Reflecting on the Reflections

Philip A. Cunningham

Panel Discussion Sponsored by Boston College's Center for Christian-Jewish Learning and Theology Department:

"Should Catholics Seek to Convert Jews (If Jews Are in True Covenant with God)?"

February 9, 2005

Note: Only a portion of this paper was read at the panel discussion


I.  Introductory Comments

The Catholic portion of Reflections on Covenant and Mission deals with a subject near to the central nervous system of Christianity; namely, how we Christians evangelize, how we bring our faith in the Good News of Christ to the rest of the world. This question is so intertwined with our self-definition that it is not surprising that it always has the potential to become contentious. This is especially so when the subject of evangelization is related to the revolution in Catholic understanding about Jews and Judaism inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate.[1]

I would like to frame these remarks by drawing attention to the distinction between “orthodoxy” (= right thinking or belief) and “orthopraxy” (= right action or practice).  These two dimensions of Christian life exist in a symbiotic relationship. Our beliefs, our theological reflections are shaped by and challenged by our experiences and praxis; and our Christian praxis is shaped and reflected upon in the light of our beliefs. But these two activities do not always occur simultaneously. Often changes in one trigger changes in the other after some time has elapsed.

This perspective is helpful, I think, when considering Nostra Aetate and the question of whether Catholics should organize missions to convert Jews collectively. After the horror of the Shoah, as speech after speech in the Council’s deliberations make clear, the bishops of the Catholic Church saw that changes in a long-lived, standard “orthodoxy” about Jews and Judaism had to change. Jews were not deicides, they were not accursed, and they were not enemies of God. Nostra Aetate’s overt repudiation of these perennial Christian notions had immediate impact on Catholic orthopraxy: Catholics should respect Jews and Judaism, they should remember their indebtedness to Judaism, and rather than avoid Jews, they should seek dialogue with them.

Some of Nostra Aetate’s statements about right belief were implicit and were later expressed explicitly by Vatican offices or popes. For example, the Declaration did not plainly declare, though it strongly implied, that the covenant between God and the Jewish people would last throughout history. Pope John Paul II has since unequivocally (and repeatedly) stated this.

Nostra Aetate did not settle all the relevant questions about our theologies of Jews and Judaism in relation to the Church. In fact, it is more accurate to say that its rejection of earlier “orthodoxies” created a new and unprecedented context in which more questions were raised than answered. A remaining question, for instance, is a soteriological one: how do we Christians relate our belief in the universal saving significance of Christ to the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish People? While Nostra Aetate did not address this question, I will demonstrate that it did come to a theological conclusion with immediate impact on Christian praxis: the Jewish “no” to Christ is not something that will change in historic time; rather the reconciliation of Israel and the Church vis-à-vis Christ will only occur eschatologically at the End of Days. As we will see, the Council Fathers understood this to mean that, while individual Jews seeking baptism would be welcomed, the Church would not organize missionary campaigns to baptize Jews as a group. Thus, one change in the “orthodoxy” led to a change in Christian orthopraxy, even though all the relevant soteriological questions had not been settled. It is to be hoped that our changed orthopraxis toward Jews, pursuing dialogue and mutual understanding instead of mass conversions, will actually assist us as we Christians continue to grapple with questions of right soteriological belief.

With that, let me turn to the 2002 dialogue statement Reflections of Covenant and Mission, which took up some of these matters.


II. The Reflections on Covenant and Mission

On Aug. 12, 2002, an ongoing dialogue between the delegates of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and the National Council of Synagogues publicly released a joint statement entitled Reflections on Covenant and Mission. The publication was accompanied by a press release that explained the statement was being issued in order to encourage conversation on the subjects it addressed.   The press release highlighted the conclusion reached in its Catholic section: “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.”

Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, the U.S. Bishops’ Moderator for Catholic-Jewish Relations, called the joint reflection a “significant step,” going on to say that, “Here one can see, perhaps more clearly than ever before, an essential compatibility, along with equally significant differences, between the Christian and Jewish understandings of God’s call to both our peoples to witness to the Name of the One God to the world in harmony.” The press release also quoted Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal, Executive Director of the National Council of Synagogues, as saying, “The joint Catholic-Jewish statement on mission is yet another step in turning a new page in the often stormy relationship between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church. Neither faith group believes that we should missionize to the other in order to save souls via conversion. Quite the contrary: we believe both faith groups are beloved of God and assured of His grace.”[2]

Citing conciliar documents, papal speeches, Vatican instructions, and the writings of several cardinals, the Catholic portion of the Reflections set forth the following rationale:

  1. The mission of the Church is to evangelize, to continue the mission of Jesus Christ, to be the servant of the coming Reign of God.

    1. Evangelization cannot be separated from the Church’s faith in Jesus Christ in whom Christians find the kingdom present and fulfilled.

    2. Evangelization includes the Church’s activities of presence and witness; commitment to social development and human liberation; Christian worship, prayer, and contemplation; interreligious dialogue; and proclamation and catechesis. (Here Reflections drew on the 1991 document of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Dialogue and Proclamation.[3])

      1. The activities of proclamation and catechesis, the specific invitation to baptism, should not be conflated with evangelization.

      2. Therefore, interreligious dialogue, a sharing of gifts with no desire to convert the other, is as an aspect of evangelization. It is in the service of the Reign of God.

