Can Catholics Make an Exception?

Jews and "The New Evangelization"


Rev. Michael McGarry, C.S.P.



Berlin, Germany

13-17 March 1994


Posted with the author's permission.

I. Introduction: Catholics and Mission After Vatican II

A number of years ago, in a landmark program which brought both Christians and Jews together to reflect on a post-Auschwitz world, Professor Gregory Baum, then of the University of Toronto, observed:

After Auschwitz the Christian churches no longer wish to convert the Jews. While they may not be sure of the theological grounds that dispense them from this mission, the churches have become aware that asking the Jews to become Christians is a spiritual way of blotting them out of existence and thus only reinforces the effects of the Holocaust.1

While it is true that the Roman Catholic Church has not mounted a missionary effort specifically targeted at the Jewish people, it is also true that the Roman Catholic Church has not disavowed the missionary dimension of the Church.2 Indeed, if anything, since the Second Vatican Council (1963-65), the Catholic Church has vigorously pushed the missionary life. One of the significant motivations for this new missionary enthusiasm is the approaching turn of the millennium.3

The year 2000 is but six years from now. Since 1975, there have been two major papal documents—the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi4 from Pope Paul VI and the encyclical Redemptoris Missio5 from Pope John Paul II; both mention the millennium. In addition, in June 1991, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples collaborated on a paper entitled Dialogue and Proclamation: Reflections and Orientations on Interreligious Dialogue and the Proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.6 Furthermore, at their fall 1992 meeting in Washington, D.C., the American Catholic Bishops approved a national plan and strategy for a new evangelization of the United States: GO AND MAKE DISCIPLES: A National Plan and Strategy for Catholic Evangelization in the United States.7 What is the emerging Roman Catholic attitude on the place of Jews in its mission? Is Gregory Baum's observation correct—that "the Christian churches no longer wish to convert the Jews"—or was he merely expressing his own personal wish with regard to his own Church?

To respond to this question, we will analyze and summarize these four official statements with regard to Judaism and the Jewish people. Then we will note reasons others have offered for exempting the Jewish people from the Christian mission. Finally, drawing on principles stated and implied in these documents, we will seek a creative retrieval from sources both Biblical and traditional in order to suggest a proposal for an authentic and helpful post-Shoah Catholic understanding of, and practice for, mission.

II. Summary of Recent Official Roman Catholic Statements

A. Evangelii Nuntiandi ("On Evangelization in the Modern World," 1975)

In the post Vatican II era, many Catholics questioned the traditional Catholic reasons for mission. Among the factors which influenced this wonderment were the following:

• New appreciation of other world religions;

• Sensitivity to colonial and first world exploitation of native cultures by European missionaries;

• Changing theologies about the eternal fate of non-Catholics and even the salvific value of non-Christian religions.

All these contributed to what many considered a "loss of nerve" for the Roman Catholic thrust of world mission.8

To this profound rethinking of Catholic mission, Pope Paul VI felt he must respond. In 1974, he assembled bishops from around the world in a special synod in Rome to explore the Church's missionary task. One year later marking the tenth anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul issued the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi.9  Drawing "on the strength of Pentecost" emanating from the Second Vatican Council, the Pontiff sought to initiate "a new period of evangelization" (2); his foundation was the command of the Lord Jesus, people's salvation, the very beauty of revelation, and the truth of the Catholic message. (5) As he stated,

Evangelizing means bringing the Good News into all the strata of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new...the Church evangelizes when she seeks to convert, solely through the divine power of the Message she proclaims, both the personal and collective consciences of people, the activities in which they engage, and the lives and concrete millieux which are theirs. (18)

While undaunting in his call for new missionary zeal, the pope was careful to exclude as unworthy of the gospel all methods of evangelization which would impinge on human freedom; rather the Church is to rely on witness (i.e., good example), preaching, teaching, and use of the media. The message is to go to the whole world (50), "to the immense sections of [hu]mankind who practice non-Christian religions. The Church respects and esteems these non-Christian Religions...They carry within them the echo of thousands of years of searching for God." (53)

What is most interesting for our concern—the Church and mission to the Jews—is that, while the Pope does not exclude the Jews from the Church's mission, neither does he mention the Jews by name. Even more telling, the Pope seems to apply a definition of religion which would exclude Judaism. That is, besides the "lapsed Catholic" and those Christians who may seek full communion with Rome, the non-Christian beneficiaries of Catholic evangelization seem to be precisely those religions marked by a search for God, and not the one religion marked by God's search and choice of them: the Jews. (53)

Finally, noting the importance of the active role of the Holy Spirit as guiding Catholic evangelization (74), EN advises that the Catholic evangelist must be animated by love: "respect for the religious and spiritual situation of those being evangelized." (79)

It would be unfair to the thoughtful approach of Pope Paul VI to suggest that this survey adequately reflects the nuance of EN. Nonetheless, the following can at least be acknowledged:

• EN does not call for an explicit mission to the Jews;

• EN demands that Catholic evangelizers note both the "signs of the times" and their love for the beneficiaries of the Church's evangelizing efforts;

• The definition of non-Christian religions does not seem to fit the Jewish experience (i.e., Paul VI's definition seems to be of those religions who search for God; Judaism is the story of God's search for them);

• Catholics are to be sensitive to the feelings of those they evangelize.


