The New Agenda of Catholic-Jewish Relations: A Response to Edward Kessler

Eugene J. Fisher

Dr. Eugene Fisher is an Associate Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. This article from July 2001 is reprinted with the kind permission of The Tablet, published in London.  Please visit The Tablet's website at:

Edward Kessler’s two-part summary of the current state of Jewish-Christian relations is itself a remarkable example of the level of "mature" dialogue for which he calls. There is much to ponder constructively in it. I will confine myself here primarily to Catholic implementation of Nostra Aetate.

One major issue which Ed brings out, now reaching maturity for dialogical exploration, is Christian and Jewish preaching, which are as crucial as the classroom for further progress in bringing the changes wrought by official statements of the churches "into the everyday understanding of all the faithful, in other words in the pew and in the shul." I would argue that radical changes, at least in Catholic textbooks, have already taken place not only in the U.S., as Ed kindly acknowledges, but throughout the English-speaking world and much of continental Europe as well. It would probably take a whole set of doctoral-level content analyses of Catholic textbook series to validate this, as the three such studies made in the U.S. beginning in the late 1950's have done for us. But I would wager heavily that such studies, if undertaken, would show significant influence of the Second Vatican Council and of subsequent documents of the Holy See and local episcopates on what our textbooks teach in North America and Western Europe, with clear beginnings being made in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia as well.

Preaching and Liturgy

Progress in implementing the vision of the Council is perhaps best measured by what Catholics teach about Jews and Judaism in the classroom and from the pulpit. Like Ed, I am more sanguine, frankly, about the former than the latter, since there exist studies to validate progress in the textbooks. The recent statement of the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee (ILC), co-sponsored by the Holy See and the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Relations, urging the integration of the fruits of the dialogue into both Jewish and Catholic seminary education curricula, is thus a most helpful step in the right direction. While it is virtually impossible to study what is actually said about Jews and Judaism over the course of a year in Catholic pulpits worldwide, or even regionally, content analyses could be made of the leading homiletics textbooks used in seminaries and the best-selling homily-aid books and series used by priests and deacons in preparing for Sunday and weekday mass. The statement of the USCCB Committee for Liturgy, "God’s Mercy Endures Forever: Guidelines on the Presentation of Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching" (Washington, DC, September 1988) aims precisely at assisting preachers in their weekly proclamation, especially of the more problematic texts of the New Testament. Statements by bishops’ conferences around the world, from Canada and CELAM (Latin America) to Great Britain and Poland, while perhaps not as focused on preaching as such, provide impetus for implementing the 1985 statement by the Holy See in the classroom and pulpit: "Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching and Catechesis". So while the work is far from done, as Ed rightly notes, it has already been spread far beyond the confines of "the elites." Though the essential turning point away from the antisemitism of the past has been reached in the official documentation of the churches of the West, years and perhaps decades of hard work and constant vigilance remain before we will be able to say with confidence that the implications of these documents have fully permeated the day to day "culture" of Christianity.

A related issue that I would add to Ed’s agenda is that of the structure of the Catholic Liturgy itself. How might the lectionary selections over the course of the cycles of reading better present the Hebrew Bible in its own integrity and message? While the reform of the liturgy in the 1970s happily added portions from the Hebrew Scriptures (except, anomalously, during the Easter season where it is replaced by readings from the Book of Acts), it was not the intent of the reformers to present the Hebrew Scriptures in their own right as the Word of God. Rather, most readings are simply tagged unto the New Testament readings, at times rather artificially in the opinion of many liturgical scholars. Likewise, how does the structure of the liturgy of Lent, not only in the lectionary but in the prayers as well, prepare Christians to receive the proclamation of the passion and death of Jesus on Passion Sunday and Good Friday is such a way as to ensure that its true lesson, our own guilt as Christians by reason of our sins, rather than scapegoating "the Jews"? While the most fractious elements of the Lenten cycle have been suppressed, many would argue that there needs to be a more systematic study of the challenges and opportunities of the season if it is to truly represent the model of Christian repentance established by Pope John Paul II during the millennium year 2000.


Ed quite rightly points to the issue of mission as a major unfinished item on the present agenda, though as his examples from the Protestant tradition illustrate, it is not entirely "new" on the agenda. Ed is right, again, in pointing to the complexity and sensitivity of the subject. Nevertheless, let me attempt, in necessarily broad strokes, to delineate the status questionis of the issue within Catholic tradition today.

