What the Vatican Said and Why We Should Care
Within a few hours, the headlines all screamed the same message. The Vatican had declared that Catholics should not try to convert Jews. I knew that this could not be correct. Catholics could never allow for anyone achieving salvation through means other than the Church, I reasoned. That would be the equivalent of Jews not davening for a world in which – as we pray three times a day at the end of Aleinu – Hashem and his Oneness will be accepted by all people, bar none.
I was wrong. They said it.
I also suspected that reaction within our own community would miss the significance of the recent release from the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with Jews. This time I was not wrong.
Here is my take on what happened, why we should welcome it, and how it might affect our relationship not only with the world’s 1.25 billion Catholics, but with other Christian groups.
The document “The Gifts And The Calling Of God Are Irrevocable” did not surface in a vacuum. It was meant as a tribute and continuation of the work of Nostra Aetate, a watershed document issued 50 years ago that transformed the way Catholics would relate to Jews. Nostra Aetate unseated, at least for Catholics, two of the most toxic teachings about Jews and Judaism. Jews, it taught, should not be held collectively guilty for the crucifixion. Nor does the Church support Replacement Theology, according to which all covenants and promises in Tanach have found new beneficiaries in the New Israel, i.e. Christianity, which replaced the old, unfaithful variety. Those two ideas were responsible for the shedding of much Jewish blood through centuries in which Jews were treated as detestable cast-offs from society. Nostra Aetate effectively made anti-Semitism a sin.
Nostra Aetate’s practical benefits for Jews are beyond cavil. Several studies of Catholic education, at least in the US, showed changes in what Catholics were taught about Jews in parochial schools, and in their attitudes towards Jews. If there were no other consequences, we would have to thank HKBH that we live in a time when Catholics are taught positive things about us, rather than the old diet of contempt and hatred that was offered in some places for too long. Has this worked perfectly? No. Have the changes penetrated every parish around the globe? Definitely not. Has the new policy meant a difference in the way many Catholics look at Jews? Beyond a doubt.
The recent document does not jump over a void of a half-century, so much as continues a succession of events during that time that demonstrate the seriousness of the shift within the Church. It is yet another step in a process that began with Nostra Aetate, and was then implemented in earnest. While Nostra Aetate was an outgrowth of the Second Vatican Council under Pope John XXIII, every pope that followed made some positive contribution. Pope John did not live to see Nostra Aetate rolled out. That took the doing of Pius VI. Pope John Paul II, the most pro-Jewish of all modern popes, called Jews the “elder brother” of Christians, was the first to walk from the throne of St. Peter to the Rome synagogue, and asked G-d’s forgiveness at the Western Wall in Jerusalem for the Church’s mistreatment of Jews through the centuries. Pope Francis has spoken of what Christians can learn from Jews (“God continues to work among the people of the Old Covenant and to bring forth treasures of wisdom which flow from their encounter with his word”). His recent statement has powerful implications: “To attack Jews is anti-Semitism, but an outright attack on the State of Israel is also anti-Semitism.” (Consider that the Pope uttered these words a mere century after Pius X told Theodore Herzl, “We cannot prevent the Jews from going to Jerusalem—but we could never sanction it. The soil of Jerusalem, if it was not always sacred, has been sanctified by the life of Jesus. As the head of the Church I cannot tell you anything different. The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people.”)
People can be skeptical about these developments if they choose, but they should keep two things in mind. None of these developments would have been conceivable to our ancestors. And while it took far too long for our tastes for the Church to get to this point, slow change can be a blessing as well. Once in place, these attitudes cannot be walked back quickly. That is just the way the Church works.
Other consequences of Nostra Aetate were more subtle. Catholics took a harder look at their Jewish roots. In some liberal circles, it became fashionable for Catholics to attend a Pesach seder, because of what it meant to their self-understanding. While this doesn’t concern us directly, it did create the space for Catholics to look at Jews with respect and esteem.