B. Redemptoris Missio ("Mission of the Redeemer: On the Permanent Validity of the Church's Missionary Mandate," 1991)

As she prepares to celebrate the jubilee of the year 2000, the whole church is even more committed to a new missionary advent. We must increase our apostolic zeal to pass on to others the light and joy of the faith, and to this high ideal the whole people of God must be educated. (86)

In 1991, Pope John Paul II wrote an encyclical on the Church's missionary work. He drew upon some of the same themes which Paul VI had raised in EN, but greatly expanded and clarified some of the undeveloped issues in the apostolic exhortation. One of the pressing concerns which the Pope seemed to be addressing was the growing influence of the Church's newfound experience of interreligious dialogue. That is, in addition to the factors which moved Pope Paul to reaffirm the Church's missionary project (see p. 4 above), fifteen additional years of interreligious dialogue and listening to the experience of returning missionaries (often speaking of simply a "mission of presence" or "witness") only heightened the question the Church's foreign mission outreach.

At the same time, three factors supplementary to those addressed in EN moved the Pope to write RM. First was the fall of the communist hegemony in Central Europe and the Soviet Union. How was the Church to respond to this new situation in areas where atheism had been the official religion but where also long traditions of Orthodoxy, Islam, and other religions—but non-Catholic—traditions had lived? Second was the growing recognition that many countries where Catholic Christianity was the traditional cultural context had grown, in fact, away from any recognizably Catholic practice and ethos. Thirdly, the success of Catholic missionizing in some Third World countries had spawned a new phenomenon: the meaning and shape of authentic Roman Catholicism (a decidedly European experience) in inculturated, native settings. Theologians from Africa, South America, India, and Asia were asking penetrating questions about the Church's incarnation in societies marked by poverty, animism, polygamy, hierarchical political identification with ruling elites, and customs which "stretched" the received European sacramental symbols and cultural patterns.

It is no surprise, then, the Pope John Paul responded with a document that was both lengthy and nuanced. Indeed, the Pope, without ever naming any particular theologians, goes through almost a "checklist" of issues and misunderstandings in this extended document. Our concern here, however, is specific. Therefore, I wish to limit my reflection on the encyclical to two questions:

1. What does the Pope say about the Jewish people in the encyclical?

2. How does the Pope use Scripture in his explanation of the Catholic understanding of mission?

We proceed with the questions in order:

1. What does the Pope say about the Jewish people in the encyclical?

Like his predecessor in EN, Pope John Paul says nothing about the Jewish people in RM. Rather the beneficiaries of the Church's missionary task ad extra are all peoples without exception ("The universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the must be made concretely available to all" [10]). The importance for all Christians to missionize derives both from "the Lord's mandate" and "from the profound demands of God's life within us."

The Jews are mentioned in RM only as part of salvation history through the Hebrew Scriptures. Almost all the Hebrew Scripture passages are to be found in the second part of Paragraph 12 in which the Pontiff asserts,

The Old Testament attests that God chose and formed a people for himself in order to reveal and carry out his loving plan...Israel experiences a personal and saving God...and becomes his witness and interpreter among the nations. In the course of her history, Israel comes to realize that her election has a universal meaning.

Thereafter, as RM continues, "Jesus of Nazareth brings God's plan to fulfillment." (13) Continuing with a sketch of Jesus' ministry, the Pope observes that "[b]efore Easter, the scope of his mission was focused on Israel." The kingdom goes beyond Israel, however, and "Jesus' encounters with gentiles make it clear that entry into the kingdom comes through faith and conversion.., and not by reason of ethnic background." (13) The Pope's view of the Jewish role in salvation, at least in this document, is decidedly prefatory; Jewish life and religion after the time of Jesus and their continued witness to the world of God's faithfulness are neither mentioned nor alluded to. However, what is interesting in the Pope's description of the mission from our focused concern is precisely its emphasis, if not sole direction, towards the Gentiles and not towards Israel.

What are we to conclude, therefore, about what Pope John Paul has said about the Jews in RM?

• Like his predecessor, Pope John Paul II does not call for an explicit mission to the Jews (nor does he exclude the Jews from the Church's mission);

• The meaning of the Jewish people to and in the world after the time of Jesus is left unmentioned.


