Evangelization and Interreligious Dialogue

Michael J. Himes

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

My remarks are in two parts, the second of which has in turn two parts. The first part concerns two related but distinct meaning of evangelization; the second part offers some observations on interreligious dialogue


  1. Evangelization is a dimension of the church’s life. The church is a community of those who have heard the Gospel, accepted it with joy and now attempt to live in accord with it. As such the church can not fail to be engaged in evangelization because its very existence is a witness to the power of the Gospel. In this sense, viz., a constitutive dimension of the church’s nature, evangelization is and must always be an aspect of the church’s life. Not to evangelize would be to cease to be the church.

  2. Evangelization also names a particular action of the church, one of the four ministries of the Word distinguished by Paul VI in his apostolic letter Evangelii nuntiandi: evangelization, catechesis, liturgical preaching and theology. All four are important and useful acts of done in the church’s name by its members. But as a particular activity of the church there are times and ways when evangelization is appropriate and when it is not. (E.g., when church authorities are negotiating with employees of a Catholic hospital about a labor dispute, both sides as members of the church are engaged in evangelization in that both are called upon to witness to the their belief in and embodiment of the Gospel in the ways they treat one another. It would, however, certainly seem inappropriate to claim that a union contract negotiation is an act of the particular ministry of the Word called evangelization.)

  3. If one is speaking of evangelization in the former sense, Catholics are certainly engaged in evangelization when dealing with Jews. They cannot not be and still act as members of the church. If one is speaking of the second meaning, however, it is entirely possible that evangelization as a specific act of ministry of the Word is inappropriate, indeed, flatly wrong, when aimed at Jews.

  4. In his famous (in his time, notorious) essay of 1859, “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine,” John Henry Newman wrote of five various but complementary ways of understanding the consensus fidelium. Among these were “a sort of instinct, or phronema, deep in the bosom of the mystical body of Christ” and “a jealousy of error, which it at once feels as a scandal.” Taken these together, one might say that there are times when the people of God in the church have a “sense” that something is not right or appropriate without yet being able to articulate why. This is not surprising; the church’s awareness of what it ought or ought not do has frequently outstripped its theology in the course of its life. I suggest that in the course of the last half-century, especially in the wake of the horrors of the Holocaust, Catholics have come to realize that evangelization (in the second sense described above, viz., as an act of a specific ministry of the Word) is inappropriate when aimed at the Jewish community or at individual Jews, even though we as Catholics may still be searching for adequate theological categories to express that realization. The debate about “Reflections on Covenant and Mission” is an instance of the attempt of theology to catch up with the consensus of the faithful, in Newman’s terms.


Part II

Inter-religious conversation, of which the dialogue between Judaism and Catholicism is an instance, requires us to be clear about two terms: religion and conversation.

  1. In the 18th century the word “religion” came to be used in a quite new and different way from its previous meaning. Prior to the 18th century, religion was the name of a virtue, like humility or wisdom or courage. Religion was the habit of reverence before the reality of God (closely related to “piety”). This was how Moses Maimonides or Thomas Aquinas or John Calvin used the word. In this sense, it is obviously odd (at least) to use the word in the plural. One could no more speak of religions than one could of humilities or wisdoms or courages. To be sure, there might be characteristic ways in which Jews and Christians and Muslims (and within Christianity Catholics and Calvinists) expressed religion, but they did not have religion s. Starting in the 18 th century, “religion” came to have a sociological meaning: there are in the world groups of people who share common beliefs and practices and ways of worship (“creed, code, and cult”). These groups do not necessarily coincide with nations or states or classes, and so they began to be designated as “religions.” Religion ceased to be the name of a virtue and became a designation for a particular kind of social phenomenon.

I suggest that the sociological use of the word “religion” may not be helpful when we consider interreligious conversation. It casts such conversation as a negotiation between two social institutions, somewhat along the lines of international negotiations between nation-states. Nicholas Lash ( The Beginning and the End of ‘Religion’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), esp. pp. 3-72) has offered what I think is a more helpful way of thinking about religion – as a school or, as I prefer, a formation program in the classical sense of paideia. Every great religion is a way of forming persons designed to do two things especially: to wean us from idolatry and to purify our desires. “Each tradition will have its own techniques of watchfulness, its own criteria for the purification of desire and for weaning adoration from idolatry” (Lash, p. 70). Conversation between rich traditions with different “techniques” for moving us toward overlapping goals may provide a more fruitful way to understand what we are about in interreligious conversation than two institutions seeking points of agreement and finessing differences.

  1. Conversation is not primarily explication but exploration. It is not two parties taking to one another (much less at one another) but rather two parties talking with one another. The point is not simply to be clever with prepositions but to make the point that a conversation is not two parties each doing something to or for the other but two parties each doing the same thing simultaneously. And what they do belongs to neither one but to both. Obviously it involves more than each of us enjoying the weather on our own. See Charles Taylor, “Cross-Purposes: The Liberal - Communitarian Debate,” in Philosophical Arguments (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), pp. 181-203 at 189: “A conversation is not the coordination of actions of different individuals, but a common action in this strong, irreducible sense; it is our action. It is of a kind with – to take a more obvious example – the dance of a group or a couple, or the action of two men sawing a log. Opening a conversation is inaugurating a common action.”

Thus, in true conversation, neither party controls the conversation; the topic does. This means that neither party can predict the outcome of the conversation. All true conversation ends in surprise, whether pleasant or unpleasant. See David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (New York: Crossroad, 1981), p. 101: “As the classical model for conversation in the Western tradition, the Platonic dialogue, makes clear, real conversation occurs only when the individual conversation partners move past self-consciousness and self-aggrandizement into joint reflection upon the subject matter of the conversation.”

Conversation is immensely difficult, often exhausting, but when it occurs it is unmistakable and unforgettable.


Part III: Conclusion

Judaism and Catholicism, two ancient and rich traditions of personal and communal formation seeking to wean each and all of us from idolatry and to purify our desires, have an advantage as they converse with one another. They have shared texts as the root, the ground and the criteria of their formational work. Those texts are Torah and the prophets and writings which make up the canon of Hebrew scripture. In an interesting recent book Nicholas Boyle has urged that Judaism and Christianity be seen as two traditions of commentary on those central texts, the classic Jewish commentaries being Mishnah and Talmud and the classic Christian one being the New Testament.

“The question of the relation between Judaism and Christianity, of the origins of the cruel division between those now called Jews and those now called Christians, is a question a question about the relation of the Talmud to the New Testament. That is to say, it is a question about two schools of interpretation of the Old Testament that arose in the centuries immediately before and after the beginning of the Christian era – from the first emergence of clearly proto-Christian thought in the late deuterocanonical and so-called intertestamental works, roughly at the time when the oral law began to be committed to writing, to about A.D. 200, when the compilation of the Mishnah was completed, shortly after the final formation of the New Testament canon and the definitive establishment by Christians and Jews, probably in response and reaction to each other, of their respective canons of the Old Testament” (Nicholas Boyle, Sacred and Secular Scriptures: A Catholic Approach to Literature (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), p. 83f.).

One need not agree with Boyle on everything (including his terminology) to find this an intriguing suggestion. If inter-religious conversation between Jews and Christians is an on-going conversation between traditions of interpretation and commentary on the same body of texts and the personal and communal formation programs based on them, then perhaps finding the common rhythm which makes the dance or the sawing of the log (to employ Charles Taylor’s images) possible becomes somewhat less daunting. Let us hope so.