catholic Church also says the Jewish people will recognize Jesus as the messiah, he said.

The covenant God made with the Jews "is still binding. Yes it is not revoked, and yes, the Jewish people are witnesses of the kingdom.

"But that does not lead us to conclude that their faithful witness to the kingdom calls for them not to recognize Jesus as the messiah and to respond in faith to the grace of conversion," Hahn said.

The history of forced conversion of Jews to Christianity means that organized campaigns to convert Jews are likely to backfire, Hahn said. But the statement should say that campaigns to convert Jews are pastorally unacceptable rather than theologically unacceptable, he said.

Bishop Anthony Bosco of Greensburg disagreed.

"I would have to take exception to the idea that something that is pastorally unacceptable is not theologically unacceptable," he said.

"I do think this is consistent with the present Holy Father's statements, but I'm sure that it will be seen as controversial."

Reflections on Covenant and Mission was written by representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and of the Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism. Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore is the Catholic chairman of the group. It does not have the authority of a statement by the full body of U.S. bishops.

According to the statement, "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."

The statement also says that Jews already have a covenant with God and that the Jewish people are a sign of God's faithfulness.

"The Catholic Church must always evangelize and will always witness to its faith in the presence of God's kingdom in Jesus Christ to Jews and to all other people. In so doing, the Catholic Church respects fully the principles of religious freedom and freedom of conscience, so that sincere individual converts from any tradition or people including the Jewish people, will be welcomed and accepted," the document said.

"However, it now recognizes that Jews are also called by God to prepare the world for God's kingdom. Their witness to the kingdom ... must not be curtailed by seeking the conversion of the Jewish people to Christianity."

Two Jewish experts on Catholicism said they found nothing new in the document but were glad it had been issued under the auspices of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

It echoes what John Paul said in 1986 when he became the first pope since St. Peter to visit a synagogue, said Rabbi James Rudin, a veteran of talks with the Vatican.

"He said that Jews have an irrevocable covenant and that they are our elder brothers in faith," Rudin said.

"I don't think this breaks new ground, but it is extremely important," said Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, Rudin's successor as national director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

"It is the first time to my knowledge that a bishops' conference representing all the leading Catholics in a nation has signed on to such a statement."

Contemporary Christians have varying views of the evangelization of Jews, he said.

Liberal Protestants don't consider it necessary. Some evangelicals, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, place a high priority on the conversion of Jews and have programs devoted to it.

Other evangelicals, including Billy Graham, don't single out Jews but include them in the whole group of non-Christians whom they believe they are obligated to evangelize.

"But this is about more than that. This really says there is no reason to try to convert a Jew, period, because a Jew is already in a covenant with God," Resnicoff said.

Ann Rodgers-Melnick can be reached at arodgersmelnick@ post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.

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