2. How does the Pope use Scripture in his explanation of the Catholic understanding of mission?

From his use of Scripture in RM, the Pope clearly argues that Christian missionary activity finds its scriptural support almost exclusively in the New Testament. That is, of the more than 187 citations from the Bible, fully 177 are from the New Testament; ten are from the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures.10

With regard to the beneficiaries of the Church's mission, the Pope draws primarily on the Synoptic Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles to explicate the missionary mandate to preach the Gospel to everyone:

[T]here is the universal dimension of the task entrusted to the apostles, who are sent to 'all nations' (Mt. 28:19); 'into all the world the whole creation' (Mk. 16:15); to 'all nations' (Lk. 24:47); 'to the end of the earth' (Acts 1:8). (23)

While it is true that the Second Vatican Councils decree on missionary activity was entitled Ad Gentes, it is perhaps not insignificant that RM repeatedly qualifies the new evangelization as being directed ad gentes. This is different from Pope Paul's EN :

I sense the moment has come to commit all of the church's energies to a new evangelization and to the mission ad gentes. No believer in Christ, no institution of the church can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples. (3; see also 3, 27, 30, 31, 32,34, 37, passim)

This delimitation of the mission "to the nations" raises a most important concern about the use of Scripture in the encyclical. Does the Pope intend to set aside, at least for the purpose of RM, the place of the Jews in the Church's mission?11

RM's use of scriptures raises the following profound questions. In his missiology, the Pope is decidedly Christocentric. He relies almost exclusively on the New Testament for his missiology. Obviously these are related. What do the Hebrew Scriptures have to add to the Christian self-understanding of mission? How would a Christian missiology look which relied on the Hebrew Scriptures as much as on the New Testament? To what degree would a missiology which had God as its goal and purpose cast the role of the Jews in a different light?


C. Dialogue and Proclamation: Reflections and Orientations on Interreligious Dialogue and the Proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (1991)

In the summer of 1991, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue worked with the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples to publish the paper "Dialogue and Proclamation." DP had gone through three or four drafts before it was issued in 1991; furthermore, it had originally been scheduled to come out before RM but its issuance was delayed until after RM. For the Pope wished to set the context for interreligious dialogue within the broader (from his perspective) framework of mission.12 Its purpose was to spell "out in greater detail the teaching of the encyclical [RM] on dialogue and its relation to proclamation (cf. RM 55-57). It is therefore to be read in the light of this encyclical."(3) In other words, interreligious dialogue is neither parallel activity to mission nor is it a substitute for mission; rather it is to be understood as part of the Church's mission to the world.

A detailed examination of DP needs to occur, but here, for our purpose, I will focus only one interesting footnote—particularly germane to our concern. In its effort to define the terms religions or religious traditions, in DP, these terms are used "in a generic and analogical sense. They cover those religions which, with Christianity, are wont to refer back to the faith of Abraham as well as the religious traditions of Asia, Africa and elsewhere." To this, the document notes,

Because the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is so great (Nostra Aetate, 4), dialogue between Christians and Jews has its own special requirements. These are not dealt with in this document. For a full treatment, cf. Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, "Guidelines on Religious Relations with Jews," Dec. 1, 1974 ...[and] "Notes for a Correct Presentation of Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching and Catechesis."13

In other words, what we have here is a clarification that, when the Church speaks of interreligious dialogue (dialogue strictly cum gentibus?), it is not speaking of dialogue with the Jews precisely because the Church's relationship with the Jews is unique and requires its own protocol and theology.

D. GO AND MAKE DISCIPLES: A National Plan and Strategy for Catholic Evangelization in the United States (1992)

As mentioned above (p. 2), the American Bishops gathered in 1992 to discuss and ratify a document on evangelization which had gone through many drafts and extensive consultation. They sought to forge a distinctly American response to, and implementation of, the missionary statements of Paul VI and John Paul II. Their document is purposely and decidedly practical in tone and direction. Thus, while the American bishops break no new theological ground, their document is not without some interesting dimensions. For instance, not opposed to, but different from Pope John Paul's missionary Christocentrism, GMD is much more theocentric in its content:

Our message of faith proclaims an eternally faithful God, creating all in love and sustaining all with gracious care. We proclaim that God, whose love is unconditional, offers us divine life even in the face of our sin, failures, and inadequacies.14

In other places, of course, GMD speaks of bringing people to the Gospel, but one is struck by how often the missionary effort is to bring people to God.

The plan of the bishops "asks Catholics to reach out to those who do not belong to a faith community and to invite them to consider the power of the Gospel." It is in this context of reaching out in invitation that the plan mentions how Catholics are related to different peoples in the United States—to those who have no religious home, to other Christians, and then to the Jewish people:

Those who have not received the Gospel [of Christ] deserve honor and respect for following God as their consciences direct them. They are related to the [Christian] People of God in a variety of ways. First are the Jews, the Chosen People, to whom the covenants and promises were made and who, in view of the divine choice, are a people most dear to God.15

As Catholics reach out in invitation beyond themselves, the Bishops enumerate three goals:

• To bring about in all Catholics such an enthusiasm for their faith that, in living their faith in Jesus, they freely share it with others.

