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Op-Ed: A precarious moment in Catholic-Jewish relations

NEW YORK (JTA) — America’s Catholic bishops recently approved two new documents that strike at the very heart of a trusting relationship between Catholics and Jews.

The first paper reintroduces the idea that Catholics can use interfaith dialogue as a means to invite Jews to Christian baptism.

The second removes a catechism teaching that God’s Covenant with Moses and the Jewish people is eternally valid. This profound change, affirmed by the Vatican, raises for many Jews the specter of a possible return to such odious concepts as supersessionism and the teaching of contempt, which have caused Jews irreparable harm over the centuries.

These new developments are the latest in a series of troubling reversals in the relationship since the summer of 2007, and have some in the Jewish community seriously reassessing the conditions for continuing the dialogue.

How did we get to this point?

The transformation of the Catholic-Jewish relationship began with Nostra Aetate (Latin for “In Our Time”) adopted in 1965 at the Second Vatican Council. This historic text laid the foundation for a new positive relationship and declared that the Jewish relationship with God endured.

The Vatican followed up with guidelines, issued in 1974, stating that Christians “must strive to learn by what essential traits Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experience,” and urging dialogue with a view toward “mutual understanding and respect.”

In November 1980, Pope John Paul II, speaking in Mainz, Germany, affirmed that Jews are the people “of the Old Covenant, never revoked by God.” He called Jews “the present-day people of the covenant concluded with Moses.” In 2000, the pontiff stood on Mount Sinai and took note of the moment, stating, “But now on the heights of Sinai, this same God seals His love by making the covenant that He will never renounce.”

The Pope’s powerful statements helped the nascent Jewish-Catholic dialogue develop a sense of trust and honesty.

Additional church documents and statements deepened the relationship. In 2001, the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued the report “The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible,” which talks of the permanent election of the Jewish people and suggests that its “Jewish messianic expectation is not in vain.” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, played an important role in producing this work.

Also in 2001, Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Vatican Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews, affirmed the validity of the Sinai Covenant, calling God’s covenant with the Jewish people “a living heritage, a living reality.”

But something has changed over the past three years. The Vatican ship has shifted course, and the dialogue is backsliding in a slow, subtle process that threatens the trust and honesty we have worked so hard to achieve. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI revived the Latin Good Friday “Prayer for the Conversion of the Jews,” a clear break from the previous 1970 version that avoided any mention of conversion. And this year, Pope Benedict opened the door to the potential return to the Church of a traditionalist schismatic group, the Society of St. Pius X, which rejects Vatican II reforms and whose leadership includes a Holocaust-denying bishop.

In June, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, without consultation or warning to their Jewish partners, issued “A Note on Ambiguities Contained in Reflections on Covenant and Mission,” which rejected a clear statement that there can be no attempts to convert Jews as part of the interfaith dialogue. Instead the U.S. bishops approved language that Catholic-Jewish dialogues could explicitly be used to invite Jews to baptism. They told us the change was directed by the Vatican.

On Aug. 27, the bishops announced that the Vatican had officially affirmed its decision to jettison a teaching in the American adult catechism that the “covenant that God made with the Jewish people through Moses remains eternally valid for them.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had several options to update its adult catechism, but chose instead to no longer affirm the validity of the Sinai covenant.

There is no getting around that these two documents are a one-two punch against a continuing trust in the permanence of the Catholic Church’s reform in its teachings about Jews.

Thus we find ourselves at a crossroad, one that raises more profound questions about the reasons for these changes. Why must the Bishops Conference, which has been a model to the rest of the world in forging a new relationship with the Jewish people, now issue documents that threaten to undo the dialogue’s basic foundations?  And why devalue the Mosaic covenant, which is central to Jewish self-understanding, by removing a clear affirmation of its eternal validity, therefore insinuating that the Mosaic covenant has been superseded?

The Bishops Conference speaks for a church that claims to want honest dialogue with Jews. To issue statements about Jews that demonstrate little concern for Jewish self-understanding would seem fundamentally at odds with that goal.

These are challenging times indeed for the Catholic-Jewish relationship. Still, the process is not finished, and much work remains to be done. We will voice our concerns honestly and forthrightly, with every hope that the relationship will continue on a solid footing.

We only ask that our interlocutors and friends in the Catholic Church listen to our concerns, take them seriously and try to understand why we are so pained.

(Abraham H. Foxman is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.)

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