A Slow Reading of Romans XI

In these days of widespread heterodoxy and profound confusion on religious matters, many people take it as a sign of “hate” that a Catholic would seek to draw into the Church any and all non-Catholics. On the contrary, true zeal for the conversion of one’s neighbor is a sign of love for God and for man. Given the thorny nature of the questions raised in this article, and the toxic atmosphere of public discourse today, I consider it wise to make this disclaimer of sorts. And I will add one more comment before proceeding:

“The Queen of Heaven is a little Jewish girl.” — Father Leonard Feeney.

In his polemic, A Faulty Traditionalist Condemnation, Dr. Jeff Mirus recommends that his readers undertake a slow reading of Romans Chapter 11. This will apparently help us to understand the points of Saint Paul’s inspired text that traditionalists have so far failed to understand.

Dr. Mirus’ piece was written in response to an article by John Vennari, which, in turn, was critical of statements made by Archbishop Augustine Di Noia, O.P., in an interview he gave Vatican Insider. My interest here is neither Mr. Vennari’s claims, nor the Archbishop’s words, but, rather, in what Dr. Mirus wrote, for it pertains to “our issue.”

Dr. Mirus rejects the idea that the defined dogma, extra ecclesiam nulla salus means that non-Catholics have to convert to Catholicism in order to be saved. He writes:

No, the ancient phrase “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” means something far less formal—and happily far more substantial—than that. To understand it, we must recall that, for Saint Paul, being joined to Christ is the same thing as being joined to the Church (Christ’s body), and this joining comes through belief in, trust in and obedience to God according to whatever degree of truth the Holy Spirit writes in each person’s heart (see What Does it Mean to Be Saved?).

If the reader clicks on the link to the link to Dr. Mirus’ “What Does it Mean to Be Saved?” he will not see that peculiar and vague explanation of Saint Paul’s thought either proven or made less problematic. Instead, the reader will find more vague notions which are not proven, but which are simply asserted on the authority of a book by Father Most that Dr. Mirus does not even bother to quote.

A few paragraphs later, Dr. Mirus refers to Pope Pius XI’s prayer, “Consecration of the Human Race to the Sacred Heart of Jesus” (scroll down when you click on that link), which, praying for the Jews, asks God to, “Turn Thine eyes of mercy towards the children of the race, once Thy chosen people: of old they called down upon themselves the Blood of the Savior; may it now descend upon them a laver of redemption and of life.” His assessment of the words I have italicized follows (bold emphasis mine):

[John Vennari] seems not to realize that this very phrase is theologically unfortunate. At the very least, it is contrary to what St. Paul teaches, namely, that God’s election of the Jews is permanent. You’ll find this in Romans 11, which begins, “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” (11:1) and goes on to emphasize that “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (11:29).

Pope Pius XI taught no heresy, of course, though the wording of this prayer may have been a bit careless. But the citation reminds us that there are deep theological mysteries here, and that they must be explored very carefully indeed. It also reminds us, when questions of heresy arise, to be equally careful about selecting properly Magisterial sources. Unfortunately, Vennari (and many Traditionalists who tend to think like him) too easily content themselves with insisting on the “obvious”, when what is so obvious to them may not, in fact, be a complete or even a correct understanding of what the Church teaches.

Do you have doubts? I propose a thought experiment. Read Romans chapter 11 slowly in its entirety. Though it does not contain everything that Scripture (or even St. Paul) has to say on the subject, it does explore the condition of the Jews and some aspects of the theological relationship between Jews and Gentiles, that is, Jews and most Christians. Read it slowly and carefully and then try to argue that there are no depths here that need to be carefully explored, depths that admit of continuing developments and changing emphases (but never contradictions) in Magisterial teaching.

Note that Dr. Mirus calls Pope Pius XI’s wording in an officially indulgenced prayer “a bit careless,” and “theologically unfortunate.” This is because, to his thinking, the Jews must still be the chosen people. But this is false. The faithful of the Catholic Church — whether Gentile or Jew — are the chosen people. First, the “theologically unfortunate” Pius XI, in Ubi Arcano, said this: “51. … We as the leader of the chosen people must wait and pray for an unmistakable sign from the God of mercy and of love of His holy will in this regard. (Judges vi, 17).” And the perhaps more theologically fortunate Leo XIII said this of Italian Catholics, in his Custodi di Quella Fede: “How can We bear to look upon His chosen people exposed to a constant and ever-present danger of apostasy, pushed toward error and vice, material miseries, and moral degradation?”