The new document takes the regard for Jews to a new level. Its impact will have little to do with conversion, though. Catholics are not the ones going door to door proselytizing, or funding campus crusades, or footing the bill for missions to the Jews. By asserting that Jews are not barred from salvation, the document offers something more important. It removes one subconscious obstacle in the path of looking favorably upon Jews and Judaism. In moments of candor, I have allowed myself to speak frankly to Protestant acquaintances. How can a truly religious person, I have asked, truly respect someone whom he believes is barred from eternal life? One can preach tolerance endlessly, but if one’s spiritual axiology places the state of the soul at the top of a list of values, how can one truly value the life of someone who has missed the boat of eternity? I have never received a satisfactory answer. The new document might change things. It allows Catholics to look upon Jews almost as privileged relative to the great numbers of human beings who are neither Christian nor Jewish. Jews are going to Heaven – something they cannot state about many others.
If conservative Protestants can borrow some of this, we will be making real progress.
I stress “almost.” The document is, I believe, a study in honesty. It does not try to pander to Jews. It speaks of a tension in Church teaching for which it has no solution. Effectively, it states that Catholics ought to fully accept two positions that seem contradictory. There is no escaping the conclusion that G-d has not turned his back on his original covenant with the Jews – and that this is enough to afford them salvation. But it is also true, it asserts, that there is no salvation possible save through the medium of the Church. They are both true – even though this seems to be impossible. At the moment, the coexistence of these truths is “an unfathomable mystery.” The problem needs to be dealt with by theologians. But the faithful needn’t wait for their findings to be deployed. They can have confidence that the old truth about the centrality of the Church is preserved – and still believe that Jews are saved.
Their readiness to stake out a position on the salvation of Jews without being able to fully defend it strikes me as courageous. Remember, the Catholic Church takes theology seriously. This paper was not the product of a few liberal thinkers who were willing to trade their beliefs for some Jewish goodwill. They take many pages trying to explain as much of the mystery as they can. They do not want Catholics to believe that they have begrudgingly decided that there are two paths and two entrances to Heaven, one for Jews and one for Gentiles (Christianity). They firmly deny the possibility of a dual-covenant theology. They are ever so careful not to give away more than is necessary.
Many of our readers likely do not lie awake fretting over whether the Church allows for their salvation. It would be a mistake not to see this document as a gift to us all – at least those who deeply care about the security of the State of Israel.
The Chofetz Chaim gave a mashal of a crowd chasing after a person holding a small bag. Someone questioned what was in the bag. His friend replied, “I don’t know. But with so many people chasing after it, it must have some value.” We have watched the Palestinians and their BDS accomplices chasing a goal of uncoupling Christians from Jews and Judaism for quite some time. If this goal is valuable to them, then preventing it becomes our concern, because there must be something valuable in it for them.
The value lies in the connection that many Christians of all kinds of backgrounds feel for the Land of Israel, and the link between that land and its people. That perception helps drive the allegiance of millions of Christians to modern Israel. It is support that, bederech hateva, we can ill-afford to sacrifice. Palestinians have been working overtime to suppress archeological evidence for a Jewish presence in the land. They continue to assert that there never were any Temples in Jerusalem. That Palestinians descend from the Canaanites, who were there first. That even if Jews arrived later, today’s Jews are unrelated to the ancient ones, and arrived only after the Holocaust. They have declared that Jesus was a Palestinian – and Israeli Jews are the modern day Romans.
Perhaps most importantly, they have campaigned (among Protestants, including evangelicals) to bring back Replacement Theology. They claim that there is simply no way that any Christian can be true to his or her faith without understanding that any covenants with the Jews are null and void. This last point is crucial to them, because they want to disrupt the feeling that millions of Christians have when they witness the miraculous rebirth of modern Israel that they are watching the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. Can’t be, say the Palestinians. Those prophecies have nothing to do with the Jews, who have been replaced by us Christians.
The new Vatican document takes the antipodal position. The Jews have not been replaced. The old covenants are so much in effect, that they even get Jews to Heaven. Although Protestants do not generally concern themselves with pronouncements from St. Peter’s Square, they are certainly free to borrow their arguments and thinking. Those of us who stay awake at night strategizing about helping Israel’s position can at least hope that Protestant thinkers who care about Israel (or who for other reasons fear the return of supersessionism and Replacement Theology) will take some of the thinking in this document and adopt it to their belief systems.
