U.S. Bishops Correct ‘Ambiguities’ Concerning the Church’s Mission and the Jewish People

In what Catholic World News termed “an unusual clarifying statement,” two organs of the the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops jointly released a note highlighting and correcting the doctrinal ambiguities in a 2002 document on the Church’s mission and the Jewish people. “A Note on Ambiguities Contained in Reflections on Covenant And Mission,” was released by the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine and its Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs on June 18. The ambiguous document it seeks to correct is called Reflections on Covenant And Mission.

The new Note begins by explaining that Reflections on Covenant And Mission was not an official publication of the USCCB, that it was at first mistakenly attributed to the USCCB’s Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, and that the document — a work of “Jewish and Catholic scholars” — enjoys no authority as a vehicle of Catholic teaching. In its “Catholic part,” Reflections was a statement of the Catholic scholars engaged in an interreligious dialogue (the document also had a Jewish part authored by the other participants). It “does not represent a formal position taken by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops or the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs” and “should not be taken as an authoritative presentation of the teaching of the Catholic Church.”

This clarification being made, the document proceeds to summarize and correct specific ambiguities in the earlier text. I would like to highlight some excerpts, making a few observations of my own; for I believe this recent note of the USCCB to be very important for the life of the Church in America. It will help to correct some of the common abuses in modern theology, abuses which have been (incorrectly) attributed to the Bishops themselves, as the original, ambigious document, was mistakenly published in their name.

5. The document [Reflections] correctly acknowledges that “Judaism is a religion that springs from divine revelation” and that “it is only about Israel’s covenant that the Church can speak with the certainty of the biblical witness.” Nevertheless, it is incomplete and potentially misleading in this context to refer to the enduring quality of the covenant without adding that for Catholics Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son of God fulfills both in history and at the end of time the special relationship that God established with Israel. The Second Vatican Council explained: [emphasis added]

“The principal purpose to which the plan of the old covenant was directed was to prepare for the coming of Christ, the redeemer of all and of the messianic kingdom, to announce this coming by prophecy, and to indicate its meaning through various types.”

The long story of God’s intervention in the history of Israel comes to its unsurpassable culmination in Jesus Christ, who is God become man.

This is a censure of the avant-garde position that there is a “two-track system” of salvation, the opinion that the Old and the New Covenants are both living and valid — the former for Jews and the latter for Christians. The various covenants of the Old Law (we can distinguish covenants made with Noe, Abraham, and Moses) were fulfilled in Christ, who came, He said, not to destroy the Law (the Torah, culminating in the Law of Moses), but to fulfill it in Himself. The Church teaches that the Mosaic Covenant is now abolished, having been concluded in Christ. As Pope John Paul II affirmed in Redemptoris Mater, “Christ fulfills the divine promise and supersedes the old law.” Those who disagree with the teaching of the Catholic Church as here reiterated by John Paul II, pejoratively refer to it as “supersessionism.”

The foregoing has to do with Covenant. What does this new clarification say of the Mission part of Reflections on Covenant and Mission? The Note is unsparing, asserting that the earlier document “presents a diminished notion of evangelization.” Here is the all-important context:

6. Reflections on Covenant and Mission provides a clear acknowledgment of the relationship established by God with Israel prior to Jesus Christ. This acknowledgment needs to be accompanied, however, by a clear affirmation of the Church’s belief that Jesus Christ in himself fulfills God’s revelation begun with Abraham and that proclaiming this good news to all the world is at the heart of her mission. Reflections on Covenant and Mission, however, lacks such an affirmation and thus presents a diminished notion of evangelization.

It is noteworthy that the document speaks of “God’s revelation begun with Abraham.” This language appears deliberate. It certainly cannot mean that Abraham marks the beginning of revelation. Such an assersion would fly in the face of revelation itself, and would be equally rejected by Catholics and believing Jews. I surmise that Abraham is named here because he marks a special and significant “first.” It is with Abraham that a covenant is established with a unique people. The Noachide covenant was with all of humanity, and, of course, “revelation” goes back to the primitive deposit given to our first Father, Adam (e.g., the Messias was promised in Genesis 3:15). But, with Abraham, we have a new theme in scripture: Called out from among the iniquitous, Abraham is given the unique vocation to be the “father of a multitude” of righteous followers of Yahweh. Of him, the Twelve Tribes are descended according to the flesh.

Further, that chosen people descended from Abraham would have as their greatest dignity that the Messias would be one of them. Jesus was of “the seed of Abraham.” What’s more, Christians, because we are baptized into Christ, rightly call him “Our Father Abraham” in the words of the Canon of the traditional Roman Mass. We have inherited the promise made to Abraham through Christ. This is the clear meaning of Saint Paul: “To Abraham were the promises made and to his seed. He saith not, and to his seeds, as of many: but as of one, and to thy seed, which is Christ” (Gal. 3:16). The Apostle says further:

For you are all the children of God by faith, in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you be Christ’s, then are you the seed of Abraham, heirs according to the promise (Gal. 3:26-29).

