Recognizing Each Other’s Religious Legitimacy: How Far Can We Go?

Philip A. Cunningham

Boston College, March 13, 2003



A. Two Preliminary Considerations


The relationship between Christianity and Judaism is utterly unique. Although I have been told that it is grammatically infelicitous to say "utterly unique," simply saying unique is insufficient theologically. Of course the relationship between Judaism and Christianity is unique - just as the relationship between Christianity and Buddhism is unique or the relationship between Christianity and Zoroastrianism is unique.

But the relationship between Judaism and Christianity is uniquely unique - utterly unique - because how the Church understands its relationship with Judaism shapes its own self-definition. No other religious community has such an influence on Christian identity. And although it may not be as obvious, and perhaps not as intense, aspects of rabbinic thinking were shaped in response to the growing presence of Christianity. Therefore, Judaism’s assessment of Christianity also impacts Jewish self-understanding. This unique mutually defining influence sets the Jewish-Christian relationship apart.

It also means that changes in how one tradition understands the other inevitably impacts its own self-understanding. This naturally gives rise to disequilibrium, resistance, and fear. Catholics in the dialogue are liable to be accused of "watering down the faith." Jews in the dialogue might be charged with setting themselves up for assimilation.


Until the 20th century, the universal Christian understanding of Judaism was ambivalent. Biblical Judaism was good because it prepared for the arrival of Christ and the Church. Rabbinic Judaism had no reason to exist because the Church had come. Jews’ status as covenanted people had either "been transferred to the Church" [Origen, early 3rd century] or caused them to dwell in servitude "until their countenance be filled with shame and they seek the name of Jesus Christ, the Lord" [Pope Innocent III, 12th century].

The Second Vatican Council decree Nostra Aetate, followed by subsequent Catholic magisterial documents, and especially the addresses of the present pope, have challenged such demeaning understandings of Judaism’s covenanting with God. However, Nostra Aetate had a very difficult gestation. It contains internal compromises and tensions.

Among these compromises was the setting of the text’s treatment of the unique Catholic-Jewish relationship in the context of all the world’s religions – something not intended in a document originally meant to deal only with Judaism. In the memorable words of Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, in an address delivered here at Boston College last November, "In order to save the furniture from the burning house it was decided to integrate the envisaged Declaration as one chapter in the ‘Declaration about the Non-Christian Religions’, to be known later as Nostra Aetate."

I mention the tensions surrounding Nostra Aetate because they are still at work today and bear on the question of "how far can we go?" in recognizing each other’s religious legitimacy.

Having noted our utterly unique relationship and the perennial Christian contempt for rabbinic Judaism, it is also important to stress the revolutionary nature of Nostra Aetate and its unfolding legacy. I would like to list six recent Catholic teachings about Jews and Judaism extracted from magisterial documents or from documents issued under magisterial authority. This list is by no means exhaustive. I have selected these particular six points because of their pertinence to tonight’s topic. One would search pre-Nostra Aetate Catholic teaching in vain to find them. They thus represent an authentic sea-change in the Catholic tradition.


B. Six New Catholic Teachings about Judaism

  1. Jews remain in "a covenant of eternal love" [John Paul II] with God.
  2. The Christian tradition has contributed to historical anti-Semitism. Certain New Testament texts can be wrongly interpreted in ways that "could provoke or reinforce unfavorable attitudes to the Jewish people" [PBC, 1993].
  3. There exists a divinely-willed ongoing relationship between Judaism and Christianity. We are meant to be "blessings for each other." Judaism has its own distinctive purpose in the divine plan that goes beyond mere preparation for Christianity [John Paul II].
  4. Christians must learn to understand how "Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experience" [1974 Guidelines].
  5. The scriptures of ancient Israel (Tanakh, OT) have spiritual value as revelatory texts independent of the Church’s "retrospective" christological reading of them. The rabbinic traditions of interpretation of the Tanakh are legitimate and "analogous and parallel" to the Church’s reading [PBC, 2001].
  6. Christians can learn more about God and relationship with God (and about Christianity) from the traditions of Judaism over the centuries and from the living faith of contemporary Jews [John Paul II].