  2. It is official Catholic teaching that the Jewish People are “partners in a covenant of eternal love which was never revoked,” as John Paul II has put it.[4]

    1. Therefore, the Catholic Church has a growing esteem for the rabbinic tradition.

    2. The Catholic Church recognizes that Jews have God-given missions in the world, which only Jews themselves can define, but that last until the eschaton, the End of Time.

    3. Jews share with the Christians the mission to prepare the world for God’s kingdom.

  3. Therefore, the Church’s evangelizing task no longer includes the wish to end the distinctive, God-given witness of Jews to God in human history by absorbing Jews into the Church through baptism.

    1. The Church’s evangelical task vis-à-vis Jews is to evangelize with Jews, i.e., work toward the Kingdom of God together until the eschaton.

    2. The Catholic portion of the Reflections ends by quoting Nostra Aetate: “the Church awaits the day, known to God alone, when all peoples will call on God with one voice and serve him shoulder to shoulder (Soph 3:9; see Is 66:23; Ps 65:4; Rom 11:11-32).”


III. Some Catholic Responses to the Reflections

Shortly after its release, some Catholics publicly objected. Then publisher of Crisis magazine, Deal Hudson asked, “If we’re saved only through Jesus, how can we say that God’s covenant with the Jews ‘is a saving covenant’?” John Echert, a priest who regularly appeared on the Eternal Word Television Network, said on Aug 17 that unspecified parts of the statement “strike me as contrary to divine revelation.” Fearing that “we are moving into one of the signs of the end times, namely apostasy,” he went on to opine that “precisely because Jews share an expectation of the coming of the Messiah, they should be targeted and the primary efforts of our efforts for converts to Christ” [emphasis added].[5]

The Association of Hebrew Catholics printed and mailed to the U.S. Bishops and the Vatican a newsletter subtitled, “The Hebrew Catholic Response: Oy Vey!” The Oct. 6-12, 2002 National Catholic Register, owned, incidentally, by the Legion of Christ,[6] carried a symposium on the Reflections. Four of the eight contributors were either Jewish converts or associated with efforts to make Jesus as the promised Messiah known to Jews.[7]  An anonymous article in Zenit, the Rome-based Catholic news service that apparently has close connections to the Legion of Christ,[8] indicated that Reflections on Covenant and Mission “has gone out on a limb in its interpretation of scriptural texts,” and approvingly noted criticism that it was “betraying the message of the New Testament.”[9] Richard John Neuhaus in First Things incorrectly reported that the document had been “hastily withdrawn.”[10]

As Eugene Fisher noted in the National Catholic Register symposium, “few of the critiques attempt to grapple with the significant body of reflections of the Holy Father on Jews and Judaism over the past quarter of a century.”[11] Indeed, the critiques I just mentioned seemed largely unaware of the relevant post-Nostra Aetate Catholic teaching.

Excursus 1: Hebrews 8:6, 13

Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need to look for a second one. God finds fault with them [the Israelites] when he says: … [8:6; then follows a quotation from Jeremiah 31: 31-34, which begins “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” Then appears:] In speaking of a new covenant, he [Jeremiah] has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear [8:13].

There are several brief comments to offer:

1.     Exegetes debate whether the author of Hebrews is ascribing obsolescence to Judaism per se or simply to the Temple’s sacrificial system. Current opinion seems to be leaning to the latter option.

2.      Recalling that the Church at the time of Hebrews was one among many of the diverse movements in late Second Temple Judaism, it is possible that the author of Hebrews is arguing that any non-Christ-centered forms of Judaism are passing away. If so, however, it must be noted that it is Jeremiah who is quoted as describing the imminent passing away of the former things – six centuries before the author of Hebrews. The “days are surely coming,” is plainly not a historical referent but an eschatological one. Understood eschatologically, the present historical age – in which both Israel and the Church abide – is in the process of passing away in the face of the approaching Reign of God, no matter how near or far in the historical future the eschaton might be.  Being eschatological in nature, therefore, Hebrew’s thought cannot be applied to the Church vis-à-vis the Jewish people in historical time.

3.      It is worth noting in regard to the Second Vatican Council that as a biblical scholar Cardinal Bea was certainly aware of Hebrews, but saw that Romans directly addressed the question on which he had been charged to prepare a document; namely, the situation of Judaism and the Jewish people after Christ. He may have deemed Hebrews’ eschatologically-driven comments on the Temple to be insufficiently relevant. However that may be, the Council’s preference to actualize Romans rather than Hebrews in Nostra Aetate delineated the Catholic approach to the subject.

4.      Finally, the Catholic tradition has never been a sola scriptura tradition. Even if all of the above considerations were incorrect and the author of the Hebrews actually meant to declare that Jesus had rendered Judaism outside the Church void of meaning, one would still have to deal with the question of actualizing the text in a Church separated by a two millennia effective history from the biblical author and whose pontiff has made numerous declarations about the permanence of Israel’s covenanting with God.

Theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote in the October 21, 2002 issue of America magazine that Reflections understood the term “evangelization” in an overly broad manner. He also cited the Letter to the Hebrews’ assertion that the First Covenant is obsolete and ready to vanish away (Heb 8:13) {See Excursus 1: Hebrews 8:6, 13}, and bemoaned the fact in the Reflections “baptism and adherence to the church are no longer considered important for Jews.”[12]

On November 6, 2002, Cardinal Walter Kasper addressed the topic in an address delivered here at Boston College, noting that the Church is only at the “beginning of the beginning” of its new engagement with Judaism. While correctly observing that the Reflections did not tackle the question of how the universal saving significance of Christ is to be related to Jewish covenanting with God, he agreed with an essential conviction expressed in the Reflections: “This does not mean that Jews in order to be saved have to become Christians; if they follow their own conscience and believe in God's promises as they understand them in their religious tradition they are in line with God's plan, which for us comes to its historical completion in Jesus Christ.”[13]

I would interject that in this regard Reflections mirrors Nostra Aetate. The Council did not address all the relevant soteriological questions, although, as I will show below, the Council did discuss the praxis question of whether Catholics should seek to baptize Jews. Since Reflections was grounded in Nostra Aetate and subsequent ecclesial documents, it, too, did not address the soteriological issue.

Why did the Reflections prompt some Catholics to question its statement about Christian orthopraxy in regard to conversionary campaigns aimed at Jews? Several explanations occur to me. First, the revolutionary nature of Nostra Aetate has literally put the Church in an unprecedented situation in terms of its relations to the Jewish people and Judaism. Some people are simply unaware of this reality. Others may choose to ignore or to resist the full implications of this. For others, who before 1959 became habituated to praying every Good Friday for the conversion of the “perfidious Jews,” it is difficult to imagine Jews as anything other than objects of conversionary efforts.

Second, some Jewish converts to Christianity interpreted the Reflections as invalidating their own personal faith journeys. This construal would require overlooking the sentence in the Reflections that “sincere individual converts from any tradition or people, including the Jewish people, will be welcomed and accepted [by the Catholic Church].” Also at work for some people is the questionable effort to try to be “Jewish” by observing some Torah regulations or Jewish practices while simultaneously professing and practicing faith in Christ.  

Third, for other Catholics it seems that exempting Jews collectively as candidates for baptism is tantamount to denying the universal saving significance of Christ. This may explain the otherwise mystifying remark in Cardinal Dulles’ America article that the Reflections “seems to say that Christians can evangelize without pronouncing the name of Jesus.” Again, such a view ignores the Reflections’ citation of John Paul II’s Redemptoris Missio when it stated, “It should be stressed that evangelization, the Church’s work on behalf of the kingdom of God, cannot be separated from its faith in Jesus Christ in whom Christians find the kingdom ‘present and fulfilled.’” I might also note that, from a Christian perspective, the divine Logos, whom Christians believe is incarnated in Jesus Christ, must participate in Israel’s covenanting with the One God whom Christians understand to be Triune.

Finally, a fourth factor at work may be that the Reflections is seen by some Catholics as a slippery slope toward a universal religious relativism in which all religions everywhere are thought to be “equal.” However, the Reflections stressed the unique relationship between Christianity and Judaism and also said, “This statement about God’s saving covenant is quite specific to Judaism. Though the Catholic Church respects all religious traditions and through dialogue with them can discern the workings of the Holy Spirit, and though we believe God's infinite grace is surely available to believers of other faiths, it is only about Israel’s covenant that the Church can speak with the certainty of the biblical witness.”

This inner Catholic debate over Reflections on Covenant and Mission is somewhat surprising. It is disconcerting that some Catholics blithely disregard what seems to me to be the unavoidable logic of official Catholic statements since and including Vatican II. None of the critiques of the Reflections of which I am aware seriously engaged its inner logic. The appearance some Catholic leaders give of avoiding the subject of the Reflections has potentially enormous consequences for the Catholic-Jewish dialogue. From Reform to Orthodoxy, all Jews would rightly reject continuing dialogue if there was conversionary intent among the Catholic participants.[14] This is not a matter in which ambiguity is possible. Nor should ecumenical considerations reduce Catholics to silence because other Christians are vociferous in their desire to see Jews baptized. 

I would like to suggest that criticisms to date of the Catholic portion of the Reflections or uncertainty about its rejection of conversionary campaigns that target Jews also call into question the Second Vatican Council declaration’s Nostra Aetate.  A review of the conciliar debates over the successive drafts of that document shows that just as Nostra Aetate did not explicitly state that Jews remain in covenant with God, an obvious implication that was later bluntly and repeatedly declared by John Paul II, so, too, the Council Fathers understood Nostra Aetate to preclude Catholic conversionary efforts toward Jews because the healing of the rift between Jews and Christians would happen only through an eschatological act of God at the end of historical time. The orthopraxis question of seeking to convert Jews was, in fact, debated and settled during the Council, although the Council did not consider the crucial orthodoxos question of how Jesus is salvific for Jews, content to leave that to the mysterious plan of God. It seems imperative to recall this aspect of the Council’s deliberations as the fortieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate this October 28th approaches.


IV. The Council’s Debate over Nostra Aetate

Among the items prepared for the fall 1963 session of the Second Vatican Council was a draft of what would eventually become Nostra Aetate. This draft had been composed under the supervision of Cardinal Augustin Bea, head of the Secretariat for Christian Unity. That draft was significantly revised during the spring of 1964 by the Coordinating Commission of the Council for the following fall’s Council session. 

A version of this 1964 draft was leaked in American media and contained a paragraph that provoked public controversy:

In addition, it is worthy of remembrance that the union of the Jewish people with the Church is a part of Christian hope. With unshaken faith and deep longing, the Church awaits, in accordance with the Apostle’s [Paul’s], the entry of this people into the fullness of the People of God which Christ has founded.[15]

This paragraph was understood by many, especially in the Jewish community, to mean that Catholics should actively pursue the goal of bringing Jews into the Church.

