Clarifying the Catholic view of the Jewish covenant

This is an interesting moment in the long journey that is…Catholic/Jewish relations.

As I’ve noted before, the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference issued a statement not long ago to clarify the church’s relationship with the Jewish people. The statement noted that while the Catholic Church does not proselytize the Jewish people, it does invite the Jews, like all others, to follow Christ.

Many Jewish leaders did not react well, and talks have been held.

Father James Massa, Executive Director for the USCCB’s Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, told the Catholic News Agency: “As Catholics involved in a dialogue of truth, we cannot help but give witness to Christ, who, for us, is synonymous with truth. Without acknowledging our indebtedness to God’s revelation in Christ, we cannot sit at the table and speak as Christians about how we arrive at notions of justice, compassion and building up the common good—the very values our interreligious dialogues seek to foster.”

The Forward’s J.J. Goldberg wrote: “Forty-four years of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation, set in motion by the Second Vatican Council in 1965 and nudged forward by thousands of hours of dialogue and theological review, appear to be in jeopardy right now, threatened by an ideological battle inside the Catholic Church.”

More recently, the Vatican has approved a revision to the Catholic Catechism that further clarifies what Catholics should believe about the Jewish covenant with God.

The first version: “Thus the covenant that God made with the Jewish people through Moses remains eternally valid for them.”

The revision: “To the Jewish people, whom God first chose to hear his Word, ‘belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ.’”

A statement from the Bishops Conference said the teaching is not new: “The clarification reflects the teaching of the Church that all previous covenants that God made with the Jewish people are fulfilled in Jesus Christ through the new covenant established through his sacrificial death on the cross. Catholics believe that the Jewish people continue to live within the truth of the covenant God made with Abraham, and that God continues to be faithful to them.”

More talks, you can bet, will be held.

A tale of how Mormon leaders came to a papal prayer service in NYC

On April 18, 2008, I attended Pope Benedict XVI’s prayer service in New York City with more than 250 Christian leaders from just about every Christian tradition around.

I didn’t know, and I don’t remember reading anywhere, that two leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were there. In the second row.

There is a extremely interesting tale of the “behind the scenes” decision-making process that led to the seating of two Mormon leaders in the summer edition of Ecumenical Trends, published by the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement in Garrison. It was written by Father James Massa, head of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Here’s the thing: Mormons consider themselves to be Christians. But the Catholic Church — and most mainstream Christian denominations — disagree.

For one thing, Mormons do not accept the Trinity. They believe the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to be three Gods who are “one in purpose,” but NOT one God in three persons.

So when the LDS church asked to be included in a papal event, the question facing Massa was: Which one?

Should he include them in the prayer service for Christians or a second meeting with representatives of non-Christian religions?

What a religious quandary!

Massa writes that the LDS leadership has been much more visible in recent years, working with other faiths on social and cultural issues. And Catholics and Mormons have a lot in common when it comes to issues of public morality, he notes.

The Bishops Conference asked the Vatican for advice, but was told that they were in a “better position than the Holy See to make the decision,” Massa writes.

He also writes:


One member of my staff wisely counseled that I speak with the offices of key Orthodox and Evangelical leaders who might register the most discomfort knowing that they would be participating in the April 18 prayer service with Mormons. Such are the ironies of today’s ecumenical engagements: Officers for Catholic Bishops calling Orthodox hierarchs and Evangelical megapastors to make sure they have no strong objections to Mormons being invited to a prayer service with the Pope! The answer came back: “Yes, they can come. But don’t make them too prominent!”


And so two members of the Quorum of the Twelve — the second-highest leadership body in the LDS church — were invited to the ecumenical prayer service for Christians.

Elder Quentin L. Cook and Elder M. Russell Ballard sat in the second row at St. Joseph’s Church.

Massa concludes his engaging piece (Ecumenical Trends is not on-line, so you can’t read it) with this:


Heaven may yet hold surprises even greater than was evident back in April 2008, when the Bishop of Rome called an assembly of Christians to prayer with the words: “Grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all”; and two Mormon elders, representing the first world religion to have arisen since Islam, responded: “And also with you.”

Is ‘witness’ different than ‘proselytism?’

I posted something recently about the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference issuing a statement to clarify the Catholic Church’s relationship to the Jewish people — primarily to note the ongoing Catholic responsibility to witness to the truth of the faith.

The bishops issued the statement because of concerns that a paper issued by Catholic and Jewish leaders in 2002 had left the impression that the Catholic Church, by recognizing the ongoing Jewish covenant with God, had resigned its role to witness to the Jewish people.

Yesterday, the Bishops Conference released a fascinating statement about a June 25 meeting in NYC between Catholic and Orthodox Jewish leaders, part of an ongoing dialogue.

The statement, a press release actually, was very blunt about Orthodox Jewish unhappiness with the bishops’ clarifying statement.

Granted, this stuff may be too “inside baseball” for many. But some (including me) are fascinated by interreligious dialogue and the very nuanced challenges that often arise.

Here is a key hunk of the Bishops Conference statement:


At the June 25 meeting, David Berger, Ph.D., head of the Jewish Studies Department at Yeshiva College, New York City, cited “grave” concerns of some in the Jewish community about the Note, which was prepared by the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine and Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

Orthodox Jews can tolerate any Christian view on the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ as savior of all, but they cannot agree to participate in an interfaith dialogue that is a cover for proselytism, Berger said.