Taken together these are stunning assertions. But the test of their wider reception in the Catholic community comes when concrete pastoral issues are confronted.


C. An Issue Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Does recognizing the Jewish other’s religious legitimacy mean that we should not seek to convert them?

I am putting the question a bit imprecisely. More exactly it should be – If the Church affirms that Jews dwell in covenant with God until the end of the time, can we Christians seek to convert Jews today? I am not asking if individual Jews should be accepted for baptism, obviously persons who have been drawn into the life of Christ by the faith lived in the Church should be welcomed, but rather if churches should organize campaigns designed to attract Jews. As a matter of fact, no such endeavors exist in the Catholic Church.

Two documents issued last summer raised exactly this question and both answered that Christians should not actively pursue Jews for baptism.

The first, the Catholic portion of a joint statement issued by a national Catholic-Jewish dialogue, stated, "The Church must bear witness in the world to the Good News of Christ so as to prepare the world for the fullness of the kingdom of God. However, this evangelizing task no longer includes the wish to absorb the Jewish faith into Christianity and so end the distinctive witness of Jews to God in human history" [Reflections on Covenant and Mission].

The second was issued by an ecumenical group of Christian scholars whose work is funded by our Center for Christian-Jewish Learning. "In view of our conviction that Jews are in an eternal covenant with God, we renounce missionary efforts directed at converting Jews. At the same time, we welcome opportunities for Jews and Christians to bear witness to their respective experiences of God’s saving ways" [A Sacred Obligation, 7].

Within weeks several Christians protested this conclusion, although few grappled with the inherent logic of either document. In particular, the well-known Jesuit theologian, recently honored by being elevated to the College of Cardinals, Avery Dulles, quoted the NT Letter to the Hebrews by writing, "Christ, we are told, ‘abolishes the first [covenant] in order to establish the second’ (Heb 10:19)" [America, 10/21/02]. Later, Cardinal Dulles went on to say, "Undoubtedly Christians have much to learn from Jews and will profit immensely from the Jews’ adherence to Christ (Rom 11:12). This gives us even greater motives for sharing with Jews the good news that the Son of God came to be their savior as well as ours" [Commonweal, 2/28/03]. 

Obviously, there are two very different Catholic understandings of "how far can we go?" at work. On the one hand are those who explain why the Catholic Church does not, in fact, mount efforts to convert Jews by citing official Catholic teaching that affirms Judaism’s covenantal integrity. On the other hand are those like Cardinal Dulles who think that such reasoning goes too far, yet who, in their turn, have not been out preaching baptism to Jews either. Clearly, the question of conversion provides an excellent test case for probing how far Christian respect for the religious legitimacy of the Jewish other can go.

D. Two Views of Covenant?

Taking my cue from Rabbi Korn’s comments on covenant, I would like to suggest that one among several factors in play here is how "covenant" is being understood. In recent months, I have wondered if two contrasting understandings of covenant are manifesting themselves in the Catholic community. I suspect that the historic Catholic ambivalence toward Judaism that I mentioned above is exerting its influence as well. Old habits die hard.

I first began thinking about this when I read the published draft of a document on racism that had been prepared in 1938 for Pope Pius XI [Georges Passelecq and Bernard Suchecky, The Hidden Encyclical of Pius XI (Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1997)]. This never-promulgated text affirmed that Jews remain covenanted with God, but went on to argue that the Jewish crime of crucifying Jesus required that Jews be separated from the rest of human society [pp. 246-259] – not the best conclusion to draw as Nazi power was reaching its zenith. 

This is important because it demonstrates that simply affirming that Jews remain in covenant with God is insufficient: Christians can understand "covenant" in ways that still deny Jewish religious integrity.

