To evangelize — or not to evangelize?

Bill Cork posts an excerpt from Rabbi James Rudin on a recent gathering at Catholic University of America, expressing his disappointment in an address by Cardinal Avery Dulles.

Apparently Cardinal Dulles rejected the “two covenant” concept popularized in some circles of Jewish-Christian dialogue (“valid covenant for Jews made at Mount Sinai (the life of Torah) and a valid one for Christians made at Calvary (the resurrection of Jesus)”) and affirmed traditional Catholic teaching that all humanity, Christians and Jews, should “benefit from Christ’s teaching and . . . enjoy the fullness of sacramental life (conversion to Christianity).” Dulles also acknowledged that Christians must “learn to be patient . . . (while) they gladly acknowledge Jews as their elder brothers in the faith.”

According to Rabbi Rudin:

The cardinal’s views elicited sharp negative responses from both Catholics and Jews. The Catholic critics charged that Dulles’ view does not properly reflect the church’s advances articulated in “Nostra Aetate” and other authoritative Vatican documents vis-a-vis Jews and Judaism. They further said that Dulles offered a “disjointed paper” that minimized the dynamic quality of Jewish religious life during the past 2,000 years.

Jewish critics said Dulles presented a reaffirmation of positions that in the past provided theological justification for anti-Jewish actions by “impatient” Christians who attempted to coerce Jews into conversion. In response, Dulles rejected any coercive or manipulative efforts to bring Jews to Christianity. Nonetheless, the Jewish participants were strongly “disappointed” in Dulles’ presentation.

“Exploring lingering impact of ‘Nostra Aetate'” Staten Island Advance March 18, 2005.

I’m not sure exactly what else was said by Dulles, the text of his paper not yet available online — but the Cardinal does have a knack for presenting and clarifying basic Catholic doctrine, and I’m inclined to think that he has a better understanding of Nostra Aetate than the rabbi and his critics.

As penitens (aka. A Penitent Blogger) noted in his comment on Bill’s post, Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, speaking for the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, also rejected the belief that Christianity and Judaism could be seen as “parallel ways to salvation” in its official notes “on the correct way to present the Jews and Judaism in preaching and catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church.”

Like Penitens, I fail to see the disconnect between Dulles and Nostrae Aetate. I also think Catholic participants in Jewish-Christian interreligious dialogue have gone too far on occasion, giving the misleading impression that the Church wholly excludes, or exempts, the Jewish people from its missionary mandate — such that “mutual respect” is tantamount to the concession that Jews “do not need” Christ for salvation. (Unfortunately there are also those in the Vatican hierarchy, like Cardinal Kasper, who contribute to this error with ambiguous and controversial statements).

According to Rabbi Rudin’s account, Cardinal William Keeler and the AJC’s Interreligious Affairs Director Rabbi David Rosen of Jerusalem closed the conference by “[urging] Catholics and Jews to do more to fulfill Nostra Aetate’s call for ‘mutual respect and knowledge.'” To proceed with due respect towards, and knowledge of, Judaism — yes, this is absolutely necessary. But as Bill said in an earlier post, Christians are “evangelizing of our essence”, missionary by virtue of our professed faith in Jesus Christ. It’s not exactly something we can relenquish without drastically altering the nature of Christianity itself — as illustrated by the recent dispute between the Vatican and dissenting theologian of ‘religious pluralism’ Roger Haight.

Rabbi David Berger on genuine “respect” for religious identity of the other

When Dominus Iesus was first released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, there was a clamor among concerned liberal Catholics that the Vatican’s insistence on the “unicity and salvific universality” of Jesus Christ and the Church constituted a severe impediment for ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. Among the Jewish responses to the document, I was intrigued and impressed by Rabbi David Berger, who distinguished himself by his acknowledgement of the right of Christians to be themselves (“On Dominus Iesus and the Jews”), going so far as to agree with a qualified “supercessionism” as found in Cardinal Ratzingers’s Many Religions, One Covenant (Ignatius, 1999):

“The Sinai covenant,” writes Cardinal Ratzinger, “is indeed superseded. But once what was provisional in it has been swept away we see what is truly definitive in it. The New Covenant, which becomes clearer and clearer as the history of Israel unfolds.., fulfills the dynamic expectation found in [the Sinai covenant].” (pp. 70-71) And in another formulation, “All cultic ordinances of the Old Testament are seen to be taken up into [Jesus’] death and brought to their deepest meaning …. The universalizing of the Torah by Jesus…preserves the unity of cult and ethos The entire cult is bound together in the Cross, indeed, for the first time has become fully real.” Cardinal Ratzinger, then, who has also declared that despite Israel’s special mission at this stage of history, “we wait for the instant in which Israel will say yes to Christ,” (National Catholic Reporter, Oct. 6, 2000), is a supersessionist.