Reaffirming the traditional teaching on the continuity of religion, Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate taught, “She [the Church] professes that all who believe in Christ — Abraham’s sons according to faith — are included in the same Patriarch’s call, and likewise that the salvation of the Church, is mysteriously foreshadowed by the chosen people’s exodus from the land of bondage.” (No. 4)

The Note censures Reflections for its incorrect conception of evangelization. In that earlier document, the “invitation to a commitment of faith in Jesus Christ and to entry [into the Church] through baptism” is called “a very narrow construal” of the Church’s mission. The notion of evangelization presented by Reflections is so broad that it includes interreligious dialogue itself, without the effort to convert the other party. The USCCB’s new document contends that this is corrosive of the Church’s mission: “In its effort to present a broader and fuller conception of evangelization, however, the document develops a vision of it in which the core elements of proclamation and invitation to life in Christ seem virtually to disappear” (emphasis added).

Other corrections the USCCB make pertain directly do conversion. First, the new document upholds the traditional teaching concerning the mass conversion of the Jewish people:

Reflections on Covenant and Mission correctly asserts that the 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.” It also rightly affirms that the Church respects religious freedom as well as freedom of conscience and that, while the Church does not have a policy that singles out the Jews as a people for conversion, she will always welcome “sincere individual converts from any tradition or people, including the Jewish people.” This focus on the individual, however, fails to account for St. Paul’s complete teaching about the inclusion of the Jewish people as whole in Christ’s salvation. In Romans 11:25-26, he explained that when “the full number of the Gentiles comes in . . . all Israel will be saved.” He did not specify when that would take place or how it would come about. This is a mystery that awaits its fulfillment. Nevertheless, St. Paul told us to look forward to the inclusion of the whole people of Israel, which will be a great blessing for the world (Rom 11:12).

The Note critiques Reflections for disparaging even individual conversion because it “implies it is generally not good for Jews to convert, nor for Catholics to do anything that might lead Jews to conversion because it threatens to eliminate ‘the distinctive Jewish witness.'” The problem here, say the bishops, is that “this line of reasoning could lead some to conclude mistakenly that Jews have an obligation not to become Christian and that the Church has a corresponding obligation not to baptize Jews.”

Finally, I come to the conclusion of the Bishops’ document. It references a much-abused passage from Saint Paul to the Romans. Romans 11:29 is interpreted by adherents of a novel theology to mean that the Old Law and the New Law are both still valid and equally salvific (this is what I earlier called the “two-track system”). The USCCB correctly places this passage in the context of Saint Paul’s complete teaching, and concludes by reasserting the Church’s mission to proclaim the Good News to every generation:

10. With St. Paul, we acknowledge that God does not regret, repent of, or change his mind about the “gifts and the call” that he has given to the Jewish people (Rom 11:29). At the same time, we also believe that the fulfillment of the covenants, indeed, of all God’s promises to Israel, is found only in Jesus Christ. By God’s grace, the right to hear this Good News belongs to every generation. Fulfilling the mandate given her by the Lord, the Church, respecting human freedom, proclaims the truths of the Gospel in love.

I thought to end this brief appreciation with the ending the Bishops put on their recent document, but the Church’s liturgy suggested something else to me, hence this little “coda.” Today is the Feast of Saint John the Baptist. Last night, when I studied this new document, I had just spent some time meditating on the Benedictus of Saint Zachary, one of the inspired hymns of the New Testament used in the Church’s liturgy (we chant it every day at the office of Lauds). The strains of Saint John’s Father’s inspired hymn kept returning to my mind during my study. So, in honor of the Voice who heralded the Word, here is that beautiful hymn, whose aptness here will be readily apparent:

(And Zachary his father was filled with the Holy Ghost; and he prophesied, saying:)

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; because he hath visited and wrought the redemption of his people:
And hath raised up an horn of salvation to us, in the house of David his servant:
As he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets, who are from the beginning:
Salvation from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us:
To perform mercy to our fathers, and to remember his holy testament,
The oath, which he swore to Abraham our father, that he would grant to us,
That being delivered from the hand of our enemies, we may serve him without fear,
In holiness and justice before him, all our days.
And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways:
To give knowledge of salvation to his people, unto the remission of their sins:
Through the bowels of the mercy of our God, in which the Orient from on high hath visited us:
To enlighten them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death: to direct our feet into the way of peace.