There is a lot of talk about the Pope’s new book. I have not read Volume II of Jesus of Nazareth, so I cannot and will not comment on it. Rather, I will use one short article about the book as a springboard into a purely theological, biblical, and, if you will, “missiological” issue of tremendous import. This issue touches on the very heart of our Crusade.
John Allen’s brief article on the subject, Church should not pursue conversion of Jews, pope says, focuses on the fact that the Jews will indeed convert “in God’s time,” and that this event will happen “when the number of Gentiles is full.” Allen also claims that the Holy Father excuses the Church from any mission to evangelize the Jews:
In terms of the proper Christian attitude in the meantime, Benedict approvingly quotes Cistercian abbess and Biblical writer Hildegard Brem: “The church must not concern herself with the conversion of the Jews, since she must wait for the time fixed for this by God.”
Supposedly, too, the book attenuates the missionary imperative by asserting that the Faith is not necessary for each individual to be saved, but only necessary in a global sense for the human race to fulfill its ultimate destiny:
Benedict says that in the early church, the urgency of evangelization wasn’t based so much on the idea that every human being had to know Christ in order to be saved, but rather on a “grand conception of history,” according to which the Gospel had to reach all the nations in order for the world to fulfill its destiny.
My comments are based on Mr. Allen’s reading of the Pope’s book and not at the book itself; but what of the possibility that Allen’s words accurately represent the Pope’s thought? If that were the case, are faithful Catholics permitted to disagree? I’ll let Pope Benedict himself reply. In the Preface to the first volume of this same work, the Holy Father made it plain that the thoughts therein do not bind Christians:
Of course, it goes without saying that this book is absolutely not a magisterial act, but is only the expression of my personal search for the “face of the Lord” (Psalm 27:8). So everyone is free to disagree with me. I ask only that my readers begin with that attitude of good will without which there is no understanding.
In considering Allen’s article with “that attitude of good will,” I cannot help but agree with the remarks he quotes from the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J. (emphasis mine):
Almost ten years ago, the late Cardinal Avery Dulles was critical of a joint statement from the National Council of Synagogues and the Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference to the effect that “targeting Jews for conversion to Christianity” is “no longer theologically acceptable in the Catholic Church.”
Dulles replied that the church cannot curtail the scope of the gospel without betraying itself: “Once we grant that there are some persons for whom it is not important to acknowledge Christ, to be baptized and to receive the sacraments, we raise questions about our own religious life,” he wrote.
Is there any truth to the assertion that “in God’s time,” the Jews will convert en masse “when the number of Gentiles is full”? Yes.
In three famously difficult chapters of his Epistle to the Romans (9-11), St. Paul wrestles with the thorny and painful question of Israel’s rejection of the Christ. With a tender love for his nation, St. Paul juxtaposes a litany of Jewish prerogatives and divine favors with the tragic scene he beholds in his own day, when the vast majority of his people (though, of course, not all, as he himself points out) refused to accept God’s Anointed One. In the last of these three chapters, he makes it very clear that Israel will come into the Church:
I would not have you ignorant, brethren, of this mystery, … that blindness in part has happened in Israel, until the fullness of the gentiles should come in. And so all Israel should be saved, as it is written [Isaias 59:20]: “There shall come out of Sion he that shall deliver, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob.” …For as you [gentiles] also in times past did not believe God, but now have obtained mercy through their [Israel's] unbelief, so these also now have not believed, for your mercy, that they also may obtain mercy.” (Rom 11:25 sqq.)
Father Pohle, in his volume on Eschatology (pp. 105-106), explains:
From this text [of Romans 11, which I've just cited] it may with reasonable certainty be concluded:
(a) That the majority of nations, or at least the majority of the people of all nations (plenitudo gentium), will embrace Christianity before the end of the world;
(b) That, after the general conversion of the “gentiles,” the Jews, too, will accept the Gospel.
Though these propositions by no means embody articles of faith, it requires more than such antisemitic scolding as was indulged in by Luther to disprove them. The Apostle expressly speaks of a “mystery,” and ascribes the final conversion of the Jews, not to the physical or mental characteristics of the Semitic race, but to a special dispensation of God’s “mercy.” Luther overlooked both these factors when he wrote: “A Jew, or a Jewish heart, is as hard as wood, stone, or iron, as hard in fact as the devil himself, and hence cannot be moved by any means. … They are young imps condemned to Hell. … Those who conclude from the eleventh chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans that the Jews will all be converted towards the end of the world, are foolish and their opinion is groundless.”
Father Pohle is not alone among Catholic authors in censuring Luther’s anti-Jewish diatribe on Romans 11. Father Ferdinand Prat, in his masterful two-volume The Theology of St. Paul (vol. I, p. 266) takes umbrage with the same passage from the apostate Augustinian, and broadens his criticisms to Luther’s fellow heresiarchs: “If the leaders of the Reformation refused to believe in the ultimate conversion of the Jews, it was only on account of the dogmatic prejudices. … Modern Protestants have, on the whole, returned to a better exegesis of St. Paul, whose teaching is wholly unambiguous.” Father Prat’s many scholarly pages on Romans 9 to 11 are a must-read for those seriously interested in the teachings of St. Paul on Israel and his relationship with the Church.
