Five decades ago, the Roman Catholic Church famously acknowledged the unique relationship between Jews and Christians. In the wake of World War II, the Vatican officially rejected anti-Semitism and a common manifestation—charges of deicide—and affirmed the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Nostra Aetate declaration, a group of Orthodox rabbis signed and released a statement this month acknowledging that “Christianity is neither an accident nor an error, but the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations.”
In separating Jews and Christians, God was not separating enemies but partners with significant theological differences, the rabbis wrote. “Both Jews and Christians have a common covenantal mission to perfect the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty, so that all humanity will call on His name and abominations will be removed from the earth.”
A week later, the Vatican, through its the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, honored the Nostra Aetate anniversary by releasing a statement, saying that Catholics should not evangelize Jews—at least in an organized way.
The back-to-back events weren’t unrelated: Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s international director of interreligious affairs, signed the first document and spoke at the Vatican presentation of the second. [CT previously interviewed Rosen on how Jews and Christians can converse well.]
The Catholic document is, in its own words, "not a magisterial document or doctrinal teaching of the Catholic Church, but is a reflection ... intended to be a starting point for further theological thought." It is entitled “The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable” [a nod to Romans 11:29] and explains:
The Church is therefore obliged to view evangelization to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views. In concrete terms this means that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews. While there is a principled rejection of an institutional Jewish mission, Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews, although they should do so in a humble and sensitive manner, acknowledging that Jews are bearers of God’s Word, and particularly in view of the great tragedy of the Shoah [the Hebrew term for the Holocaust].
These conciliatory statements are markers of a path that Jews and Christians have been on since the ending of the Holocaust, said Marv Wilson, biblical studies professor at Gordon College and author of several textbooks on Judaism.
“One of the reasons this is happening now is that there’s a growing humility, a modesty in Christian theological expression,” he told CT. For Jews, the words “mission” or “conversion” are historically connected with the Crusades, the Inquisition, Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492, and the silence of many Christian churches during the Holocaust.
But today, Jewish leaders have seen “deep introspection and self-correction” in the church, he said. In addition, they see Christianity as an ally against anti-Semitism in Europe or culture assimilation in America, he said.
The Jewish statement—widely seen as the most notable since Dabru Emet, signed by 170 Jewish scholars in 2000—is remarkable for two reasons, North Park Theological Seminary professor Jay Phelan told CT. First, it comes from Judaism's Orthodox branch, which tends to set itself apart. And second, it calls Christianity the “will of God.” “Few Orthodox rabbis would put it that strongly,” said Phelan. “Maybe they would see [Christianity] as something that God could work with, but not necessarily his intention. That is what is new for me.”