The Federici Paper

Perhaps the best statement of the question as it appeared to Catholics at the beginning of the pontificate of Pope John Paul II was given in the study paper, "Mission and Witness of the Church," by Tommaso Federici for the 1977 meeting in Venice of the ILC. Federici emphasized the "irreversible" nature in the change of understanding of the Church’s relationship to the Jewish people brought about by the Second Vatican Council, arguing on the basis of a vast array of scriptural and magisterial sources that "none of the inspired Christian sources justifies the notion that the Old Covenant of the Lord with His people has been abrogated or in any sense nullified.. . . The Church recognizes that in God’s revealed plan, Israel plays a fundamental role of her own: the sanctification of the Name in the world. The Church is clear too that the ‘honor of the Name’ is never unrelated to the salvation of the Jewish people who are the original nucleus of God’s plan of salvation. . .Christ did not nullify God’s plan but rather (serves) as the living and efficacious synthesis of the divine promise" (I, B, 6-8). Therefore, Christian witness must take into account "the permanent place of the Jewish people according to God’s plan" (I. C, 4).

While this does not wrap up the biblical-theological issues raised by "mission," it lays a solid theological groundwork. On the pastoral level, "unwarranted proselytism" is already precluded, as Ed notes, by the principles of religious freedom. Federici concludes, on historical and demographic grounds, that included in the prohibition of proselytism of Jews are any sort of "organizations set up for the ‘conversion of Jews,’ since these have in the past and virtually inevitably in the future will lead to the psychological and spiritual impairment of the freedom of faith of the Jewish people. Missionary activities aimed at Jews which might have been theoretically justifiable are precluded today and in the future by reason of the centuries of collective mistreatment of Jews by Christians. Such reasoning, I have found, is overwhelmingly understood and accepted by Catholic leaders. The result is that there exist today absolutely no Church-sanctioned organizations designed to convert Jews. Federici’s suggestion, repeated and reaffirmed time and again by the present pope, is that the Church needs today to concentrate not what its mission might be "to" the Jews, but rather "with" the Jews: the joint proclamation of the One God of Israel to the world, of the moral center of human destiny revealed in the Ten Commandments, of the "saving warning" of remembrance of the Shoah, and of the ultimate necessity for both to prepare the way for the Malchut Shamaim (Kingdom of God) by working together for tikkun olam.

But, many Jews would say, though the Church has abandoned any formal attempts to convert Jews, and understands itself to be "with" and not "over against" the Jews, don’t Catholics still in their hearts long for their conversion? Might not that longing, frustrated, pop out again one day as it has so often over the centuries? This might be true of some individual Catholics (even a small minority of a billion people, of course, is "a lot"). But is it true of the "heart" of the Church as a whole? Well, to test that one needs to look at what we pray for.

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi

There is actually only one official prayer for the Jews in the Liturgy of the Catholic Church. This is the traditional Good Friday prayer. It was (and is) in the middle of a threefold prayer first for the church (fideles, believers), then for the conversion of the Jews (perfideles, half-believers), and for the conversion of unbelievers (infideles). Over the centuries, the teaching of contempt burdened the original theological category of perfideles with so much opprobrium that the modern term "perfidious" took on a far more insidious and sinister meaning than perhaps first intended by the ancient liturgy. Thus, Pope Pius XII in the early 1950's mandated that perfideles no longer be translated as "perfidious" in liturgical books such as missals, but rather as "unbelieving" or "unfaithful." John XXIII mandated that the Latin term be deleted from the prayer altogether, though it remained a prayer for the conversion of Jews. The reform of the Liturgy mandated by the Second Vatican Council, however, re-conceptualized and rewrote the prayer entirely. It now reads:

Let us pray for the Jewish people,

the first to hear the word of God

that they may continue to grow in the love of his Name

and in faithfulness to his covenant.

Almighty and eternal God, long ago you gave your promise to Abraham and his posterity.

Listen to your Church as we pray that the people you first made your own

may arrive at the fullness of redemption.

The phrase, "fullness of redemption," here, is not historical but eschatological. Like St. Paul in Romans 11 it remands the issue to God’s mercy, to be revealed at the end of time. I believe this was intentional as a way of resolving the question in the present dispensation. So, no, the Church does not wish the conversion of the Jews as a people to Christianity. Otherwise she would at least pray for it. This does not, of course, preclude the acceptance into the Church of individual Jews whose own, personal spiritual lives have lead them to our faith. Such a policy of exclusion would in my opinion be itself a travesty of the principles of religious freedom.