On September 3, 1964, one of the most prominent American rabbis, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who had previously corresponded with Cardinal Bea, sent a memorandum to the Vatican that included these comments:

The new document proclaims that “the Church expects in unshakable faith and with ardent desire … the union of the Jewish People with the Church.”

Since this present draft document calls for “reciprocal understanding and appreciation, to be attained by theological study and fraternal discussion,” between Jews and Catholics, it must be stated that spiritual fratricide is hardly a means for the attainment of “fraternal discussion” or “reciprocal understanding.”

A message that regards the Jew as a candidate for conversion and proclaims the destiny of Judaism is to disappear will be abhorred by Jews all over the world and is bound to foster reciprocal distrust as well as bitterness and resentment.  ….

As I have repeatedly stated[16] to leading personalities of the Vatican, I am ready to go to Auschwitz any time, if faced with the alternative of conversion or death.[17]

Parenthetically, it is worth mentioning that Heschel sent a copy of his memo to another correspondent, Thomas Merton, who wrote in his journal of Sept 10, 1964:

Abraham Heschel has sent a memo on the new Jewish chapter. It is incredibly bad. All the sense has been taken out of it, all the originality, all the light, and it has become a stuffy and pointless piece of formalism, with the incredibly stupid addition that the Church is looking forward with hope to the union of the Jews to herself. As a humble theological and eschatological desire, yes, maybe; but that was not what was meant. It is this lack of eschatological and spiritual sense, this unawareness of the real need for profound change that makes such statements pitiable. Total lack of prophetic insight and even elementary compunction.[18]

Heschel’s and Merton’s reading of the new draft has been contested by John M. Oesterreicher, who wrote decades later that the statement did “not recommend a ‘mission to the Jews,’ but expresses simply and solely the belief that at the end of time God will gather into union with Himself all who profess His name.”[19] Oesterreicher actually suggested[20] what became the final wording in the finished, promulgated version of Nostra Aetate, 4: “In the company of the prophets and the same Apostle [Paul], the Church awaits the day, known to God alone, when all people will call upon the Lord with one voice and ‘serve him with shoulder to shoulder’ (Zeph. 3:9; see Is 66:23; Ps 65:4; Rom 11:11-32).” But this eventual clarity was absent in the summer of 1964 and concern about the draft’s wording persisted.

In a recent article,[21] our colleague at Brandeis University, Reuven Kimelman tells of an audience to discuss the issue that Rabbi Heschel had with Pope Paul VI on Sept. 14, 1964. In a subsequent television interview, Heschel recounted that he had “succeeded in persuading even the Pope ... [H]e personally crossed out a paragraph in which there was reference to conversion or mission to the Jews. The Pope himself ... This great, old wise Church in Rome realizes that the existence of Jews as Jews is so holy and so precious that the Church would collapse if the Jewish people would cease to exist.”[22]

Indeed, Heschel thought the final text of Nostra Aetate was “the first statement of the Church in history – the First Christian discourse dealing with Judaism – which is devoid of any expression of hope for conversion.”[23]

But, of course, the final text had not yet been achieved when the Council fathers debated the new draft on Sept. 28 and 29, 1964.  Speaker after speaker found the draft of the Coordinating Commission inferior to the previous version that had been prepared by Cardinal Bea’s Secretariat.

For instance, Cardinal Joseph Ritter of St. Louis rose to declare:

The Declaration should speak more fully and explicitly of the religious heritage which in our own day still binds Jews and Christians closely together. The promises which God, who can neither deceive nor be deceived, made to Abraham and his descendents are still theirs. Both Jews and Christians are, in a special way, vessels of Divine Love, and a powerful unity of love and respect should therefore prevail between them. The spirit of love, which was alive in the original draft, should radiate more strongly from this Declaration, too.[24]

Similarly, Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston wondered aloud:

I ask myself, Venerable Brothers, whether we should not humbly acknowledge before the whole world that, toward their Jewish brethren, Christians have all too often not shown themselves as true Christians, as faithful followers of Christ. How many [Jews] have suffered in our own time? How many died because Christians were indifferent and kept silent? … If in recent years, not many Christian voices were raised against those injustices, at least let ours now be heard in humility.”[25]

 Many perceived inadequacies of the draft were discussed, and several speakers specifically took up the controversial addition that spoke of the union of the Jewish People with the Church.

Archbishop John Heenan of Westminster stated that special tact was required when speaking of these matters because of the persecutions that Jews had suffered down through the centuries. He argued that it was a mistaken interpretation to regard the draft as urging Jewish conversion today, but if the wording was unclear enough to permit that construal, it had to be removed.[26] He went on to say, “The text contains these words: ‘[The Catholic Church] has a sincere respect for those ways of acting and living, those moral and doctrinal teachings which differ in many respects for what she holds and teaches, but which nonetheless are often rays of that Truth which is the light of all men.’ If those [other religions] are rays of Truth, how much more luminous is the Jewish religion which is, as the same time, the root of our faith? As Pius XI said many years ago, ‘[Spiritually,] we are Semites!’”[27]