One section of the document raised my eyebrows to nose-bleed elevation. In rejecting dual covenants, the authors propose that Torah for Jews is simply a different facet of Logos for Christians. (Don’t worry if you don’t know or care what that means. Stay with the train of thought.) It isn’t a different path, but just a different iteration of the same one. This is obviously a belief that Jews must reject entirely, but it is interesting nonetheless. If Torah is the way in which Catholics conceive of Jews relating to G-d, where does that leave Jews who do not connect to Torah? Could the Vatican document have left room for an interpretation that only loyal, serious Jews are saved? (I asked this of a Catholic theologian acquaintance. He diplomatically responded that Christians had dictated for too long what they were supposed to think. Jews were going to have to puzzle this one out by themselves.)
If this observation is correct, we will have addressed Yoram Hazony’s concern. He notes that the document observes that Catholics will continue to witness to Jews their commitment to their beliefs. But why should this be so?
[W]hat possible reason could be left for insisting that Jews should embrace Jesus? A Jew living according to the torah would be in a right relationship with God, and that should be the Christians’ highest hope for their Jewish friends and acquaintances. Then it would be possible to issue a document stating in plain language, understandable to all, that “Catholics should not try to convert Jews.”
The shocking answer may be that the document does not guarantee salvation to all Jews, but only to those connected to Torah. Those who show no interest in it, i.e. those most vulnerable to proselytizing may still remain obvious targets for conversion.
Whether or not the authors intended to go this far, I will not speculate. But our readers should take note of what others will miss. When confronted with the question of how Jews might find their salvation, the Vatican’s answer was the Torah. What is obvious to us was also obvious to them. They did not point to the birth of Jesus into a Jewish family, nor to the famous tree to which they are grafted into according to their Scripture. They pointed to Torah.
The challenge for those who truly want to help Israel – in addition to the all-important contributions of tefillah and mitzvos – is huge. Christians who side with Israel are being pressed on all sides to abandon her. The Jews who often have the best shot at conversing with Christian coworkers, friends and neighbors are those who live and breathe Torah. It is Orthodox rabbis who have the best chance of striking up a relationship with non-Jewish clergy. Only those who really know and value Torah can sustain that relationship through sharing (when halachically appropriate) the “treasures of wisdom which flow from their encounter with his word” that Pope Francis speaks of.
There is no question that if we don’t, the Palestinians and their minions will.
I hope that it will take less time for frum Jews (no, not all – just those best equipped to do so) to come around and man the ramparts in the part of the struggle that the IDF cannot wage.
Only those of us who live in mixed societies can, and increasingly that means Orthodox Jews. We must begin by asking whether this activity is part of our obligation of hishtadlus. I firmly believe that it is.
 Had the authors had more experience with Yiddish, they undoubtedly would have written, “fun a kasha shtarbt men nit.” On the other hand, they are much more at home with the concept of “mystery.”
 I have long been mystified by the ability of different Christian – mainline Protestants – to propose new “confessions” that change core beliefs every few years – and decide them by a vote of delegates to a biennial convention!
 The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for a document released by a group of liberal Orthodox figures a few days before the Vatican one. Its intent was admirable; it did an excellent job of understanding changes in the Church, and thanking Catholics for making them. But it was careless in its phraseology, showing far less restraint than the Vatican document. Somehow compelled to make the strongest case for collegiality, it attributed to Rambam, Rav Yehuda Halevi, and the Netziv things they did not – and in some cases could not – say. Whereas the Rambam (in the uncensored version of the end of Hilchos Melachim) does speak of very positive collateral consequences of the spread of Christianity in teaching the world about G-d and about a messianic age, he would hardly call Christianity a “gift” to the nations. He couldn’t, considering his position that Christianity is an idolatrous faith, and that the only transgression that G-d speaks of as “hating” is idolatry! The most objectionable part of the document is the claim that “Both Jews and Christians have a common covenantal mission to perfect the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty.” I am not aware of any covenant that G-d entered into with the Throne of St. Peter. The faults of this document have already been called out by Dr. David Berger, certainly the authority not only on articulating Torah positions to Christian theologians, but heir to the instructions of his rebbi, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l on what is kosher in interfaith conversation and what is not. ומי יבא אחר המלך