Cardinal Walter Kasper

Perhaps ironically, given the debate (constructive, I hope) between Ed Kessler and myself last year over the interpretation of Dominus Iesus (DI), it is a statement recently made by Cardinal Kasper of the Holy See’s Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews on DI that I find most promising for the future of Catholic understanding of how to relate its overall mission to proclaim the Good News universally while at the same time acknowledging the profound particularity of its unique relationship with God’s People, Israel. It needs to be understood here that Kasper’s declaration, while not quite on the order of the statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which it interprets, is nonetheless not simply another "opinion." It was issued on a formal occasion when the Cardinal was speaking for the Catholic Church to the Jewish People. So it represents the definitive statement by the Holy See itself of the meaning of DI for Catholic-Jewish relations. That Cardinal Kasper’s understanding of DI coheres quite nicely with my own as argued in these pages in my earlier dialogue with Ed last year is perhaps not entirely coincidental.

Kasper affirms unequivocally that "the Document Dominus Iesus does not state that everybody needs to become a Catholic in order to be saved by God. On the contrary, it declares that God’s grace, which is the grace of Jesus Christ according to our faith, is available to all. Therefore, the Church believes that Judaism, i.e. the faithful response of the Jewish people to God’s irrevocable covenant, is salvific for them, because God is faithful to his promises." Embedded in this statement of the Church’s official teaching on Judaism is a distinction that many who have read DI, even knowledgeably as did Ed, have missed. Ed states, for example, that "the (Christian) belief that salvation can only come through Jesus (or through the Church) relegates not only Judaism but all other faiths to a position of inferiority." But belief that salvation comes, ultimately and in a way known only to God, somehow through the divine act of Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection, is a far different thing from an assertion that salvation can only come through joining "the Church." The former statement is no more (and no less) "exclusivist" and "particularist" than Judaism’s own affirmation that the One God is Lord and Redeemer of all humanity, while the latter leads to the (false, from the point of view of Catholicism) notion that anyone not baptized cannot be saved. The former, in other words, is simply a logical application of the doctrine that Jesus is, indeed, one and the same as the God of Israel, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Now, since the God with whom Jesus is thus identified is none other than the One God of Israel, this in no way reduces Judaism, which is the response of God’s people to God’s initiative, to an "inferior" position. God cannot be "inferior" to Himself! Thus, the Christian affirmation of the definitive nature of the Christ event, which is an eschatological (The Church’s affirmation is: "Christ has come. Christ is risen. Christ will come again!") and not just historical statement does not in itself "foresee the conversion of all" to Christianity any more than Judaism’s affirmation that all humanity at the end of time "will acknowledge the superiority and sovereignty of the God of Israel." Indeed, I would argue, the two affirmations are very much on the same order of universalism/particularism.

Kasper then attempts to add some clarity to Catholic language that definitely, in my opinion, needs clarifying. In one sense, the Church is its mission, what it was established by God to be and do in the world, at the heart of which are its sacraments bridging the gap between the finite and the infinite, the sacred and the profane. In this sense everything that Catholics do, as Catholics, is part of the "evangelizing mission" of the Church. Now, as Kasper argues so cogently, much that the Church does as Church (good works, prayer, liturgy) has absolutely nothing to do with bringing non-believers to join the Church, but rather "converting" Catholics to a deeper relationship with God through Christ. Dialogue is, like good works, something engaged in for its own sake (mutual understanding and reconciliation), not for the sake of "converting" other believers to our faith.

One of the many evangelizing actions of the Church, of course, is "mission" in the narrower sense. Kasper rightly defines it as converting people "from false gods and idols to the true and one God." Again, this is an entrenchantly biblical concept which has its roots especially in the prophetic tradition of Israel. But, of course, the Church acknowledges that Judaism is already the worship of "the true and one God," so there is no need for this type of "mission" to the Jews. Jews are already "with the Father" in permanent covenantal relationship. "Thus," Kasper concludes, "mission in this strict sense cannot be used with regard to Jews, who believe in the true and one God. Therefore–and this is characteristic–there does not exist any Catholic missionary organization for Jews. There is dialogue with Jews; there is no mission in this proper sense of the word toward them. . . In today’s world, we, Jews and Christians, have a common mission: together we should give an orientation. Together we must be ambassadors of peace and bring about Shalom."

I must be candid to admit that not all of the documents that have been issued by various dicasteries in the Holy See over the past decades since the Vatican Council have been this clear in their language. Which is why we Catholics have much to do to render our speech, both unofficially and officially, much more consistent and clear than it now is. But I believe just as deeply that the doctrinal understanding outlined by Cardinal Kasper represents the agenda for the future of Catholic teaching. We simply need time to work through the complexities of our own language and settle on a better way to articulate our beliefs. Such work is and will be done. Catholic theologians should have no fear of running out of things to do or books to write!