The Note affirmed that interreligious dialogue involves “a mutually enriching sharing of gifts,” but also asserted that giving witness to the following of Christ is implicit in every faithful encounter with persons of other religious convictions.

Berger and the other Jewish participants asked if the “implicit witnessing to Christ” means, in effect, a subtle attempt to convert Jews to Christianity, which would render interreligious dialogue with Catholics illegitimate and “dangerous” from an Orthodox Jewish standpoint. “We take apostasy very seriously,” he said, referring to the abandonment of Judaism for another religion.

Father James Massa, Executive Director for the Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the USCCB, assured participants that interreligious dialogue for the Catholic bishops is never about proselytism or any coercive methods that would lead a person to abandon his or her religious convictions.

“The important term in this discussion is ‘witness,’” Father Massa said. “As Catholics involved in a dialogue of truth, we cannot help but give witness to Christ, who, for us, is synonymous with truth. Without acknowledging our indebtedness to God’s revelation in Christ, we cannot sit at the table and speak as Christians about how we arrive at notions of justice, compassion and building up the common good—the very values our interreligious dialogues seek to foster.”


I haven’t seen any statements from either of the two Orthodox Jewish groups that participated.

This could be a good time to read John Allen’s recent column, “Hard Truths About Jews and Catholics,” which raises a lot of interesting issues about the state of Catholic-Jewish relations (and how to move on from here).

Have a great 4th (whether that means today, tomorrow or both).

Explaining the excommunication controversy

If you have a chance, catch up with my FaithBeat column from Saturday about the ongoing controversy over the pope’s lifting of the excommunications of four “traditionalist” bishops, including a Holocaust denier.

For the column, I interviewed Father James Massa, the main point-man on ecumenical and interfaith stuff for the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference. He chatted with me at length about why the pope lifted the excommunications of four bishops from the Society of St. Pius X. He also explained why the members of this traditionalist group will have to change their tune on a lot of things — including their views on Judaism — before they can be fully welcomed back into the Catholic world.

By the way, the Boston Globe’s Michael Paulson wrote about Cardinal Sean O’Malley becoming the first high-level Catholic figure in the U.S. to publicly defend the pope’s move.

Paulson also has a timely piece about the always challenging and sometimes strained relationship between Israel and the Vatican. He interviewed scholar Raymond Cohen, an expert on the relationship, who says:

In Judaism, we have an idea of “argument for the sake of heaven.” We’re not a people that welcomes banal decorum, or harmony for its own sake. Difficult questions have to be argued about, and I think the Catholic Church also appreciates that. If you read the New Testament, Jesus doesn’t mind arguing. That’s a common tradition. And a relationship based upon a difference of opinion, however profound, I think is a very mutually beneficial relationship. You get to know yourself better, whether you’re a Jew or a Catholic, and also you change. This relationship has led to both sides changing.

Why did the pope do it?

Everywhere I’ve gone in recent days, people have asked me about the pope’s decision to lift the excommunication of four “traditionalist” bishops — one of whom says that no Jews were gassed by the Nazis.

People seem to be generally baffled: Who are these bishops? What’s the deal with the Society of St. Pius X, the group to which the bishops belong? Why does the pope care so much about reconciling with these folks? Doesn’t it look like the Vatican somehow endorses their views?

I decided to let someone else answer these questions. So I called Father James Massa, who is basically the point person on ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. We had a good, long chat last night, which I will write about it my FaithBeat column tomorrow.

Massa told me that he is not surprised by the vast reaction to the pope’s move, given some of the statements made by Bishop Richard Williamson about the Holocaust.

“To deny the Holocaust is an outrageous and offensive statement and is unacceptable,” Massa said.

Don’t expect to be a spectator for Benedict’s interreligious meeting

Sounds like it’s going to be a mighty tight squeeze when Pope Benedict XVI meets with representatives of non-Christian faiths in Washington on April 17.

tjndc5-5j2mqw3oedw3mggojfj_layout.jpgOnly about 200 people will fit at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, Father James Massa, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, told Catholic News Service.

About 50 spots will go to Catholics, and the rest to the pope’s guests from other faiths.

The meeting is expected to last 45 minutes or so.

Again, here are the 10 people who will greet the pope:

Rabbi Gilbert S. Rosenthal
Executive Director, National Council of Synagogues
New York, New York

Rabbi Joel Myers
Executive Vice President, The Rabbinical Assembly
New York, New York
Consultant, Catholic-Jewish Advisory Committee

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
Executive Vice President of Orthodox Union
New York, New York
Member, USCCB-Orthodox-Union Dialogue

Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed
National Director, The Islamic Society of North America
Co-Chair, Midwest Muslim-Catholic Dialogue

Dr. Muzammil H. Siddiqi
Chairman, Fiqh (Islamic Law) Council of North America
Garden Grove, California.
Co-Chair, West Coast Muslim-Catholic Dialogue

Imam Hassan Al-Qazwini
Religious Director, Islamic Center of America
Dearborn, Michigan
Member, Midwest Muslim-Catholic Dialogue

Arvind Vora
Chairperson of Interreligious Affairs, Federation of Jain Associations in North America (JAINA)
Getzville, NY

Reverend Bishop Jongmae K. Park, Ph.D.
Korean Buddhist Taego Order
Los Angeles, California

Eido Shimano Roshi
Abbot, Zendo Shobo-Ji and Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-Ji
New York

Uma Mayasekhara, M.D.
Sri Maha Vallabha Ganapati Devasthanam
Director, The Hindu Temple Society of North America
Flushing, New York