U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: Don't evangelize Jews
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement Monday saying that Catholics should evangelize non-Christians—but not Jews. "The command of the Resurrected Jesus in Matthew 28:19 to make disciples 'of all nations' means that the Church must bear witness in the world to the Good News of Christ so as to prepare the world for the fullness of the kingdom of God," says Reflections on Covenant and Mission.
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. 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. 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.
Rabbis from the National Council of Synagogues (representing Reform and Conservative groups) also joined in the statement. "It should be obvious that any mission of Christians to the Jews is in direct conflict with the Jewish notion that the covenant itself is that mission," the document says. "The pious of all the nations of the world have a place in the world to come." (These comments come under "Jewish reflections," so it appears that the Catholic bishops didn't necessarily agree to this specific sentence. Nevertheless, it is part of the larger Reflections on Covenant and Mission statement.)
The document is just starting to receive media attention, and most analysis isn't very deep. The Associated Press ran a four-sentence summary, stating in the second sentence that "the bishops have made similar declarations in the past and the Catholic church has largely dropped the practice of evangelizing Jews."
The Baltimore Sun focuses on the local angle, and drops the ball on at least one sentence: "Many evangelical Christians see evangelizing non-Christians, particularly Jews, as a religious obligation."
Second, there is wide debate in the evangelical community over evangelization of Jews. Such was recognized by the 1989 Willowbank Declaration, one of the most widely accepted evangelical documents on Christians and Jews (signatories included Vernon Grounds, Kenneth Kantzer, David Wells, and J. I. Packer, as well as evangelical leaders from Kenya, France, Norway, the Philippines, England, Taiwan, and India). As the Willowbank Declaration points out, evangelicals agree that Jews don't need to give up their identity as Jews—but we also believe they need Jesus.
The Boston Globe's article on Reflections on Covenant and Mission emphasizes its disparity with evangelical theology, but also notes that "Catholic efforts to convert Jews 'dried up' after the Second Vatican Council."
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, meanwhile, suggests that Reflections on Covenant and Mission isn't just at odds with evangelical Protestant theology—it's at odds with a lot of Catholic teaching. Scott Hahn, theology professor at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, says the U.S. bishops' statement goes far beyond what the Vatican has said, even in its recent statement that "The Jewish Messianic wait is not in vain." Yes, Hahn says, God's covenant with the Jews "is still binding. Yes, it is not revoked, and yes, the Jewish people are witnesses of the kingdom. But that does not lead us to conclude that their faithful witness to the kingdom calls for them not to recognize Jesus as the messiah and to respond in faith to the grace of conversion."
Hahn tells Post-Gazette that he'd rather see the bishops call targeting Jews for conversion pastorally unacceptable—not theologically unacceptable. Others quoted in the story disagree with Hahn's wish, but agree that Reflections on Covenant and Mission goes way beyond the Vatican's teaching on evangelizing Jews.
We'll have more on this later, but those interested in evangelical beliefs about Jews should check out Richard Mouw's 2001 Christianity Today article, "The Chosen People Puzzle." Be sure also to check out the "Related Elsewhere" items at the bottom of that page, which include links to Christianity Todayeditorials, statements by Billy Graham, and other articles on the topic.
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