Rome Rejects While Bishops “Reflect”

Deal W. Hudson is publisher and editor of CRISIS Magazine, a Catholic monthly published in Washington, DC. You can reach him at

Some people won't be too surprised by this decision, as many have been saying that the current policy disregards canon law and is too broad in its approach, but no one was sure how the Vatican was going to handle it.

To be honest, I have mixed feelings about this decision. On the one hand, I'm glad that the Vatican is recognizing the flaws in the bishops' letter that we have been lamenting all along. How many times have we said that the bishops didn't take a firm enough stand in Dallas? The problem wasn't just the offending priests but some of the bishops themselves who were avoiding the real problems beneath the surface. Unfortunately, given the time restraints at the Dallas convention, even those bishops who wanted to address the real problems were unable to. They had to get SOMEthing out there, and the result was the uninspiring zero-tolerance policy. Fortunately, Rome isn't going to let the bishops off the hook that easily. This will force them back to the drawing board to try again.

And that's why I'm concerned. The bishops don't exactly inspire faith in their capabilities at this point. After all, aren't they the ones that gave us the wimpy letter in the first place? There's no guarantee that they'll come up with anything better next time. But I'm glad that they're getting the message that their first effort wasn't good enough. That in itself seems to be reason enough to hold a plenary council where these issues can be given the serious time and consideration they deserve.

Either way, you can expect the Church's detractors to have a field day with this announcement. Bishops who didn't want to face the problem will blame the Vatican for interfering with their “progress.” Dissenters will say that the hierarchy never cared about the victims to begin with and should be gotten rid of once and for all. The media will smirk and take it as further proof that the Catholic Church is as backwards as they said all along.

All we can do is pray the bishops will take this burden more seriously this time and try to live up to their calling as shepherds of our Church.

Which brings me to the other news I wanted to tell you about. [Last week], the Boston Globe ran an article on a document released Monday by the Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and the National Council of Synagogues (that's a mouthful!). The headline read, “Catholics Reject Evangelization of Jews.” When I first read the article, I was astonished. How on earth could the bishops say such a thing? After a while, though, I calmed down a little and decided to read the document for myself before jumping to conclusions.

The results were … well, mixed. While the Globe headline is definitely misleading, the document certainly raises more questions than it answers.

It's called “Reflections on Covenant and Mission” and discusses the unique relationship between Catholicism and Judaism from both the Catholic and Jewish perspectives. The bishops on the council presented the Catholic “reflections,” but their reflections aren't terribly illuminating.

The bishops refer to Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document on “the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions,” and claim that their statement is an “unfolding” of the ideas put forth in the encyclical. In Nostra Aetate, Pope Paul VI emphasizes our common heritage with Jewish people and our need to act with “mutual understanding and respect” at all times. It goes on to say that since Jesus died for the sins of all men, “it is, therefore, the burden of the Church's preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God's all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows.”

That's clear enough. Proclaim the gospel to all people, but act out of love, not hate.

Then we come to the bishops' reflections. Suddenly, things don't seem so clear. Some statements are directly in line with Nostra Aetate: “The Catholic Church must always evangelize and will always witness to its faith in the presence of God's kingdom in Jesus Christ to Jews and to all other people.” Fine.

But then the bishops appear to take it a step further. Consider the following passage, for example: “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…. Their witness to the kingdom, which did not originate with the Church's experience of Christ crucified and raised, must not be curtailed by seeking the conversion of the Jewish people to Christianity.”

Pardon me? How are we supposed to “evangelize” but “not seek the conversion” of Jewish people? How do you separate the two? The latter phrase sounds like a kind of religious multiculturalism — don't try to convert Jews because we'd lose the great Jewish heritage in our culture. But what about gaining the salvation of souls? Isn't that more important?

The bishops do make a good point about conversion, saying that it can never be forced, and that our primary goal should be sharing the Good News, not merely racking up numbers at the baptismal font. Walter Cardinal Kasper, the president of the Pontifical Commission for the Religious Relations with the Jews, explains that we can't consider Jews as a specific “mission,” since “the term mission, in its proper sense, refers to conversion from false gods and idols…. Thus mission, in this strict sense, cannot be used with regard to Jews, who believe in the true and one God.” While Cardinal Kasper and I don't see eye to eye on all things, I have to agree with him here. Our focus should be evangelizing ALL people, not targeting any one religion or group of people in particular.

But this takes us back to those sticky definitions of “conversion” and “evangelization.” The bishops explain that evangelization is the mission of the Church, but that it “includes the Church's activities of presence and witness; commitment to social development and human liberation; Christian worship, prayer, and contemplation; interreligious dialogue; and proclamation and catechesis.” So evangelization is more than just catechesis; you are participating in evangelization simply by living out your Catholic beliefs.

That's all fine and good, but shouldn't we want the end result of our evangelization to be conversion? The document says that “Catholics participating in interreligious dialogue, a mutually enriching sharing of gifts devoid of any intention whatsoever to invite the dialogue partner to baptism, are nonetheless witnessing to their own faith in the kingdom of God embodied in Christ.”

So let me get this straight: My non-Christian friend and I should have a friendly chat where he tells me what he believes, I tell him what I believe, we both say, “that's nice,” and then go home?

What about the pursuit of truth?

In what must be the most troubling statement in the document, the bishops say, “Thus, while the Catholic Church regards the saving act of Christ as central to the process of human salvation for all, it also acknowledges that Jews already dwell in a saving covenant with God.” Cardinal Kasper tries to illuminate the situation by saying, “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.”

If we're saved only through Jesus, how can we say that God's covenant with the Jews is “a saving covenant”? It might be binding, but Jesus came to FULFILL that covenant; even though it wasn't broken, it WAS completed. Without Him, no salvation would have been possible.

Look, the real problem here is this: The bishops' committee has released a confusing, heavily nuanced, document at a time when trust in them is at an all-time low. In trying to explain themselves, they just end up raising more questions. What the “reflections” say might be a good thing, but this kind of theological hair-splitting helps no one understand the positive material that might be there.

At least one part of this document is reassuring. The letter carries absolutely no weight. Unlike Nostra Aetate, NONE of it is binding in the least. These are only the ruminations of a subcommittee of a committee of a small portion of the world's bishops, and without the pope's stamp of approval, it can't be considered the Church's official teaching.

And I certainly wouldn't hold your breath for Rome's endorsement of this piece of work.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage