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Christians and Jews in Dialogue

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 24, 2009

Now that the USCCB has shored up the deficiencies in Reflections on Covenant and Mission (see A Significant USCCB Self-Correction), the Director of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, has expressed concern:

This document, if taken at face value, reintroduces the notion that Catholics can use interfaith dialogue as a means to invite Jews to Christian baptism. If so, then it is unacceptable, for such a statement would foster mistrust between Jews and Catholics and undermine years of work building a positive relationship based on mutual trust and respect of our differences in faith.

Now there are two manifest reasons for anyone to engage in interfaith dialogue. The first is to seek mutual understanding, which in turn dissipates prejudice and promotes mutual respect. This is always good in and of itself. The second is to enable the other party to understand one’s own beliefs in the hope that the other will recognize the truth of those beliefs and so grow to share them. It is unreasonable for anyone convinced that his religious beliefs are true to suspend this hope. In fact, it would be a great sign of disrespect to do so. This second purpose is good in direct proportion to the truth of one’s own position.

In religious dialogue, the presumption is that both parties will be enriched by recognizing the truths to which each adheres. Truth is the mind’s conformity to reality, and it is a very real evil for any mind to fail to so conform. Such a failure severely limits a person’s ability to perfect himself and fulfill his ultimate purpose. Therefore, only a relativist can engage in interfaith dialogue purely to foster mutual understanding, without any hope that truth will be better perceived, and that those who perceive it will act accordingly.

This does not mean that a Catholic will use every opportunity for discussion with Jews to press them to become Catholics. But as the USCCB’s clarification clearly stated, it does mean the following: “Though Christian participation in interreligious dialogue would not normally include an explicit invitation to baptism and entrance into the Church, the Christian dialogue partner is always giving witness to the following of Christ, to which all are implicitly invited.” Clearly if a particular meeting has been formally set aside as an opportunity for religious dialogue, it would likely prove to be dishonest to use it for an explicit invitation to Baptism. As in any relationship with persons who do not share our beliefs, the decision about if or when to explicitly invite a Jew to become a Catholic must be made with sensitivity, prudence and love.

Particular care is required in the case of Catholics and Jews because Catholics recognize the validity of the Covenant with Israel, whereas Jews do not recognize the validity of the New Covenant. For this reason, Christians have a genuine respect for what they term the Old Covenant, and for the whole history of God’s dealings with Israel. Anything which minimizes that respect would strike a false note. In fact, this history and this covenant constitute an essential part of Christian salvation history. Nonetheless, while recognizing that the covenant with Israel is a real covenant with God, Christians believe that this covenant, in both the law and the prophets, has been brought to fulfillment by Jesus Christ, in Whom the Jewish people are now called to put their faith, maturing from a preliminary and temporal covenant of the flesh into a final and permanent covenant of the spirit.

The very first Christians were Jews who believed that Jesus Christ was their Messiah, and that His purpose was to inaugurate a new and imperishable Covenant with all, both Jews and gentiles. Anyone who has entered into that covenant quite rightly wishes that everyone else will experience the same benefit and the same inexpressible joy. Indeed, anything less would constitute something far worse than disrespect; it would be a gross failure of charity, a more or less deliberate withholding of that love to which all of us are equally and supremely called. Christ was crucified for all, and Christ is risen for all. But He was also a Jew, and He said Himself that "salvation is from the Jews" (Jn 4:22). Catholics must not call that birthright into question. Precisely for this reason, and no matter how strict the dialogue, the Catholic must always be an implicit instrument of the Messiah's invitation to Faith. 

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