The reasoning behind Dr. Mirus’ bold claim against Pope Pius XI is more than unfortunate, for he claims that Pius XI’s prayer “is contrary to what St. Paul teaches, namely, that God’s election of the Jews is permanent.”

What Saint Paul teaches in Romans 11 is that a “remnant” of Israel has passed into the New Covenant, therefore, God has not cast them off. The Apostle offers himself as an example of such a one. Those of the nation of Israel who rejected Jesus are compared to the ancient Israelites who worshipped Baal, while the Christian Jews are compared to the “seven thousand men, that have not bowed their knees to Baal.” Saint Paul never claims that the election of the Jews is permanent in the sense that they remain the chosen people even if they fail to accept Christ. What he did teach is that (1) they were the chosen nation in the Old Testament, (2) some of them — a “remnant” —  have passed into the Church of the New Testament, and are therefore not cast off, and (3), the nation, as a whole, will also return to serving God in the true religion when they are corporately “ingrafted” back into it by accepting Christ.

Dr. Mirus recommended a “thought experiment,” namely, to “Read Romans chapter 11 slowly in its entirety.” That I have done — several times since reading his article. I have also consulted several approved Catholic sources. Here, then, is my own slow reading of Romans 11. The Rheims text appears here in its entirety, with my commentary indented.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

[1] I say then: Hath God cast away his people? God forbid. For I also am an Israelite of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.

Proof that God has not cast them off: Saint Paul is a believer. The US Bishop’s official Bible, the NABRE, offers this commentary: “Although Israel has been unfaithful to the prophetic message of the gospel (Rom 10:14–21), God remains faithful to Israel. Proof of the divine fidelity lies in the existence of Jewish Christians like Paul himself. The unbelieving Jews, says Paul, have been blinded by the Christian teaching concerning the Messiah.”

Not only was Saint Paul a Jew, but so were the other Apostles, all the Evangelists (excepting St. Luke), Holy Simeon and Anna the Prophetess, the vast majority of the Church at Jerusalem, and many pockets here and there around the Mediterranean world (e.g., Rome) where Jews were mixed with Gentile Christians. Above all, our Blessed Lady was a Jew, and so was Saint Joseph. The Holy Virgin declared in Her Magnificat: “He hath received Israel His servant, being mindful of His mercy” (Luke 1:54). She, the ultimate “chosen one” of our race, was and remains a daughter of Israel. Indeed, God has not cast off that nation!

[2] God hath not cast away his people, which he foreknew. Know you not what the scripture saith of Elias; how he calleth on God against Israel?

“Which he foreknew…” This is the great mystery of predestination. God foreknew who in Israel would be part of that “remnant” that Isaias had foretold and whom Saint Paul wrote of elsewhere.

[3]Lord, they have slain thy prophets, they have dug down thy altars; and I am left alone, and they seek my life. [Is. 65:2] [4] But what saith the divine answer to him? I have left me seven thousand men, that have not bowed their knees to Baal. [3 Kings 19:18] [5] Even so then at this present time also, there is a remnant saved according to the election of grace.

The remnant are saved according to grace: like predestination, this is another sheer mystery. These are those Israelites who, like Saint Paul, believe in Christ. Unfaithful and unbelieving Israel had been mentioned at the end of Chapter 10, with very stern words cited by the Apostle from Isaias. St. Paul wants to assure us that the loss of Israel to the Gospel is not total. Just as the majority of the Kingdom of Israel was unfaithful at the time of Ahab and Jezabel, so, too, God now has His elect, His remnant of Israel, His “7,000.”

[6] And if by grace, it is not now by works: otherwise grace is no more grace.

The works of the Mosaic Law do not justify. Faith which works by charity, both of which are gifts of grace, does.

