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Do I make myself perfectly obscure?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 08, 2009

Ordinarily, when you want to "clarify" a statement, you add an explanatory note. But earlier this week, when 5 prominent American prelates released a "clarification" of an earlier statement on relations between Catholics and Jews, they made the change by removing two sentences that might lead to misunderstanding about the purpose of interreligious dialog."

Fair enough, on the face of it. Sometimes a poorly worded sentence can cause confusion, and the simplest thing to do is take that sentence out. And the subject matter was certainly a delicate one.

Jewish participants in talks with the US bishops' conference have asked assurances that they would not be under pressure to convert. Fine; those assurances were given. They wanted assurances that they wouldn't be expected to convert. Again, fine. Now they want assurances that their Catholic counterparts aren't hoping that they'll convert. That's the nub of the problem.

In June the US bishops' conference issued a clarification of an earlier statement, Reflections on Covenant and Mission. (This week's statement is a clarification of that clarification. Confused already? Just wait.) The original statement, the June clarification admitted, was "insufficiently precise and potentially misleading" insofar as it "presents a diminished form of evangelization" for Catholics in their discussions with Jews.

What is the proper form of evangelization in this context? The June clarification answered that question thus:

Reflections on Covenant and Mission maintains that a definition of evangelization as the "invitation to a commitment of faith in Jesus Christ and to entry through baptism into the community of believers which is the Church" is a "very narrow construal" of her mission. In its effort to present a broader and fuller conception of evangelization, however, the document develops a vision of it in which the core elements of proclamation and invitation to life in Christ seem virtually to disappear. For example, Reflections on Covenant and Mission proposes interreligious dialogue as a form of evangelization that is "a mutually enriching sharing of gifts devoid of any intention whatsoever to invite the dialogue partner to baptism." 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.

However, that June statement raised concerns among some Jewish leaders, who pointed out that it left open the possibility that the Jews who entered into dialogue with Catholics could be asked to convert-- or at least that their Catholic interlocutors would be happier if they converted.

Here we seem to have arrived at an inter-religious impasse. If you are a faithful, orthodox Catholic-- if you believe that the Catholic Church is the one true Church, the fulfillment of the Covenant, the sole effective means of salvation-- then of course you will be delighted when any non-Catholic makes the decision to enter the Church. To renounce any hopes for converting others would be to renounce the evangelical mission that Christ entrusted to his Church. It can't be done.

Nevertheless, five bold Catholic leaders have done their utmost to satisfy the objections of the Jewish leaders. In this week's clarification, they removed the last two sentences from the quotation above. Let's take a look at those offending sentences, which "might lead to misunderstanding" between Catholics and Jews.

First:

For example, Reflections on Covenant and Mission proposes interreligious dialogue as a form of evangelization that is "a mutually enriching sharing of gifts devoid of any intention whatsoever to invite the dialogue partner to baptism." 

It's hard to imagine how that sentence could cause confusion, let alone dissatisfaction. The sentence merely summarizes what the original document (Reflections on Covenant and Mission had said, in order to set the stage for a needed correction. That correction comes in the next sentence-- which must therefore be the real source of any possible misunderstanding:

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.

The plain words of the sentence indicate that Catholics involved in dialogue with Jews should not ask their interlocutors to convert, but naturally they will be happy if their Jewish friends express an interest in Baptism. That seems reasonable enough. But these are the words that have been excised from the bishops' statement in this second effort at clarification. Why? If the critical question is whether Christians want Jews to convert, why are we deleting the one sentence that bears directly on that question? And why claim that the deletion of the most relevant passage actually clarifies the issue?

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a statement welcoming the latest clarification, proclaimed:

The bishops also affirmed the responsibility of Catholics to bear witness to Christ as "the unique savior of humankind.” At the same time, they noted that lived context shapes the form of that witness.

Thus instead of than an explicit answer to the question of how Catholics should carry out their obligation to evangelize Jews, we are left with only the meaningless statement that the "lived context shape the form of that witness."

The five authors of the latest clarification, having announced their decision to remove those two sentences from the earlier clarification, give voice to their optimism:

We hope that this effort will result in a clearer statement of Catholic belief that also respects the special relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people.

Not a chance. Clarification #2 answers no important questions. Worse, it removes the best available answer to the question everyone is asking. This is a clarification in need of a clarification.

 

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: New Sister - Oct. 14, 2009 2:38 PM ET USA

    Each time I hear a mealy-mouthed member of the clergy I almost get physically ill. Their lack of courage in proclaiming Catholic truth is starving the world.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Oct. 13, 2009 5:50 PM ET USA

    michaelrafferty is no doubt right that very few Catholics care about this---and probably even fewer Jews do. It is, nevertheless, important in the life of the Church, though probably not very important to Judaism. If Catholic hierarchs want to vitiate the Gospel's call to evangelize all the people, that's significant. If they want to repeal Romans 1:16, especially, that's worth noting, as Phil has done. I, for one, am grateful to him.

  • Posted by: William F. Folger - Oct. 09, 2009 1:14 PM ET USA

    For God’s Jewish people, potential for enormous loss of face exists for having missed their own messiah. But neither we nor Jesus want conversion that way, as gentiles also account for Jesus’ crucifixion. Cdl. George mainly clarified that proselytism is OUT, in official dialogue, and so no “#3” clarification is needed. As with the problem of Islam vs Christianity, we should give prudent mutual respect in interactions. Then God’s Truths will crystallize for all, as a FRUIT of seeking peace.

  • Posted by: michaelrafferty5029 - Oct. 08, 2009 8:34 PM ET USA

    It's pretty hard to believe that very many Catholics care one bit about this.

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