If St. Paul is “wholly unambiguous” on the subject of the eventual mass-conversion of the Jews, it seems to me that the Fathers of the Church were, as well — at least an impressive number of them. I’ll cite but one passage, from St. Cyril of Alexandria’s Commentary on Genesis, Bk. 5: “Towards the end of time, Our Lord Jesus Christ will effect the reconciliation of His former persecutor Israel with Himself. Everybody who knows Holy Scripture is aware that, in the course of time, this people will return to the love of Christ by the submission of faith . . . Yes, one day, after the conversion of the Gentiles, Israel will be converted, and the Jews will be astonished at the treasure they will find in Christ.”
The old Good Friday prayer for the Jews, and, more explicitly, Pope Benedict’s new replacement, both use the language of Romans 11 in praying for the conversion of the Jews (see “Father Z” for the texts in Latin and English).
I must strongly disagree with the proposition that “in the early church, the urgency of evangelization wasn’t based so much on the idea that every human being had to know Christ in order to be saved, but rather on a ‘grand conception of history,’ according to which the Gospel had to reach all the nations in order for the world to fulfill its destiny.” The language here sounds disturbingly Teilhardian, and discounts the scriptural, patristic, and magisterial data to the contrary.
You can’t get any more “early-church” than Jesus, and He told the Apostles, “Go ye into the whole world, and preach the Gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be condemned” (Mk. 16:15-16). As for the Fathers, I refer the reader to the articles, The Fathers of the Church on Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus and Pelagius Lives, to see whether they diminished the necessity of individual conversion in favor of a “grand conception of history.” And no Catholic can hold that, when the Roman Magisterium gave us three infallible definitions on the subject, Holy Mother Church taught us a Faith contrary to what was believed “in the early church.” To hold that would be to postulate “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” spanning across two millennia.
If we exclude Jews from evangelism, we do more than “raise questions about our own religious life,” as Cardinal Dulles correctly observed. We sin against Charity, and judge, with Luther, that this or that Jew is incapable of conversion. The big conversion will happen in the end, yes; but, meantime, the Church must make disciples of all nations. In individual cases, the grace and mercy of God can and will certainly precede the large-scale eschatological event of Israel’s conversion.
Thus has it been all throughout the history of the Church.
Gary Potter wrote a wonderful article, “Forgotten Converts,” in which he discusses such converts to the Faith as Rabbi David Paul Drach, Theodor and Alphonse Ratisbonne, Ven. Paul Francis (Jacob) Liberman, Ludwig and Jenny Loeb — Jews all. Mr. Potter’s subjects belonged to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We may go back further in citing the Catholic Encyclopedia article on St. Thomas Aquinas. Both in his life and posthumously, through his writings, the Angelic Doctor converted at least three Rabbis:
Calo, Tocco, and other biographers relate that St. Thomas, traveling from Rome to Naples, converted two celebrated Jewish rabbis, whom he met at the country house of Cardinal Richard (Prümmer, op. cit., p. 33; Vaughan, op. cit., I, p. 795). Rabbi Paul of Burgos, in the fifteenth century, was converted by reading the works of St. Thomas.
That same Encyclopedia, in its entry on another Dominican, the Spanish St. Vincent Ferrer, tells us of that apostolic friar’s fruitful harvest: “Ranzano, his first biographer, estimates the number of Jews converted at 25,000.” This is in addition to all the Moslems, Waldensians, Cathars and bad Catholics whom St. Vincent converted.
These random examples do not even scratch the surface, but the point is irrefutable: There has been a steady, if small, stream of conversions to the Faith from Jewry since the day St. Peter preached to them, converting 3,000 on that first Christian Pentecost. St. Paul himself, in the very context of his prophesy of the eventual conversion of the Jews in Romans 11, assures us that in converting the gentiles he also hopes to provoke the Jews to conversion: “For I say to you, Gentiles: as long indeed as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I will honour my ministry, if, by any means, I may provoke to emulation them who are my flesh, and may save some of them.” (Rom. 11:13-14). The New American Bible translates verse 14 this way: “I glory in my ministry in order to make my race jealous and thus save some of them.” By converting the gentiles to the life of grace in the Mystical Body of the Jewish Messias, St. Paul wanted to make his own people “jealous” and desirous of the blessings of the New Covenant. If he, the Apostle of the Gentiles, provoked his people to conversion that he might “thus save some of them,” how can we modern-day Catholics say that we have no mission to the Jews?
At the risk of sounding terribly unsophisticated and callow, I propose that, since Israel will not enter the Church en masse until the fullness of the gentiles has entered, let us direct our prayers and works toward that very end, the in-earnest evangelization of nations, from farthest East to deepest South, into Communist strongholds and through the frightening Islamic wall that has rendered a massive swath of Africa, Asia, and the Pacific seemingly impervious to the Gospel. Yes, this is an invitation to martyrdom, that semen Christiani that will make the Church grow.
In other words, let’s launch “Project Gentile Fullness,” so that the corporate conversion of Israel may become a reality. This is charity for the Gentiles, charity for the Jews, and charity, most importantly, for the Blessed Trinity, without whose grace and truth we will all perish.