On Conversion

Fred Lawrence

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

The question this panel discussion addresses seems to be based on impoverished assumptions, and a neglect of good Christian theology.


The 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 and conversion.

Christian Theology of Conversion

The 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 Aquinas’s Summa theologiae, which was the topic of the doctoral dissertation at the Gregorian University by my mentor, the Jesuit philosopher and theologian, Bernard Lonergan. It was published under the title Grace and Freedom: Operative Grace in the Theology of St Thomas Aquinas. Lonergan later developed a contemporary transposition of Aquinas’s theology of grace and conversion.

The first crucial point is that the reality of God’s 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 God’s 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 God’s 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.’”

The second crucial point regards conversion in particular. Conversion means a total change in a person’s or a community’s 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 person’s or a community’s 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, “it’s a receivement, not an achievement.

The third crucial point regards the Christian interpretation of Jeremiah’s 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. St Thomas spoke of this in terms of faculty psychology. He gave a metaphysical account, which is not thereby false, but requires a subtle deduction from experience to be understood. In Aquinas’s terms then, conversion involves a motion or change in the human will in which the will is moved by God and does not move itself, and it is called operative grace. In Lonergan’s experiential account of Aquinas’s theology, conversion transforms a person radically, dynamically, and, in principle, permanently. It changes one’s antecedent willingness so that a person becomes antecedently willing to do the good that previously one was unwilling to do. To begin with and indispensably, according to Aquinas, conversion is solely God’s doing. It is what enables anyone to observe the Law, whether Jew or gentile, whether before or after Christ’s passion. The key point: no human being can ‘convert’ any other person; only God can do that.

A 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 God’s 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.” 

Lonergan 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 Bible’s 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 object:

 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.

This 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.

A Second Thought

For the Christian self-understanding, religious conversion is specifically intersubjective. Christians understand that falling in love with God occurs because “God’s 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 God’s grace is friendship with God; and precisely such friendship was always God’s 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.

May 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 Girard’s 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.

Relative to all people the nineteenth century Anglican become Roman Catholic, John Henry Newman, (who always insisted that he was converted—in the sense in which I am speaking of conversion here—in 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 Rome : “We were here first. They (i.e. the apostles Peter and Paul) came to see us. And we both died together in the Coloseum for believing in the same God.”

In 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:

Incipit exire qui incipit amare.

Exeunt enim multi latenter,

et exeuntium pedes sunt cordis affectus:

exeunt autem de Babylonia .


He begins to leave who begins to love.

Many the leaving who know it not,

For the feet of those leaving are the affections of the heart:

And yet, they are leaving Babylon .