[7] What then? That which Israel sought, he hath not obtained: but the election hath obtained it; and the rest have been blinded.

Israel sought righteousness or justice, but did not find it in the Law. The “election” — those Jews who became Christian — obtained it by faith. The rest of the nation remain blind in their unbelief.

[8] As it is written: God hath given them the spirit of insensibility; eyes that they should not see; and ears that they should not hear, until this present day [Isa. 6:9-10, 29:10]. [9] And David saith: Let their table be made a snare, and a trap, and a stumbling block, and a recompense unto them. [10] Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see: and bow down their back always. [Ps. 68:23-24]

According to the commentary in the Challoner version of the Douay Rheims, “God hath given them the spirit of insensibility.… Not by his working or acting in them; but by his permission, and by withdrawing his grace in punishment of their obstinacy.”

[11] I say then, have they so stumbled, that they should fall? God forbid. But by their offence, salvation is come to the Gentiles, that they may be emulous of them.

The commentary in the Haydock Bible cites Witham thus: “Have they so stumbled, that they should fall? God forbid. That is, their fall is not irreparable, or so as never to rise again: but by their offending, salvation (through the liberal mercy of God) is come to the Gentiles, that they, the Jews, may be emulous of the Gentiles, and of their happiness, and so may be converted.”

[12] Now if the offence of them be the riches of the world, and the diminution of them, the riches of the Gentiles; how much more the fulness of them?

Their offense in rejecting the Christ occasioned the Gentile ingrafting into the olive tree of God’s one, historic true religion: that “people of God” that has a seamless continuity from Adam to Noe to Abraham to Moses to the Prophets to Christ to Pope Benedict XVI, now gloriously reigning. If their unbelief and falling away was the cause for such great benefits to the Gentiles, how much more will be their ultimate corporate conversion. This is one of Saint Paul’s many uses of the a fortiori argument.

[13] For I say to you, Gentiles: as long indeed as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I will honour my ministry, [14] If, by any means, I may provoke to emulation them who are my flesh, and may save some of them.

Now, here he is most explicit. Those of his nation will be “provoked” to emulation by the believing Gentiles. Emulation of what? Of faith in Christ. By so provoking those of his own flesh, the Apostle “may save some of them.”

Perhaps this is a good place to point out that, for Saint Paul, the idea that someone could be saved without faith in Jesus Christ and the Blessed Trinity is anathema. Read Brother Thomas Mary’s Saint Paul Against the Liberals for an amusing, but sound and edifying, treatment of this.

[15] For if the loss of them be the reconciliation of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead?

A reiteration of the a fortiori argument made in v. 12.

[16] For if the firstfruit be holy, so is the lump also: and if the root be holy, so are the branches.

Israel was God’s holy nation. It continued into the Catholic Church, which Saint Peter described as, “a chosen generation, a kingly priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people” (I Peter 2:9). We are the seed of Abraham: “And if you be Christ’s, then are you the seed of Abraham, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29). We are the heirs of that “salvation” which is “of the Jews” (John 4:22). In brief, the faithful of the Universal Church, gathered under the authority of the Supreme Pontiff from every land and tongue and nation, are the chosen people.

[17] And if some of the branches be broken, and thou, being a wild olive, art ingrafted in them, and art made partaker of the root, and of the fatness of the olive tree, [18] Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee.

The Church stands in perfect continuity with the Synagogue of the era BC (see Our Patriarch Abraham and the Continuity of Religion). We Catholics are the new Israel, and must not boast against our forefathers in the nation of Israel.

[19] Thou wilt say then: The branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in. [20] Well: because of unbelief they were broken off. But thou standest by faith: be not highminded, but fear. [21] For if God hath not spared the natural branches, fear lest perhaps he also spare not thee.

Here is the Challoner commentary, which was directed at the Calvinist notion of “perseverance of the saints,” i.e., what Trent condemned as “the vain presumption of the heretics”: “‘Thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear’… We see here that he who standeth by faith may fall from it; and therefore must live in fear, and not in the vain presumption and security of modern sectaries.”