• To invite all people in the United States, whatever their social or cultural background, to hear the message of salvation in Jesus Christ so they may come to join us in the fullness of the Catholic faith.

• To foster gospel values in our society, promoting the dignity of the human person, the importance of the family, and the common good of our society, so that our nation may continue to be transformed by the saving power of Jesus Christ.16

Although it was not always so, Catholics now value religious liberty,17 so the "tone" of the entire plan by the bishops is one of invitation. No one is excluded from the invitation, but no specific group is targeted. The bishops repeatedly speak of developing a "welcoming spirit" that is tangible to all who hear the invitation.18 Indeed, as one strategy aimed at the second goal, Catholics are urged to a "study of Roman Catholic understandings of and approaches to Judaism...[and] developing sensitivities to interreligious relationships and Roman Catholic teaching on dialogue and dialogue and sharing."19

Even in this cursory review of what the American Bishops stated in 1992, we see an interesting combination of postures developing side-by-side: an enthusiasm for sharing the faith, mutual respect for other religious traditions, and an insistence on "welcome" and "invitation" as hallmarks of Catholic evangelization. These are not mutually exclusive, but they do, in combination, make one wonder exactly what the Catholic position is vis-a-vis the Jewish people: is it one of welcome and dialogue or one of proselytism (the latter of which is explicitly repudiated in the GMD)?

In concluding this brief overview of GMD and its attitude towards a mission to the Jews, we may say the following:

• Like the other documents, GMD does not call for a mission to the Jews (nor does it exclude the Jews from mission);

• GMD is the only recent Church missionary document which refers to contemporary Jews by name;

• Unlike the other documents, GMD is more theocentric in its missionary orientation (the significance of this will be pointed out below);

• Where GMD speaks of the Jewish people, it recognizes their religious reality today; they are a people rich in religious values and heirs to the covenant given to their ancestors;

• While all people have a right to hear the Gospel, according to GMD, the posture of the Church is invitational, and the criterion for authentic Catholic outreach is welcome (the relevance of these will be expanded upon below).


III. An Exception of the Jews?

A. Some Reasons Others Have Offered

We began this essay with Gregory Baum's observation, "After Auschwitz the Christian churches no longer wish to convert the Jews." Among reasons proffered may be numbered the following:

1. As far as some Christians are concerned, after what some Christians did (and did not do) during the Shoah, Christians should have the "good taste" just to leave the Jews alone.20

2. Other Christians feel that this is a time to comfort Israel, "rather than to challenge Jews by direct evangelism."21

3. There are two covenants—one for the Jews and one for the Gentiles. This "two-covenant theology" acknowledges that the first covenant, given to the Jews, remains valid, and, by God's graciousness and through Jesus of Nazareth, this covenant has spawned another for the Gentile people.22

4. Whatever the appeal might have been in the First Century for Jews to become disciples of the Jesus, that situation is long past. The call today for a contemporary Jews to abandon their people is too much to ask. As Paul van Buren notes,

For a Jew in those early years to have heard the apostolic...witness to Jesus and therewith to believe oneself confronted by the gift and claim of God's unbounded love, and so to believe Jesus to be anointed of God...raised not the slightest question about being a Jew or forsaking one's people. For Jews today, no matter how they respond to any witness to Jesus, to become a disciple of that person is to become a Christian and join the Church with its long, anti-Judaic history, and so to break one's ties with the Jewish people...[This] cannot be a direct continuation of the reconciliation preached in Paul's letters or in the early witness to Jesus of Nazareth.23

The forgoing represent some of the (in Baum's words) incipient "theological grounds that dispense [the Christian Church]...from this mission" to the Jewish people. Without evaluating these attempts, the rest of this essay will be an attempt to forge a distinctly Roman Catholic "theology of exception" of the Church's mission to the Jews by, first, summarizing what the forgoing documents have said—and not said—about a mission to the Jews, and, then, to suggest the "theological grounds" that would dispense the Catholic Church from such a mission based both on the documents themselves and on the emerging re-evaluation of contemporary Judaism and the Jewish people according to the growing body of literature—both official and theological—concerning the Church's relationship to the Jewish people.24


B. A Summary of Church Documents25

We may summarize the Catholic Church's missionary attitude vis-a-vis the Jewish people from the four documents as follows:

• Interreligious dialogue does not dispense the Church of its missionary exigence;

• The Catholic Church, at this time, does not have a specific mission to the Jews;

• Catholics must, in their evangelizing efforts, attend to the "signs of the times";

• The favored term for the Church's address outside itself—according to the repeated usage of Pope John Paul II—is "ad gentes," which may arguably be best translated, "to the Gentiles";

• The Jews, according to DP, hold a unique relationship to the Catholic Church;

• Except for the American document GMD, in its documents on mission, the Roman Catholic Church does not reflect on, or elaborate, the meaning of post first century Judaism (this meaning must be found in other documents);

• According to GMD, all peoples have a right to hear the Gospel, but invitation, witness, and welcome should characterize American Catholics' posture.