At this point, we need to confront the real question, to wit, is there anything objectionable about this position? In a dialogical environment in which the term “supersessionism” has been turned into an epithet by both Jews and Christians, this may appear to be a puzzling question. We need to distinguish, however, between two forms of supersessionism, and in my view Jews have absolutely no right to object to the form endorsed by Cardinal Ratzinger. There is nothing in the core beliefs of Christianity that requires the sort of supersessionism that sees Judaism as spiritually arid, as an expression of narrow, petty legalism pursued in the service of a vengeful God and eventually replaced by a vital religion of universal love. Such a depiction is anti-Jewish, even antisemitic. But Cardinal Ratzinger never describes Judaism in such a fashion. On the contrary, he sees believing Jews as witnesses through their observance of Torah to the commitment to God’s will, to the establishment of his kingdom even in the pre-messianic world, and to faith in a wholly just world after the ultimate redemption. (pp. 104-105) This understanding of Jews as a witness people is very different from the original Augustinian version in which Jews testified to Christian truth through their validation of the Hebrew Bible and their interminable suffering in exile.

For Jews to denounce this sort of supersessionism as morally wrong and disqualifying in the context of dialogue is to turn dialogue into a novel form of religious intimidation. As Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik understood very well, such a position is pragmatically dangerous for Jews, who become vulnerable to reciprocal demands for theological reform of Judaism, and it is even morally wrong. . . .

Berger goes on turn the argument of Jewish critics of Dominus Iesus on its head, pointing out that Jews must accord Christianity the same respect they wish to retain for their own religion:

Now, let us assume that I respect the Christian religion, as I do. Let us assume further that I respect believing Christians, as I do, for qualities that emerge precisely out of their Christian faith. But I believe that the worship of Jesus as God is a serious religious error displeasing to God even if the worshipper is a non-Jew, and that at the end of days Christians will come to recognize this. Is this belief immoral? Does it disqualify me as a participant in dialogue? Does it entitle a Christian to denounce me for adhering to a teaching of contempt? I hope the answer to these questions is “no.” If it is “yes,” then interfaith dialogue is destructive of traditional Judaism and must be abandoned forthwith. We would face a remarkable paradox. Precisely because of its striving for interfaith respect and understanding, dialogue would become an instrument of religious imperialism.

Once I take this position, I must extend it to Christians as well. As long as Christians do not vilify Judaism and Jews in the manner that I described earlier, they have every right to assert that Judaism errs about religious questions of the most central importance, that equality in dialogue does not mean the equal standing of the parties’ religious doctrines, that at the end of days Jews will recognize the divinity of Jesus, even that salvation is much more difficult for one who stands outside the Catholic Church. If I were to criticize Cardinal Ratzinger for holding these views, I would be applying an egregious double standard. I am not unmindful of the fact that these doctrines, unlike comparable ones in Judaism, have served as a basis for persecution through the centuries. Nonetheless, once a Christian has explicitly severed the link between such beliefs and anti-Jewish attitudes and behavior, one cannot legitimately demand that he or she abandon them.

It wouldn’t be fair to discuss Rabbi Berger’s agreement with Ratzinger without acknowledging that he goes on to express his discomfort with his call in Many Religions that “mission and dialogue should no longer be opposites but should mutually interpenetrate” and that “proclamation of the gospel must be necessarily a dialogical process,” and Dominus Iesus‘s reminder that the “primary commitment” of Catholics was to “[proclaim] to all people the truth definitively revealed to the Lord.”

Rabbi Berger and Cardinal Ratzinger will probably “agree to disagree” until Moshiach comes (or, as Christians would say, returns) — but in recognizing that Christianity’s call to salvation in Christ is applicable to all, and that Christians are entitled to this belief without feeling compelled to water it down for the sake of “can’t we all just get along” contemporary pluralism, I believe he demonstrates far greater respect for our faith than some of those currently participating in interreligious dialogue.

Related Links

  • Dangerous Paths, by Bill Cork, disputing the notion that “Christianity in the initial years understood itself as having a mission exclusively to Gentiles.”
  • Dialogue between Bill Cork and Jewish blogger Steven Weiss on the Christian call to evangelize.
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