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).

Take the Catholic economic justice quiz

The U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference has unveiled a website for “Catholic Teaching on Economic Life.”

There you’ll find podcasts, videos, key principles, policy papers, prayer resources and more.

There is also an “economic justice quiz,” which includes questions such as:

1. According to the 2007 U.S. Census, how many people in the United States live below the poverty line?” The choices are: 1.8 million; 5.6 million; 15.9 million; 26.7 million; and 37.3 million.

Want the answer? Look it up.

2. Which right of workers do the bishops not mention in Economic Justice for All, a Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy? The choices: to safe and decent working conditions; to choose to join together to form unions and associations; to wages without dligent work in exchange; to be treated as persons, not simply as means to a profit; to fair wages sufficient to provide for their families’ basic needs.

Okay, that’s an easy one.

3. The values of my faith lead me to believe that economic choices and institutions should be judged based on (choose one): whether they help the U.S. maintain its superpower status; preventing our country’s national debt from continuing to grow; how the poor and vulnerable are faring; how well my (or my family’s) stocks are doing.

The correct answer is obvious. But how many people would really choose another one?

4. Catholic teaching affirms that the free market (choose one): is important to promoting economic freedom, but its operation must be modified when it harms vulnerable members of society; provides equal access to wealth and success for anyone who is willing to work hard; is inherently unjust and ultimately leads to the poorest getting even poorer.

Well, these questions aren’t that difficult. But, again, you have to figure that a lot of people would consciously pick the “wrong” answer.

U.S. Catholic bishops: Skip ‘Reiki’ practice

Last month, I wrote a feature about the Westchester Holistic Network and the wide range of holistic and spiritual practices that people urge for healing.

One of those that kept coming up was Reiki, a Japanese practice for reducing stress that involves the “laying on” of hands to redirect energy within the body.

Well, the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference has ruled that Reiki is unscientific and inappropriate for Catholics. Catholic health-care institutions, they say, should stay away.

A document from the bishops offers this:


“To use Reiki one would have to accept at least in an implicit way central elements of the worldview that undergirds Reiki theory, elements that belong neither to Christian faith nor to natural science. Without justification either from Christian faith or natural science, however, a Catholic who puts his or her trust in Reiki would be operating in the realm of superstition, the no-man’s-land that is neither faith nor science.”

Have a pillow fight

Looking for a good, cheap date idea for you and your spouse?

The U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference is offering 10.

They suggest indoor picnics, being a “tourist” in your hometown and other neat ideas.

A couple of them, though, I had to read twice:


(2) “Tech-free” night. Turn off your cell phones, computer, the TV, and the lights. See what’s left to do without electricity.


Don’t worry. The next line was: “Sing old songs, have a pillow fight, recount stories of how you met, plan for the future.”

I’m still a tad confused by this one:


(6) “Evening at the Ritz.” Dress up and go to the lobby of an elegant hotel. Sit in the lounge and order a drink or snack. People watch and fantasize.

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.

Torture ban draws applause

Not surprisingly, religious groups that have condemned the use of torture on terrorism suspects are quite excited that the new president agrees.

Obama has signed an executive order banning torture. On behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Albany Bishop Howard Hubbard, chair of the committee on international justice and peace, says: “Based upon the teachings of the Catholic Church, our Conference of Bishops welcomes the executive order. Together with other religious leaders, we had pressed for this step to protect human dignity and help restore the moral and legal standing of the United States in the world.”

He added: “A ban on torture says much about us – who we are, what we believe about human life and dignity, and how we act as a nation.”

Faith in Public Life, a group of religious leaders from many traditions who advocate the pursuit of “justice and the common good,” says:

For three years, religious leaders and organizations from across the faith and ideological spectrum have worked tirelessly to end America’s torture of detainees in its custody. Today, the faith community applauds President Obama’s executive orders banning torture, closing the prisons at Guantanamo Bay and secret locations, ensuring Red Cross access to all detainees, and ending extraordinary rendition. Together, we call for continuing diligence in the effort to ensure the US government never tortures again.

No word yet from those in the religious community who may disagree…

Cardinal Egan: Say it with ‘punch’

This quotation from Cardinal Egan is flying around the blogosphere today:

“We have a very important thing to say. I think we should say it clearly and with a punch.”


Egan was referring to a statement that the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference — now meeting in Baltimore — is preparing that will ask/tell/warn President-elect Obama not to expand abortion rights. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the conference, is working on it.

Some of the statements coming out of Baltimore are increasingly aggressive.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City said this of Catholic politicians who support abortion rights (including Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius): “They cannot call themselves Catholic when they violate such a core belief as the dignity of the unborn.”

The bishops must be a bit anxious over the fact that 54% of Catholics voted for Obama, according to exit polls. But I get the feeling they are more perturbed over their inability to construct a clear message on politics and abortion.

Not that it’s easy.

But they probably want to do better than: “Catholics are not single-issue voters, but abortion is really the only issue that matters, so Catholic politicians can’t support abortion rights, but we’re not sure what to say to those who do, and most of us won’t say anything about withholding Communion, and we’d much prefer that Catholic Democrats not run for president or vice president or really any public office at all!”

Cardinal Egan, by the way, continues to draw praise from anti-abortion activists for his recent column that compares the “deceit” of abortion to the deceit of Hitler and Stalin. But he is also taking heat from many bloggers for hanging with Obama at the Al Smith Dinner and thereby sending mixed messages on abortion.