C. A Modest Proposal26

From what we have seen, it is clear that the Roman Catholic Church does not, at this time, wish to mount a mission directed at the Jews. At the same time, the reasons for excluding the Jews from the missionary outreach of the Church are not as clear. These reasons, while situated on and within the principles summarized above, also are beginning to issue from something more—namely, from the experience of dialogue itself and deepening reflection on the Shoah.

American Catholics have been especially fortunate. Through the last few decades, they have grown rich in their interaction and dialogue with concerned Jews, many of whom have voiced their fears and hurts around Christian mission. Additionally, many American Catholics have been profoundly influenced by the mostly positive experience of religious freedom and tolerance (as explicitly stated in GMD). As they ponder ever more deeply both the mystery of God's design and the meaning of the Jewish people today, many Catholics are seeking to re-understand their own missionary exigency. Therefore, drawing on these experiences and the foregoing principles gleaned from recent Church documents on mission, one might propose the following as a modest effort toward a post-Shoah Roman Catholic theology of mission with makes an exception of the Jews.27

Here I relate a rabbinical story which I often tell:

It seems that a rabbi was surrounded by his admiring students. One of them piped up, "Master, you know that I love you."

"Ah, yes, I do know that," the master replied. "But first, tell me: What hurts me?"

"Master, I know what pleases you, and I will do it, and you will know of my love for you."

"My child, until you know what hurts me, you do not really love me."

In the dialogue with Jews, Catholics are beginning to know what hurts their Jewish brothers and sisters. If we may "stretch" the story, and exchange the notion of "welcome" for the word "love," we may hear our Jewish counterpart say, "You say that I am 'welcome' in the Church...why do I not feel welcomed? You say that you are 'inviting' me...why don't I feel invited? You say you respect me 'for the sake of my Fathers'; why do you not accept me in my own definition—which is the first rule of dialogue?"28

So we Catholics are coming to understand and internalize that God has continued to love, and hold in covenant the Jewish people since the time of Jesus. We are coming to understand all the more profoundly that God's hesed, God's steadfast love still includes the Jewish people.

At the same time, we believe that God has offered that hesed to us Gentiles through the Jew Jesus and not only beckons us, but even obligates us, to invite other Gentiles to be nourished from the same root from which we are nourished. Through Jesus, we Christians believe that our God wishes all Gentile people to know of God's steadfast love for them. All other nations have the right to be offered what God has pledged to the Jewish people; namely, the tender mercy and love of the Holy One, the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Moses and Miriam, the God of Jesus. It was the mission of Jesus to share his experienced intimacy with the Father in new ways. Indeed, as the Jew Jesus said, "No one comes to the Father, but by me."29 But after the Shoah, we Christians are beginning to understand this restrictive saying anew. As Franz Rosenzweig noted, the Jews are already with the Father. But it is only through the Jew Jesus that the Gentiles may come to the Father. It becomes the mission of the Gentile Church to continue that mission—to bring the Father to new peoples. The tone of the American document GMD recognizes this (albeit without drawing the conclusions developed here) in phrasing so much of its plan in terms of revealing the Father to others. RM, on the other hand, emphasizes the critical role of the messenger—Jesus—and the mandate of Jesus to be the way by which other Gentiles can come to the Father. No doubt there is a tension here, but it is a tension which may help us move in the following direction.

After the experience of dialogue, the other experience of the Christian Church is that of deeper reflection on the unprecedented occurrence—both for Christian and Jewish—of the Shoah.

In his exhortation, Pope Paul urged Catholics to note the "signs of the times." Surely for the contemporary Catholic, the Shoah must stand as such a "sign"—a sign to be noted, a sign to be heeded. Indeed, many Christians ask, "Why did we not do more? What is the meaning of the Shoah for us? Is there any meaning to the Jewish survival?" Beyond guilt—to distinguish perhaps from the first reason given above for avoiding the Jews in Christian mission, some Christians think that to missionize the Jews after the Shoah is to miss the emerging clarity that God wishes a world with Jews. Or, to put it negatively, God does not want a world without Jews.