The more recent debate about why Catholics do not campaign to convert Jews, and particularly Cardinal Dulles’ comments, have made this idea about two different approaches to covenant seem even more likely to me. The chart below sketches possible features of each approach. The risk of laying things out like this is that one oversimplifies or exaggerates, but there is also the possible of benefit of more clearly discerning the underlying perspectives that are at work.

Two Catholic Approaches to Covenant?

Note: the following are meant to suggest only general orientations, not a firm set of positions. Some individuals may intermingle statements from either column. Note also that some of the contrasting tendencies are not mutually exclusive.  




Affirms that Jews abide in covenant with God.

Affirms that Jews abide in covenant with God.

Tends to extend traditional Christian respect for biblical Judaism to rabbinic Judaism.

Tends to respect biblical Judaism but overlooks contributions of rabbinic Judaism.

Tends to interpret both parts of the Christian Bible critically.

Tends to an uncritical reading of New Testament texts about biblical Israel or Jews not in Christ.

Accuses the other of describing covenant only in Christological terms.

Accuses the other of positing two parallel (maybe unrelated) covenants.

Stresses the revolutionary nature of Nostra Aetate and subsequent documents.

Stresses continuity with the tradition, including in its reading of Nostra Aetate and subsequent documents.

Stresses the need to respect Jewish self-understanding.

Tends to overlook Jewish self-understanding.

Emphasizes the saving intimacy of a covenantal relationship.

Emphasizes that Christ makes salvation possible.

Accuses the other approach of making explicit faith in Christ a requirement for salvation.

Accuses the other approach of denying the significance of Christ for Jews.

May understand Jews and Christians as "blessings for each other" as a newly appreciated aspect of God’s intentions.

May see Jews and Christians as "blessings for each other" as a second-best option, preferring Jewish "adherence to Christ."

Tends to postpone resolution of the Christian-Jewish disagreement over Christ to the eschaton.

Seems to expect a Jewish recognition of Christ in historic time, possibly as a pre-condition for the eschaton.

A conclusion: Each perspective will approach quite differently the lingering question of how the universal saving significance of Christ relates to Israel’s eternal covenanting with God.

E. Conclusion

Let me conclude with some specific thoughts about how far can Christians go in recognizing Jews’ religious legitimacy.

On the one hand, our shared heritage from biblical Israel and the Jew whom Christians understand to be God’s Incarnate Word could enable Christians to affirm more easily the legitimacy of the Jewish tradition than that of any other religious community. Yet, paradoxically, our relatedness so intimately impacts our own self-definition that we Christians have felt a need to keep Rabbinic Judaism at bay. Such habituated reflexes are not easily overcome.

Nonetheless, the ongoing reform of Catholic understanding over the past few decades has been astounding. We are currently at a point where the need to resolve central Christian theological questions has now become evident. In the forefront is the one at the bottom of the chart: how does the universal saving significance of Christ relate to Israel’s eternal covenanting with God?

I believe for Christians there are at least four defining core beliefs that will always guide our theological encounters with other religious traditions, including this current prominent question. We will interpret other religious traditions through these four characteristically Christian convictions. They are:

  1. The One God is Triune.
  2. Jesus of Nazareth is the incarnation of God’s revealing Word who was resurrected to transcendent glory.
  3. What some Christians have called "the Christ event" was essential for humanity’s "salvation."
  4. One day all of existence will function according to God’s will.

Of course, there is a wide range of interpretations possible for each of these central claims (as suggested by how I phrased them) that will be debated in the years ahead as our dialogue with Judaism deepens.

For now, since I include myself under "Approach One" in the handout, it seems clear to me that God desires the two covenanting communities of Jews and Christians to be "blessings for each other" in the fullest sense possible. God wants us to learn to respect each other’s religious legitimacy. How else can both of us be blessings for the rest of the world? Conversations such as this evening’s contribute to this process of mutual blessing.