In different ways, those cardinals and bishops who addressed the topic urged that the question of Jewish conversion to Christianity be understood as an eschatological matter; in other words, that it was not the task of Catholics in historical time to try to baptize all Jews. Drawing inspiration from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, these speakers stressed that an eventual union of Jews and the Church would occur only through the mysterious action of God at the end of human history. Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle of Washington, D.C offered many substantial thoughts:

The love of Christ impels us to formulate our thoughts in such a way that they do not give needless offense; equally that they be expressed in a manner clear to Jews, and that they be in harmony with the hopes and aspirations of the Jewish soul. … The word “conversion” awakens in the hearts of Jews memories of persecutions, sufferings, and the forced denials of all truths that a Jew loves with sincerity and good faith. So a Jew, when he hears that Catholics are seeking to further his “conversion,” thinks of the reintroduction of that type of proselytism that for centuries assaulted his rights and personal dignity. … The destiny of the Jewish people depends totally on the ways of Divine Providence and the grace of God. If we express our [eschatological] hope in words [suggesting] we are guided by the definite and conscious intention of working for their conversion, we set up a new and high wall of division, which makes any fruitful dialogue impossible. … [We should instead] remain within the limits of our knowledge and respect the hidden ways of Divine Providence. It would be better if we were to express our hope for the turning of the Jews [to Christ] in such a way that they, too, can perceive with respect its honesty and our humble recognition that the mystery of salvation does not depend on us, but upon God’s transcendent act.”[28] 

Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro of Bologna put his own stamp on this eschatological approach by asserting that Jews and the Church are in a sense already united because there is a “even now a certain union between the liturgical assembly, the Church, at the moment of her supreme action on earth [the Eucharist], and the holy Kahal, the assembly of the children of Israel.” He went on to observe that:

The “union of the Jewish people with the Church,” of which our Declaration speaks, could easily appear suspect, if understood in a crude and superficial sense. Our desire, however, is simply to profess the faith and hope of Paul, namely that God “has not rejected His people whom He foreknew” (Rom 11:29), that [the Jews] are “beloved” of God (Rom 11:28), and that “their full inclusion” is not yet revealed (Rom. 11:12). But in what ways will their fullness be revealed? Certainly, in ways that are religious and mysterious, whose mysteriousness we must respect. Those ways are hidden in the wisdom and knowledge of God. Therefore, they should not be confused with human ways, that is, with methods of propaganda and external arts of persuasion. Only an eschatological turn of events will bring [Jews and Christians] to the common messianic meal of the eternal Pasch.[29]

Coadjutor-Archbishop Arthur Elchinger of Strasbourg echoed this when he said, “We believe with steadfast faith that God through all eternity does not recall his decrees. …  Did not the Lord Himself say of the Law and the Prophets: ‘I have come not to abolish but to fulfill them’ (Mt 5:17)? We Christians therefore are not permitted to look upon the Jews as the rejected members of God’s people.”[30] Joining the other speakers in drawing upon the Letter to the Romans, he concluded that “Our Declaration must … avoid any kind of invitation to the Jewish people to convert. … We do not, and cannot yet, know that hour appointed by God of which St. Paul speaks in his letter to the Romans, that is, the hour of the ultimate union of the Chosen People in its entirety.”[31]

Finally, Bishop Jules Daem of Antwerp, also cited Romans in stating that “Christ did not exclude the Jews from eternal salvation.” Therefore, he said, “[t]he Christian must bear in mind that, in accordance with the divine decree, Jews and Christians are moving toward the same fulfillment – the revelation of God’s mercy in a common bond. We must follow this divine decree, not by means of unseemly proselytism, but in plain dealing and complete humility.”[32]

As a result of this two-day exchange in the fall of 1964, the Coordinating Commission’s deficient draft was strengthened and enlarged in 1965 by the Secretariat for Christian Unity. The clause referring to “the union of the Jewish People with the Church” was replaced, as noted above, with the much more eschatologically humble statement, “… the Church awaits the day, known to God alone, when all people will call upon the Lord with a single voice and ‘serve him with one accord’ (Zeph 3:9).”

What can we conclude from this review of the conciliar debates during the composition of Nostra Aetate? When the Council voted on Nostra Aetate on October 14-15, 1965, there were 1937 votes in favor of the section that included the eschatological reference to awaiting the day known to God alone, and only 153 votes against it.[33]  Given the discussions that had occurred in the Council, it is reasonable to conclude that the Council Fathers knew that the phrase, “the Church awaits the day, known to God alone …” to all intents and purposes postponed any interest in converting Jews into the indefinite eschatological future. This conclusion is confirmed by the fact that three days before the vote a self-designated “International Association of Bishops” sent the Council members a letter urging rejection of Nostra Aetate. Signed by Bishop Luigi Carli, Archbishop Maurice Mathieu Louis Rigaud and the later excommunicated Archbishop Marcel Lefèbvre, the letter among other things protested that it was “unworthy of the Council” to have framed “the future conversion of Israel” so as to preclude proselytizing.[34] Incidentally, this perception from opponents of Nostra Aetate agrees with the eventual estimation of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel mentioned above that the declaration was “devoid of any expression of hope for conversion.”[35] This understanding shared both by foes of the Declaration and by an informed Jewish commentator shows that the meaning of the relevant words was not ambiguous to those involved. Given the debates the previous year and the last minute opposition by Marcel Lefèbvre and others, it is clear that the Council Fathers as a whole were aware of the implications of the phrase “the Church awaits the day …” when they overwhelmingly voted their approval of it.