Of their experience, many Jews ask what the Shoah might mean for them: Where was God in it all? What is the meaning of their existence—is it merely to survive—which may be a lot?30 While it is the Jewish prerogative and burden to answer these questions for themselves, among Christian answers to these questions, there is a growing a conviction that God wishes the Jewish people to survive precisely as Jews. Indeed this may be the inchoate background of Gregory Baum's insight quoted at the beginning of this essay. It is true to say that, with the exception of GMD, there is a notable absence of any reflection in these missionary documents about the significance of post First Century Judaism. But in other documents relating specifically to Catholic relations with Judaism, an incipient appreciation of Jewish life—rabbinic, historical, and contemporary—is taking shape.31 In a post Shoah world, Christians are coming to the conclusion that God does not want a world without Jews. The Nazis' demonic attempt to wipe them out was antithetical to God's own desire for the world to be blessed by the Jewish presence . And this more than mere survival and not in a simplistic philosemitic way.

The Jewish presence is a witness to and for the world. From the Catholic perspective, Jewish life and faith are crucial for the very notion of God that we profess. That is, we believe our God is a faithful God. When our God promises, God keeps the promise. That God has chosen the Jews is a commitment from which God has never backed away. If, during the first centuries of the Common Era, Christians needed to explain why it was that not all Jews in the first generations of Christianity did not become Christian (for which they developed an apologetic of hard-heartedness and wickedness), after Auschwitz Christians must retrieve and develop a fresh apologetic of God's faithfulness. This faithfulness is located in two non-exclusive ways: first, in God's faithfulness to the Jewish people as community in covenant. From a Christian perspective, this same faithful God is revealed to, and covenants with, the Gentiles by the blessed coming of the Jew Jesus.32 Christians may ratify this new apologetic by actively seeking the survival of the Jews as Jews into the present and to the end of time. In a post—Shoah world, Christians need to realize that their obligation to honor the God of the First Covenant means nothing less than that they do not seek the end of the Jewish people by conversion. Their new relation to the Jewish people is one of dialogue, not proselytism.33 In the Incarnation, the Holy One reaches beyond the first covenant to include others in God's care.

Indeed, one might correctly say Christians believe that God's own credibility is shored up precisely by making an evangelizing exception of the Jews to their missionary efforts. Christians here refrain from proselytizing Jews not because they are fainthearted, but precisely because they believe passionately in the God who is faithful. If ever God were to abandon the Jews by their disappearance from the earth, what is to prevent God from abandoning the Christians?

Believing what I have outlined above, what are the practical consequences? What are Catholics to do? I believe Catholics must now measure their evangelization efforts not by how many converts they make nor by an appeal to biblical literalism. Rather they must ask all peoples, including Jews, whether the Catholic evangelization materials are welcoming, are invitational. Jews need not fear Catholic outreach efforts because, as a result of our dialogue—finding out what hurts them—and as a result of our developing theology of Jewish life in the world, they will consult rabbis and synagogue leaders as to the content and tone of their efforts. This is not unprecedented. Thirty years ago, it was unthinkable that Catholics would consult Jewish educators about the content of their catechisms; now it is commonplace. Similarly, in the future, Catholics must consult rabbis and other synagogue leaders about the content and tone of their evangelization materials so that these materials

• show no sign whatsoever of antisemitism;

• not target the Jewish people or depend on denigrating Judaism to uplift Christianity;

• show no sense of God's excluding anyone from God's care;

• include a sincere encouragement to non-practicing Jews to explore their own tradition; and,

• are recognized as neighborly, invitational, and appeal to the inquirer's freedom.


IV. Conclusion

In this short essay, I have sought to analyze and summarize recent official Roman Catholic Church documents on mission with regard to Judaism and the Jewish people. From this analysis and summary, I wish to begin a theological conversation about how and why Catholics may—or, as I argue, must—exempt the Jewish people from their conversionary aims.

But the Catholic missionary task is larger than an effort to convert the other. Indeed, both Pope Paul and Pope John Paul maintain that the evangelizing mission must be directed first to the Church itself, second to the formerly (but now simply culturally) Catholic areas, and only then beyond Christian borders. My essay wishes to draw on principles stated and—I interpret—implied in official documents so that the exemption of the Jews is not merely a passing "good taste" in the shadow of the Shoah nor a liberal tolerance of "live and let live" with little regard for the truth. Rather both the incipient theology and practice I propose I hope is rooted in what Catholics must come to see as a ground of our faith: namely, the God of the Jews, who has been given to us Gentiles, is a faithful God. The first call to conversion, then, will be to heed this God whom we are coming to know more deeply after the Shoah. To believe in God after the Shoah is to believe that our God, faithful to the promises God makes, does not wish a world without Jews. Christians honor and worship the Holy One when they both invite other Gentiles to God's steadfast love and when they support their Jewish brothers and sisters to be faithful to their covenant. So we Catholics pray for our Jewish brothers and sisters on Good Friday:

May [the Jewish people] continue to grow in the love of his [God's] name and in faithfulness to his covenant.34

Our prayer will be answered, not only when our God heeds it, but also when, at the Holy One's prompting, we Catholics heed it!