The Apostle’s reasoning is that just as the greater number of the Jews were broken off by their infidelity, so too will the Gentiles who prove unfaithful. God has not “spared” them, and neither will He spare us Gentiles if we should defect. This serves as a cautionary tale for believers in every age. We may not, like the proud Pharisees, presume our own election, but must fear God and remain steadfast in the Sacred Deposit of the Faith.

[22] See then the goodness and the severity of God: towards them indeed that are fallen, the severity; but towards thee, the goodness of God, if thou abide in goodness, otherwise thou also shalt be cut off.

Those who rejected Christ are here described as “fallen” and “cut off.”

[23] And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be grafted in: for God is able to graft them in again.

Those who convert from their unbelief will be grafted back in to God’s people, i.e., the Mystical Body of Christ, of which the olive tree is a figure. Here, the expressions “grafted in” and “graft them in again,” suggest that those in “unbelief” are not currently part of the olive tree representing God’s chosen people, though they can be if they convert.

[24] For if thou wert cut out of the wild olive tree, which is natural to thee; and, contrary to nature, were grafted into the good olive tree; how much more shall they that are the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?

God can bring the Jews back into His good olive tree, just as He brought the Gentiles into it. He can do so a fortiori, since the Israelites were the original branches of the tree, whereas the Gentiles were from a wild tree. Note: this is “contrary to nature” because usually it is the wild tree whose robust roots are used, with the grafting branches being taken from a “good” tree, which bears superior fruit. The trees being considered here are two different kinds of olive tree, but can take graftings from one another.

[25] For I would not have you ignorant, brethren, of this mystery, (lest you should be wise in your own conceits), that blindness in part has happened in Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles should come in. [26] And so all Israel should be saved, as it is written: There shall come out of Sion, he that shall deliver, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob. [Isa. 59:20]

Here the present condition of unbelieving Israel is described as “ungodliness” and “blindness” which will be remedied by faith when all Israel shall be saved, i.e., converted to Christian faith and Catholic unity, after the fullness of the Gentiles has entered the Church.

The corporate conversion of the Jews is a common teaching of the fathers, doctors, medieval theologians, and modern exegetes (e.g., Prat, who proves it at length). Here is St. Cyril of Alexandria, 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.” See also: 2 Corinthians 3:11-16, and my own remarks about the Prophet Elias, with a long citation from Saint Augustine, here: The Hearts of the Fathers.

[27] And this is to them my covenant: when I shall take away their sins. [28] As concerning the gospel, indeed, they are enemies for your sake: but as touching the election, they are most dear for the sake of the fathers. [29] For the gifts and the calling of God are without repentance.

This is truly a great mystery. This nation, despite its present unbelief and inimical stance to the preaching of the Gospel, remains important to God’s providential designs. They are counted dear for the sake of their believing and faithful fathers. God does not repent of the gifts He gave them of old, and He still calls them to believe in Christ, just as Saint Paul himself endeavored to provoke them to emulation and therefore called them into the Church. Jews have converted, and still do so, all throughout the history of the Church. In the end, the Jewish nation will be brought into the Catholic Church.

[30] For as you also in times past did not believe God, but now have obtained mercy, through their unbelief; [31] So these also now have not believed, for your mercy, that they also may obtain mercy. [32] For God hath concluded all in unbelief, that he may have mercy on all.

Both Jews and Gentiles have been guilty of unbelief. This sorrowful condition is an occasion for God’s grace, which is not given as a “recompense” for human good works, but as an unmerited gift of God’s mercy and generosity. The timing and the precise manner of God’s outpouring of His gratuitous grace are hidden in the inscrutable counsels of the adorable and All-Holy Trinity. For that reason, the chapter ends (v. 36) with a beautiful Trinitarian doxology. Saint Paul thereby shows us the proper thing to do in the face of an unfathomable divine mystery: give praise and adoration to God. These verses that conclude the chapter form the Epistle reading for Trinity Sunday.

[33] O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God! How incomprehensible are his judgments, and how unsearchable his ways! [34] For who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been his counsellor? [35] Or who hath first given to him, and recompense shall be made him? [36] For of him, and by him, and in him, are all things: to him be glory for ever. Amen.