This is clearly also the understanding of John Paul II as reflected in his Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1995):

I am pleased that my ministry in the See of Saint Peter has taken place during the period following the Second Vatican Council, when the insights which inspired the Declaration Nostra Aetate are finding concrete expression in various ways. Thus the way two great moments of divine election-the Old and the New Covenants-are drawing closer together.

The New Covenant has its roots in the Old. The time when the people of the Old Covenant will be able to see themselves as part of the New is, naturally, a question to be left to the Holy Spirit. We, as human beings, try only not to put obstacles in the way. The form this "not putting obstacles" takes is certainly dialogue between Christians and Jews, which, on the Church's part, is being carried forward by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.[36]

Seen in this light, the Catholic section of Reflections on Covenant and Mission is nothing more than a “concrete expression” of one aspect of Nostra Aetate, comparable in terms of process, if not in authority, to John Paul II making explicit the implication in Nostra Aetate that Jews remain in covenant with God or the series of instructions from the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews that over the years have expanded upon or further detailed other repercussions of the Declaration. Although Reflections argues more from the recognition of the permanence of Israel’s covenanting with God than from the postponement of the ultimate reconciliation of Jews and the Church until the eschaton, its Catholic portion culminates with Nostra Aetate’s teaching that “the Church awaits the day ...” The Reflections and Nostra Aetate both deny theological validity to Christian pre-eschatological praxis intended to convert Jews.


V. Relativizing Nostra Aetate?

Unfortunately, this grounding of the Reflections in the authority of the Second Vatican Council will not satisfy some of its critics. For example, recently the Zenit News Service, which had previously referred to the Reflections as “betraying the New Testament,”[37] disseminated an “interview” of an Italian theologian, Ilaria Morelli, who propounded the incredible opinion that those conciliar documents that have pastoral orientations have no doctrinal authority and are, in fact, subordinate to the doctrinal declarations of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Hence, a curial office would be more authoritative than a council of all the world’s bishops! Morelli contended that “to attribute a doctrinal value to the Nostra Aetate declaration falls, in my understanding, into great ingenuousness and historical error.”[38] Besides the difficulty of Morelli’s dichotomous understanding of “doctrinal” and “pastoral” matters, very roughly analogous to the language of “orthodoxy” and “orthopraxy” I’ve been using, our colleague Fr. Francis Sullivan has pointed out to me that in one of the speeches she cites to buttress her theory, Cardinal Bea clearly expressed that the Council’s deliberations over Nostra Aetate had doctrinal significance: “Allow me to point out more specifically the importance of the Declaration insofar as it treats of the non-Christian religions. If I am not mistaken, this is the first time in the history of the Church that a Council has so solemnly expounded principles regarding these religions. It is therefore of great importance that the significance of this matter be fully appreciated.”[39]

It thus appears that some Catholic criticisms of the Reflections on Covenant and Mission resonate with certain efforts to relativize the importance of key aspects of the Second Vatican Council, in this case concerning our reformed teachings on Jews and Judaism. Timidity in the face of such reactionary ideas does not serve the Church well. Nor does it honor John Paul II’s solemn commitment “to genuine fellowship with the People of the Covenant.”[40] The orthopraxis conclusions of the Catholic section of Reflections on Covenant and Mission ought to be taken up into a future ecclesial document since (1) they do not require the resolution of all the enormous soteriological questions of orthodoxy to be held valid, as Nostra Aetate itself demonstrates; and (2) clarity on this point of Catholic praxis is imperative if our professed commitments to interreligious dialogue and genuine fellowship are to be credible.

In a July 14, 1964 letter from Thomas Merton to Cardinal Bea at the height of the controversy over the contemporary draft’s “union with the Church” clause, Merton posed a question that I believe is still pertinent today: “If [the Church] forgoes this opportunity [“for repentance and truth”] out of temporal and political motives … will she not by that very fact manifest that she is perhaps in danger of forgetting her own true identity? Is not then the whole meaning and purpose of the Council at stake?”[41]


VI: Conclusion: The Eschatological Postponement of Jewish Recognition of Christ

Michael Kogan characterizes the Christian expectation of an eschatological turning of Jews to Christ as a second stage “in the churches’ progressive acknowledgement [since the Shoah] of a post-Easter role for Judaism in God’s plan of salvation.” For Kogan the first stage “affirms the ongoing divine love for the Jews and insists that special Christian attention be given to their plight as victims of Christian indifference and/or persecution. The result of this loving attention will be a new conversionary effort to reveal to Israel ‘its own Messiah.’” This would represent the views of many Christians today who would call themselves “Evangelicals.”

Kogan’s second stage holds that “Jews, still beloved of God, still the chosen people (along with Christians newly engrafted) follow a religion of great value. However, this is not a permanent condition. Ultimately, though not now – with the messianic advent one supposes – the Jews will in their turn be ingrafted into the Christian covenant – or the Christian fulfillment of their covenant.” This approach “leaves the Jews alone as regards attempts at conversion.”

Kogan describes a third stage as affirming an “equal standing for Judaism and Christianity as means of salvation,” however he describes Torah “as another means of salvation for Jews,” seemingly without any connection at all with Jesus Christ. [42]  Many Christians, myself included, would object to thinking of God’s Word – the divine Logos whom Christians believe is incarnated in Jesus Christ – as disengaged from Israel’s story. From a Christian perspective Israel covenants with the One whom Christians understand to be Triune.