  1. Gregory Baum, "Rethinking the Church's Mission after Auschwitz," AUSCHWITZ: BEGINNING OF A NEW ERA? Reflections on the Holocaust, edited by Eva Fleischner (New York: KTAV, 1977), p. 113.

  2. While the Roman Catholic Church is the primary focus of this study, it is to be noted that many mainstream Protestant Churches are noting the turn of the millennium by heightened evangelizing efforts. For an example of a Catholic organization noting the turn of millennium, see NEW EVANGELIZATION 2000--A News Service Promoting the World Wide Decade of Evangelization 1990-2000 (Box 479, Lincroft, NJ 07738-0479)

  3. For a survey Roman Catholic missionary motivation, see Michael B. McGarry, "Contemporary Roman Catholic Understandings of Mission," in Christian Mission-Jewish Mission, edited by Martin A. Cohen and Helga Croner (Ramsey, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982), pp. 119-46.

  4. Hereafter EN. Text from On Evangelization in the Modern World by Pope Paul VI (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1976). References in parentheses will be to the paragraphs of the document itself.

  5. Hereafter RM. Text from Redemptoris Missio (Encyclical on Missionary Activity) by Pope John Paul II in Origins 20:34(31 January 1991):541-68.

  6. Hereafter DP. Text from Dialogue and Proclamation in Origins 21:8(4 July 1991):121-35.

  7. Hereafter GMD. Text from Go and Make Disciples: A National Plan and Strategy for Catholic Evangelization in the United States (Washington, D.C.: National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1993).

  8. For a thoughtful discussion of the question of the place of mission in the postconciliar Church, see Christian Mission and Interreligious Dialogue edited by Paul Mojzes and Leonard Swidler (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1990) and David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 1991).

  9. An "apostolic exhortation" is a significant papal teaching on a particular topic; however, its "weight" is less than an "encyclical." EN is an apostolic exhortation; RM, by Pope John Paul II, is an encyclical.

  10. Of the New Testament citations, 30 are from the letters of Paul (including Ephesians and Colossians), 24 from the Gospel of Matthew, 14 from Mark, 19 from Luke, 35 from John, 41 from the Acts of the Apostles, and 14 from other books of the NT. Of the citations from the Hebrew Scriptures, 4 are from Torah, 9 from the Prophets, and 1 from the Wisdom literature.

  11. This interpretation of "ad gentes" is not peculiar to this author. In a memorandum to Catholics involved in interreligious dialogue, Dr. John Borelli of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the National (American) Conference of Catholic Bishops observed on this very point: "Because missionary activity [in RM] is defined exclusively as directed at the nations, then can we conclude that the mission in regard to the people of Israel would be different from the mission ad gentes? Jews would not be included in the Latin term gentes. The address of Pope John Paul II to the Jewish community of Rome (Origins 15, 45 [April 24, 1986]) would provide a basis for making this distinction." From "Memorandum to Consultants for Interreligious Relations from John Borelli, February 14, 1991, "Reflections on the New Encyclical [RM]." Photocopy. Additionally, there has been a rather heated debate among exegetes about whether the proper translation of Mt. 28:19 might not be "Make disciples of all the Gentiles." So Daniel Harrington: "Several lines of argument point to it [panta ta ethne in Mt. 28:19] as referring to Gentiles only: the use of Greek ethne and Hebrew goyim at the time, the uses of ethnos/ethne elsewhere in Matthew, the use of panta ta ethne to refer to Gentiles (Matt 24:9, 14; 25:32), the theology that the gospel be preached to Jews first (Matt 10:5), and patristic interpretations. See D.R.A. Hare and D.J. Harrington, '"Make Disciples of All the Gentiles" (Mt 28:19), Catholic Biblical Quarterly 37(1974)359-69. For a rebuttal see J.P. Meier, 'Nations or Gentiles in Matthew 28:19?' CBQ 39(1977)94-102." in Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., The Gospel of Matthew (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), p. 414f.

  12. For the story of DP's coming to be, see Michael L. Fitzgerald, "Dialogue and Proclamation," in Bulletin, Pontificium Consilium Pro Dialogo Inter Religiones 28:1(1993):23-33.

  13. DP, fn 5.

  14. GMD, p. 3.

  15. Ibid., pp. 6-7.

  16. Ibid., pp. 7-8.

  17. Ibid., p. 9.

  18. Ibid., p. 16.

  19. Ibid., p. 18.

  20. For an interesting discussion of the Shoah and a mission to the Jews, see Rolf Rendtorff, "The Effect of Holocaust on Christian Mission to Jews," SIDIC 14(1981):1:20-25.

