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
question this panel discussion addresses seems to be based on impoverished
assumptions, and a neglect of good Christian theology.
central issue and reality is that of conversion. I am not an expert in these
matters, yet the idea of conversion is rooted in the grand theme of the classic
Jewish prophets: teshuva. This is
translated by metanoia in Greek
and as return or repentance in English. Plato called it periagoge
in the parable of the cave in The Republic.
Possibly relevant images of return are those of an about-face or of the turning
required by a switchback road when ascending or descending a steep mountain. In
the religious teaching of the prophets, return expresses a demand to
return to fidelity to the requirements of both the Torah and the covenant
promises going back to Abraham. For contemporary theologians such as Rabbi
Joseph B. Soloveitchik or Rabbi Abraham Heschel, this demand is ongoing.
Certainly, if we prescind from circumcision, and from ceremonial and dietary
precepts, and focus upon the summary of the Law in terms of the Ten
Commandments, the meaning of return clearly has never been abrogated
either for Jews or for Christians. As John Paul II has tirelessly reminded us,
it behooves Christians in a post-Shoah context to pray for their own repentance
question is perhaps also a product of forgetfulness of the classic Catholic
theology of conversion found in the first part of Part Two of St Thomas
Aquinass Summa theologiae, which was the topic of the doctoral dissertation
first crucial point is that the reality of Gods grace is absolutely
supernatural. This means that it is not and cannot be a product of merely human
knowing, choosing, or acting. It is a gift, entirely unmerited and unearned; it
is the result of Gods free self-communication. Thus, from the Catholic
Christian point of view, the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenant and the Torah in
their full observance exist only by the grace of God as gifts of God to humanity
and as parts of Gods solution to the problem of human evil. We respect the
truth of Deuteronomy 4: 6: Keep the [statutes and ordinances] and do them;
for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples,
who, when they hear all these statutes will say, surely this great nation is
a wise and understanding people.
second crucial point regards conversion in particular. Conversion means a total
change in a persons or a communitys orientation. It is a complete shift
from one horizon of human operations to another, and as such it is irreducible
to a choice between alternatives within the same horizon. It amounts to a
revolution in a persons or a communitys solution to the problem of human
living together in the presence of the living God. The Book of Exekiel has
perhaps the best image for the transformation of human being wrought by
conversion: I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a
heart of flesh (36:26). This is not a human accomplishment; only God can do
this. As Fr John Haughey colorfully put it, its a receivement, not an
third crucial point regards the Christian interpretation of Jeremiahs idea of
the New Law written by the Spirit in the human heart (Jer 31:31-3). It regards
the crucial turning from sin and moral impotence to God, the crux of conversion.
fourth point. As Augustine put it, God can create us without us, but he
cannot save us without us. This means that conversion involves our playing
ball too, which Thomas called cooperative grace: God helps us
cooperate, but our free cooperation is needed. For both Aquinas and Lonergan
conversion is incomplete if the people converted by God do not freely and fully
accept Gods gift by making a religious commitment. But Lonergan adds
something quite significant for our discussion: While this decision may lead
to a change of ecclesiastical allegiance, it need do no more than make one a
better member of the religion or non-religion one has inherited.
frequently characterized conversion in such terms as falling in love with
God, which brings about in people the dynamic state of being in love with
God. This theme, incidentally, caused the Hebrew Bibles Song of Songs to
be the central text of the Christian mystical tradition. As an event in our
conscious living, conversion changes the data of our consciousness; it
introduces a new content into our consciousness, but not an explicitly known
It is one thing to be in love and another to discover that what has happened to you is that you have fallen in love. Being oneself is prior to knowing oneself. St Ignatius said that love shows itself more in deeds than in words; but being in love is neither deeds nor words; it is the prior conscious reality that words and, more securely, deeds reveal.
means that the person who is the subject of the transformation called conversion
may not, as Lonergan said, have the foggiest notion of what it is or whether
it has occurred. From the standpoint of this theology of conversion, then, my
answer to the question as stated is no.
Yet the question actually being asked of the panel may not
be the same as what the term conversion literally intends. Let me explain.
For the Christian self-understanding, religious conversion
is specifically intersubjective. Christians understand that falling in love with
God occurs because Gods love has been poured out into our hearts through
the Holy Spirit which has been given to us (Rom 5:5); and that Jesus of
Nazareth is the objective manifestation of that love. Thomas Aquinas says the
charity produced in the soul because of Gods grace is friendship with God;
and precisely such friendship was always Gods ultimate purpose in
promulgating the Law, both Old and New. The mission of the Son, the Word of God
incarnate in the first century Palestinian Jew, Jesus, is to befriend us. The
efficacious sign of that friendship is the passion of Christ, who died for all.
Central to the Christian experience of being in love with God is love for
Christ. Of course, Christians would spontaneously bear witness to that fact.
Christians do that? I suggest they cannot help doing so. Would they do this with
Jews? Of course, but it would be wrong to do so triumphalistically, or in
René Girards term, mimetically, as in a rivalry or competition. That
would be a betrayal of Jesus, like much Christian behavior towards Jews
throughout history has regrettably been.
to all people the nineteenth century Anglican become Roman Catholic, John Henry
Newman, (who always insisted that he was convertedin the sense in which I am
speaking of conversion herein an Evangelical church as a 14-year-old) prayed:
let me preach thee without preaching, not by words but by example, by the
catching the force, the sympathetic influence of what I do, the evident fullness
of the love my heart bears thee. I believe that this is perhaps the way for
Christians to give testimony, for now, like Jews, they are living in a diaspora
situation, as Catholic theologian Karl Rahner recognized more than 50 years ago.
Our situation is not altogether dissimilar to that stated in an interview some
years ago with Jesuit colleague John Navone by Rabbi Toaff, Chief Rabbi of
closing let me simply state that Christians need to walk in profound and humble
awareness of the truth Augustine formulated in his Enarrationes
in Psalmos 64.2:
exire qui incipit amare.
enim multi latenter,
exeuntium pedes sunt cordis affectus:
begins to leave who begins to love.
the leaving who know it not,
the feet of those leaving are the affections of the heart:
yet, they are leaving