The point here is that Vatican II’s endorsement of at least Kogan’s “stage two” position is for him “much preferable” over stage one. But “this view also attributes to Christianity an ultimacy it denies to Judaism and is thus at the theoretical level less than satisfactory to most Jews.”[43]

However, at the 17th meeting of the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee in 2001, Orthodox Rabbi David Berger argued that Jews should have no objections to an “eschatological postponement” approach because Jews can hold a similar position regarding Christianity:

[L]et us assume that I respect the Christian religion, as I do. Let us assume further that I respect believing Christians, as I do, for qualities that emerge precisely out of their Christian faith. But I believe that the worship of Jesus as God is a serious religious error displeasing to God even if the worshipper is a non-Jew, and that at the end of days Christians will come to recognize this. …

Once I take this position, I must extend it to Christians as well. As long as Christians do not vilify Judaism and Jews in the manner that I described earlier, they have every right to assert that Judaism errs about religious questions of the most central importance, that equality in dialogue does not mean the equal standing of the parties' religious doctrines, that at the end of days Jews will recognize the divinity of Jesus, even that salvation is much more difficult for one who stands outside the Catholic Church. If I were to criticize [Christians] for holding these views, I would be applying an egregious double standard. I am not unmindful of the fact that these doctrines, unlike comparable ones in Judaism, have served as a basis for persecution through the centuries. Nonetheless, once a Christian has explicitly severed the link between such beliefs and anti-Jewish attitudes and behavior, one cannot legitimately demand that he or she abandon them.[44]   

This perspective is somewhat related to what David Novak has called “soft supersessionism.” For “hard supersessionism … the old covenant is dead.” For soft supersessionism, “those Jews who not accept Jesus’ messiahhood are still part of the covenant in the sense of ‘what God has joined together let no one put asunder.’ Nevertheless, they are out of step with the fulfillment of the covenant which Jesus began already and which he shall return to totally complete.”[45] Novak says that he thinks “Christianity must be generically supersessionist” in this “soft” sense, and has suspicions about Christians who claim they are not supersessionist at all.[46]

To relate Novak’s comments to those of Kogan and Berger, what he calls “soft supersessionism” might also be named “eschatological supersessionism;” in other words, that the Christian supersessionism of Judaism would be an occurrence of the End Times. I think caution is needed here.

In the context of this paper, I would insist that while the deliberations of the Council Fathers in 1964 led them to conclude that Catholic praxis should not seek the conversion of Jews in historical time, they did not adopt or reach a consensus on any particular eschatological scenario as defining the “orthodox” position. Thus, while Archbishop O’Boyle could speak of “the Jews turning [to Christ],” Bishop Daem could more vaguely state that “Jews and Christians are moving toward the same fulfillment – the revelation of God’s mercy in a common bond.” The general tone of the Council’s deliberations seemed to stress the “mysteriousness we must respect” and “ways … hidden in the wisdom and knowledge of God,” as Cardinal Lercaro put it. No single way of speaking about the eschaton emerged from the Council and this is reflected in Nostra Aetate itself. Eschatological supersessionism was not promulgated by Nostra Aetate.

Future discussion must now also consider the words of the 2001 Pontifical Biblical Commission Study, The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible:

What has already been accomplished in Christ must yet be accomplished in us and in the world. The definitive fulfillment will be at the end with the resurrection of the dead, a new heaven and a new earth. Jewish messianic expectation is not in vain. It can become for us Christians a powerful stimulant to keep alive the eschatological dimension of our faith. Like them, we too live in expectation. The difference is that for us the One who is to come will have the traits of the Jesus who has already come and is already present and active among us.[47]

The use of such expressions as “we, too, live in expectation,” “the traits of Jesus,” and “the [futurist] eschatological dimension of faith,” remind us that both Judaism and the Church will, in a sense, be superseded in the Reign of God. The practices of both traditions will be supplanted in the Age to Come, e.g., Catholic sacramental life will be rendered obsolete by life in God’s direct presence. Furthermore, Jewish recognition of the eschatological “One who is to come,” since their “messianic expectation is not in vain,” must depend on perceiving “traits” mediated in the Jewish tradition.                 This all suggests that eschatological scenarios have greater complexity than simple zero-sum phrases like “a Jewish turn to Christ” or “Christians will come to recognize that worship of Jesus as God was an error.” If, as Christians would certainly posit, the birth of the Church was part of the divine plan, then Christians must contemplate the possibility that the Jewish “no” to the Gospel and the development of the post-Temple rabbinic heritage were also parts of the divine plan. Likewise, Jews must grapple with whether or not the birth of the Church reflected God’s will.   If, then, as an exercise of divine freedom, God always intended for two related covenanting communities to walk through historical time together, it may be that the eschaton will indeed bring about their absolute reconciliation, not in the sense of one ceding itself to the other, but rather in the sense of both joining in yielding themselves to the ultimate Reality.


[1]  Of the conciliar documents this paper refers primarily to Nostra Aetate, but the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium is also relevant, esp. §16 on the salvation of non-Christians who are mysteriously related to the Church’s saving reality: “Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the People of God in various ways. There is, first, that people to whom the covenants and promises were made, and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh (cf. Rom. 9:4­5): in view of the divine choice, they are a people most dear for the sake of the fathers, for the gifts of God are without repentance (cf. Rom. 11:29­29).”