  21. "Some who see the creation of the state of Israel as a direct fulfillment of biblical prophecy have concluded that the Christian task at this time is to 'comfort Israel' by supporting this new political entity, rather than to challenge Jews by direct evangelism." From the "Willowbank Declaration on the Christian Gospel and the Jewish People" (1989) in J.D. Douglas, ed., Let the Earth Hear His Voice (Minneapolis: World Wide Publications, 1975), p. 4.

  22. See the discussion of "two-covenant" theologies in Michael McGarry, Christology After Auschwitz (New York: Paulist Press, 1977), pp. 73-92; see also Norbert Lohfink, The Covenant Never Revoked: Biblical Reflections on Christian-Jewish Dialogue (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1991.

  23. Paul M. van Buren, Christ in Context (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), p. 46. See also Rendtorff, op. cit., p. 23.

  24. I fully admit to a "Catholic bias" about locating my position within Church documents. Without commenting on the influence of Church documents on the life and thought of other Christian denominations, I think that a persuasive case can be made for the positive influence of Catholic documents on worship, catechetical materials, and Catholic school curricula. See among others, Rose Thering, O.P., Jews, Judaism, & Catholic Education (New York: Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, 1986) and Philip A. Cunningham, A Content Analysis of the Presentation of Jews and Judaism in Current Roman Catholic Textbooks (Ph.D. Dissertation, Boston College, 1992), and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Superintendent of Schools Office, Abraham Our Father in Faith: A Religion Teacher's Curriculum Guide (1979, updated 1990). For a comparison with Protestant catechetical materials, see Polly Stuart, The Portrayal of Jews and Judaism in Current Protestant Teaching Materials: A Context Analysis (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms International, 1992).

  25. I am aware of the important study paper by Tommaso Federici, "Mission and Witness of the Church" given in Venice in 1977 (text included in Fifteen Years of Catholic-Jewish Dialogue 1970-1985: Selected Papers [Vatican and Lateran University Presses, 1988], p. 46-62). For a thoroughgoing analysis of this text with regard to Catholic Mission and the Jews, see Eugene Fisher, "Is There a Christian Mission to the Jews? A Catholic Response" in Clark Williamson, ed., A MUTUAL WITNESS: Toward a Critical Solidarity Between Jews & Christians (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1992), pp. 15-32.

  26. An earlier and different version of this may be found in Michael B. McGarry, "Interreligious Dialogue, Mission, and the Case of the Jews," in Paul Mojzes and Leonard Swidler, eds., Christian Mission, op. cit., pp. 102-12.

  27. The resources for a renewed understanding of Christianity vis-a-vis Judaism are considerable. For helpful primers and bibliographies in the burgeoning literature on this subject, see, among others, Eugene J. Fisher, Faith Without Prejudice: Rebuilding Christian Attitudes Toward Judaism. Rev. & Expanded Ed. (New York: Crossroad, 1993); Eugene J. Fisher & Leon Klenicki, eds., In Our Time (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1990), etc.

  28. See Nostra Aetate #4: "God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers."

  29. John 14:6 (RSV).

  30. This is reminiscent of Emil Fackenheim's invoking a 614th Commandment that the Jews are to survive as Jews, in his God's Presence in History: Jewish Affirmation and Philosophical Reflections (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 11.

  31. For example, "The history of Israel did not end in 70 A.D. (cf. Guidelines, II). It continued, especially in a numerous diaspora which allowed Israel to carry to the whole world a witness--often heroic--of its fidelity to the one God and to 'exalt him in the presence of all the living' (Tobit 13:4), while preserving the memory of the land of their forefathers at the heart of their hope (Passover Seder)." In Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, "Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church," (June 1985) in Helga Croner, Compiler, MORE STEPPING STONES TO JEWISH-CHRISTIAN RELATIONS: An Unabridged Collection of Christian Documents 1975-1983. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1985), p. 230.

  32. See Daniel J. Harrington, Paul on the Mystery of Israel (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992).

  33. For a similar conclusion, see "DIALOGUE: A CONTEMPORARY ALTERNATIVE TO PROSELYTIZATION" A Statement of the Texas Conference of Churches: Jewish-Christian Relations (1982). In SIDIC 16(1983):2:22-24.

  34. Liturgy of Good Friday, "The Prayer for the Jewish People."




Rev. Michael B. McGarry (Catholic) is a member of the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle (Paulist Fathers). His theological studies were at the University of St. Michael's College (Toronto); he also studied at the Hebrew University (Jerusalem). Author of Christology After Auschwitz (1977), he has worked in Catholic-Jewish relations for many years. He has served as priest and biblical studies professor at the University of Texas (Austin); director of Boston’s Paulist Center; Rector of St. Paul's College (Washington—the major seminary for the Paulist Fathers); and, most recently, as pastor of Newman Hall/Holy Spirit Parish at the University of California, Berkeley. Currently, he is rector of Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. He also serves on the Advisory Committee to the Secretariat for Catholic-Jewish Relations of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.