ROME — Fifty years after the first major Catholic document rejecting anti-Semitism, the Vatican released a new document on Thursday reiterating that Catholics shouldn’t try to convert Jews and calling for a joint effort in the fight against religious discrimination.
Jewish leaders on hand for the Thursday presentation largely welcomed the document, although one complained that it doesn’t go far enough in recognizing the centrality of the land of Israel for Judaism.
Called “The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable,” the document is a theological reflection that builds on five decades of interreligious dialogue that began with Nostra Aetate, a 1,600-word declaration from 1965 that helped reshape Catholic-Jewish relations.
The new document underlines the importance of Catholic-Jewish relations, calling the bond unique “in spite of the historical breach and the painful conflicts arising from it.”
Among other points, it plays down, though it does not reject entirely, missionary efforts directed at Jews.
“The Church is 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,” says the document, signed by Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with Jews.
The document also called Catholics to “do all that is possible with our Jewish friends to repel anti-Semitic tendencies,” and pledged remembrance of the “tragedy of the Shoah” (the Hebrew word for the Holocaust).
“A Christian can never be an anti-Semite, especially because of the Jewish roots of Christianity,” the document says.
It also says that even though Christianity teaches there is only one path to salvation in Jesus, this “does not in any way follow that Jews are excluded from God’s salvation because they do not believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel.”
Presenting the document in Rome this Thursday, Koch said it tries to “address and clarify the issues that have arisen in the Jewish-Catholic dialogue.”
In recent weeks, there have been several conferences and ceremonies to mark the anniversary of Nostra Aetate, including a celebration in St. Peter’s Square, where Pope Francis dedicated his Wednesday audience to interreligious dialogue.
“An attitude of suspicion or condemnation of religion has spread due to violence and terrorism,” Pope Francis told the religious leaders.
Given that, he said, it’s necessary to focus on the positive values that religions espouse.
Next Wednesday, also to mark the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) and the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations will co-host a ceremony at UN headquarters in New York City.
The Vatican’s document comes only days after 2,000 Orthodox rabbis issued a declaration acknowledging that Christianity “is neither an accident nor an error, but the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations.”
“In separating Judaism and Christianity, God willed a separation between partners with significant theological differences, not a separation between enemies,” the seven-paragraph statement issued on Dec. 3 says.
Sitting next to Koch as the Vatican’s document was presented, Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee, described this statement as “a very significant response to the remarkable work done by the Holy See,” because until now, most of the Jewish responses to dialogue came from liberals.
Rosen, an Orthodox Jew, is among the signatories.
Rosen largely brushed off concerns about a Good Friday prayer for the conversion of Jews that was part of the old Latin Mass and still is recited by some traditionalist Catholics.
“There’s a very small percentage of Catholics reciting this prayer,” he said.
Although the Good Friday prayer is not directly addressed by the Vatican’s document, the text says that the Catholic Church “neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.” It adds that “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.”
On another front, Rosen expressed disappointment that the new document fails to acknowledge “the centrality that the Land of Israel plays in the historic and contemporary religious life of the Jewish people,” and the groundbreaking role of Nostra Aetate in leading to a diplomatic accord between the Vatican and Israel.