[2] Beatrice Bruteau, ed., Merton and Judaism, Holiness in Words: Recognition, Repentance, and Renewal (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2003, 377-379.

[3] Available online.

[4] John Paul II, “Address to Jewish Leaders in Miami,” September 11, 1987. 

[5]  The Hudson and Echert quotations appeared in “On File,” Origins 32/13 (Sept. 5, 2002): 214.

[6]  See

[7]  The symposium had been available online at: .

[8]  According to a website for past members of the Legion of Christ, Zenit is directed by Jesus Colina, a former Legionnaire and member of Regnum Christi, and its assessor is an Australian priest, Fr. John Flynn, L.C. See: Mr. Colina has recently published a collection of statements by the founder of the Legion, Fr. Marcial Maciel Delgollado. 

[9]Controversy Swirls around Mel Gibson's 'Passion',” May 30, 2003, Code: ZE03053023, available online at

[10] “The Public Square,” First Things 127 (Nov. 2002).

[11] Originally accessed at .

[12] Available online at: Note also the response to Dulles in the same issue of America by Mary C. Boys, Philip A. Cunningham, and John T. Pawlikowski, available at:

[13] Cardinal Walter Kasper, “The Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews: A Crucial Endeavour of the Catholic Church,” Nov. 6, 2002, §3; available online.

[14] See, e.g., the Reform Rabbi Michael A. Signer, “Jews can only have dialogue with those Christians who are firmly convinced that God wants the covenant made with the Jewish people to exist until the end of time. Jews can only have dialogue with those Christians who affirm the existence of the Jewish people by refraining from direct proselytizing” [“Dabru Emet: A Contextual Analysis,”  Théologiques 11/1-2 (2003): 196] and the Orthodox Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “… any intimation, overt or covert, on the part of the community of the many that it is expected of the community of the few that it shed its uniqueness and cease existing because it has fulfilled its mission by paving the way for the community of the many, must be rejected …” [“Confrontation,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought 6/2 (1964), § II,3. Available online.]

[15] John M. Oesterreicher, The New Encounter between Christians and Jews (New York: Philosophical Library, 1986), 186.

[16] Heschel’s phrase here was also repeated in a widely read Time magazine article in the Sept. 11, 1964 issue.

[17] Bruteau, Merton and Judaism, pp. 223-224. Italics in the original.

[18] Bruteau, Merton and Judaism, 225-226. Italics in the original.

[19] Oesterreicher, New Encounter, 193.

[20] Oesterreicher, New Encounter, 231.

[21] Reuven Kimelman, “Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Abraham Joshua Heschel on Jewish-Christian Relations,” The Edah Journal 4/2 (2004), available at :

[22] Kimelman, p. 6, citing “A Conversation with Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel,” Dec. 20, 1972, NBC transcript, pp.12-13.

[23] Kimelman, p. 6, citing, Abraham J. Heschel, “From Mission to Dialogue,” Conservative Judaism 21 (Spring, 1967), p. 10. Heschel’s understanding that the completed Nostra Aetate excluded proselytizing was shared by some of the Declaration’s foes. See p. 14 below.

[24] Oesterreicher, New Encounter, 196-197.

[25] Oesterreicher, New Encounter, 197-198.

[26] Oesterreicher, New Encounter, 194.

[27] Oesterreicher, New Encounter, 211.

[28] Oesterreicher, New Encounter, 199-200.

[29] Oesterreicher, New Encounter, 204-205.

[30] Oesterreicher, New Encounter, 206.

[31] Oesterreicher, New Encounter, 208.

[32] Oesterreicher, New Encounter, 209.

[33] Oesterreicher, New Encounter, 275.

[34] See Oesterreicher, New Encounter, 272, 274.

[35] Kimelman, p. 6, citing, Abraham J. Heschel, “From Mission to Dialogue,” Conservative Judaism 21 (Spring, 1967), p. 10.

[36] .

[37]Controversy Swirls Around Mel Gibson's 'Passion',” May 30, 2003, Code: ZE03053023, available online at

[38] “Misunderstandings about Interreligious Dialogue” an online interview in two parts, Jan. 14 and 16, 2005. Available at and The quotation comes from part one.

[39] AS III, 8, p. 649-651.

[40] “Prayer at the Western Wall,” March 26, 2000. Available online.

[41] Bruteau, Merton and Judaism, 221-222.

[42] Michael S. Kogan, “Affirming the Other’s Theology: How Far Can Jews and Christians Go?” Paper presented at the 15th National Workshop on Christian-Jewish Relations, Stamford, CT, Oct. 29, 1996: 12-13.

[43] Kogan, “Affirming the Other’s Theology,” 13.

[44] David Berger, “On Dominus Iesus and the Jews,” paper delivered at the 17th meeting of the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee, New York, May 1, 2001. Available online.

[45] David Novak, “The Covenant in Rabbinic Thought,” Eugene B. Korn and John T. Pawlikowski, eds., Two Faiths, One Covenant? – Jewish and Christian Identity in the Presence of the Other (Lanham, MD, New York: Rowan and Littlefield Publishers, 2005), 66.

[46] Novak, “Covenant in Rabbinic Thought,” 67.

[47] Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible (2001): II,A,5 -§21. Available online at: