In a significant 2015 initiative, a national Catholic-Jewish dialogue was launched in Canada. But topping the list of major recent developments is the release last month of the Vatican document, “The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable.” The title comes from Romans 11:29 and is fitting for a theological reflection that establishes a new benchmark in Catholic-Jewish relations.
Produced by The Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, the text is not a magisterial document or a doctrinal teaching of the Church. Yet it is profoundly significant in that it underlines the hope-filled state of affairs between Catholics and Jews. Books could be written on any one of the seven important topics addressed in the document. Here, time and space only permit a brief comment on just one of those topics — the salvation of the Jews.
For some, it may come as breaking news to learn from this document that the Catholic Church does not have a mission to the Jews. It will surprise many Catholics to learn that they are to refrain from any active attempt to convert the Jews.
Such an acknowledgement may appear contradictory to the historical understanding of Church teaching in the past. Yet, whatever might have been negatively said or understood in the past, the doctrine of the Catholic Church never categorically stated that the Jews were deprived of salvation. Now, as a result of this timely document, Catholics have been presented a clear confirmation that converting the Jews is not part of the mission of the Church.
This document explicitly confirms that, “there can be only one path to salvation, however, it does not in any way follow that the Jews are excluded from God’s salvation because they do not believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God.” The text further specifies that St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, not only gives expression to his conviction that there can be no breach in the history of salvation, but that salvation comes from the Jews (Jn. 4:22).
The document also instructs that “God entrusted Israel with a unique mission, and He does not bring his mysterious plan of salvation for all peoples (1 Tim. 2:40) to fulfillment without drawing into it his ‘first-born son’ (Ex.4; 22).” The Israelites, the text stresses, “remain most dear to God, for he does not repent of the gifts he makes nor of the call He issues, (Rom. 11:8-29).”
More explicitly, the document reminds us that God reveals Himself in His Word. For the Jews, this word is present in the Torah. For Christians, the same Word of God is incarnate in Jesus Christ. Yet, given the indissoluble unity and indivisible reality, the Word of God calls all people to respond in such a way that enables them to live in the right relationship with God.
It is true and acceptable that both Testaments, old and new, are interpreted differently by Jews and Christians on the basis of their respective religious traditions.
For Christians, the Old Testament is to be interpreted as being fulfilled by the New Testament. The document reinforces the significant point that although Jews cannot believe in Jesus Christ as the universal redeemer, they have a part in salvation, because the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. How that can be possible remains an unfathomable mystery. For some Catholics this new understanding may require an attitude change, while for Jews the same instruction brings a message of glad tidings, which together we do well to celebrate with great joy.
Though the mystery remains unfathomable, it is important that theologians and biblical scholars continue to probe the depths of this mystery, inviting even more evidence and certainty surrounding the position that the Catholic Church has no mission to the Jews. With this commonly accepted understanding, it might be said that dialogue between Jews and Catholics — and indeed all Christians — becomes even more important. Such dialogue can only result in the development of a deeper partnership.
Going forward, Catholics and Jews share a responsibility to further galvanize the historical gift of their common understanding regarding salvation. It truly is good news which invites behavioural change for both Jews and Catholics, and indeed all Christians.
(Fr. MacPherson, SA is Director for Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs for the Archdiocese of Toronto.)