Bishops approve blessing for ‘child in the womb’

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops today approved an Order for the Blessing of a Child in the Womb, intended for use in American dioceses.

The vote was 223-1, but the release from the bishops doesn’t say who voted “nay.”

Catholic News Service says that the blessing includes: “May almighty God, who has created new life, now bless the child in your womb. The Lord has brought you the joy of motherhood: May he bless you with a safe and healthy pregnancy. You thank the Lord today for the gift of your child: May he bring you and your child one day to share in the unending joys of heaven.”

Here’s the full statement:


BALTIMORE—The U.S. bishops approved the Order for the Blessing of a Child in the Womb for use in the dioceses of the United States with a 223-1 vote November 11, at their General Assembly in Baltimore. The bishops also approved a Spanish version of the blessing with a 224-0 vote.
The Blessing of a Child in the Womb was prepared by the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities after receiving requests from dioceses for such a blessing and not finding an existing blessing for a newly conceived child. In March, 2008 a blessing was prepared and submitted to the Committee on Divine Worship. The proposed blessing is distinct from the Blessing of Parents before Childbirth found in the Book of Blessings.
The Blessing of a Child in the Womb Within Mass and Outside Mass, in English and in Spanish, upon recognitio by the Congregation on Divine Worship and the Sacraments in Rome for use in the dioceses of the United States of America, will be included in future editions of the Book of Blessings (de Benedictionibus) when the text is revised.

Catholic bishops confront election results

How are the nation’s Catholic bishops reacting to a majority of Catholics voting for Barack Obama, despite his pro-choice stance on abortion?

Here’s the AP’s Rachel Zoll from the big bishops gathering in Baltimore:


AP Religion Writer

BALTIMORE (AP) _ U.S. Roman Catholic bishops, meeting a week after the election, are re-examining how they explain church teaching after President-elect Obama, who supports abortion rights, won a majority of Catholic votes.

During the campaign, many bishops had spoken out on abortion more forcefully than they had in 2004, telling Catholic politicians and voters that abortion should be the most important consideration in setting policy and deciding which candidate to back.

Yet, according to exit polls, 54 percent of Catholics chose Obama, who is Protestant, and Vice President-elect Biden, who is Catholic. Biden also thinks abortion should be legal.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, of New York City, said that chairmen of the bishops’ national committees met privately Monday morning to begin looking at the issue. A public discussion was set for Tuesday afternoon, the final open session of the bishops’ fall meeting.

DiMarzio oversaw drafting of the bishops’ presidential election-year guide, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” The statement explained Catholic views on poverty, health care and other social issues, but also said that fighting abortion should be paramount.

Bishops posted the document on Web sites and circulated it in parishes. Church staff produced “Faithful Citizenship” podcasts and, for the first time, leaders wrote special election-eve prayers that touched on abortion and other issues.

Still, many church leaders were angered to see several prominent Catholics back Obama, citing a Democratic commitment to reduce abortion. Obama supporters said that GOP leaders had failed to reduce abortion rates and overturn Roe v. Wade.

DiMarzio said many Catholics misinterpreted or misused “Faithful Citizenship.”

“We spoke in very clear but difficult language about moral choices,” said DiMarzio. He said just aiming to reduce abortion, instead of ending it, was morally unacceptable. “Would it be OK if we just tried to reduce slavery?” he said.

Church leaders have been struggling for decades to persuade an often uninvolved flock to incorporate Catholic teaching in their daily lives. This year, as the economy sank, the prelates faced an even greater challenge gaining voters’ attention.

“People vote for lots of reasons. As we’re hearing, the overriding issue is the economy,” said Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C.

The bishops’ frustration is compounded by their task ahead: working with other religious leaders to fight what they expect will be Obama’s policies on some key issues.

John Podesta, Obama’s transition chief, has said the president-elect is considering reversing President Bush’s limit on federal spending for embryonic stem cell research.

Catholic leaders are among those who consider destroying embryos akin to killing a fetus. Obama, along with many moderate Republicans, has supported the research in an effort to find cures for diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Chicago Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said expanding embryonic stem cell research would “alienate tens of millions of people, not just Catholics, and militates against the type of unity the administration hopes to achieve.”

He said, “the common good can never be adequately incarnated in any society when those waiting to be born can be legally killed at choice.”

While the bishops agree on the goal of ending abortion, they differ on how they should persuade lawmakers — of Catholic and other faiths — to agree.

A few bishops have said Biden should not receive Holy Communion.

But Bishop W. Francis Malooly of Wilmington, Del., Biden’s home diocese, said the Democrat had called him in September, the night before Malooly was installed as bishop.

Malooly said the two agreed they would meet when scheduling allows to discuss Catholic teaching. The bishop said he did not advise Biden to refrain from Communion.

“I won’t politicize the Eucharist,” Malooly said. “I don’t want to alienate people. I want to change their hearts and minds.”

‘…we speak from the truth of human nature itself…’

I’m not sure how much the gay-marriage issue has come up at the RNC (I don’t recall having heard much).

But the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference and the Orthodox Union — which represents Orthodox Jewish congregations — have released this joint statement:

“Created in the Divine Image”

Many communities within the United States are now engaged in a new conversation on the meaning of the word “marriage”, questioning whether it should describe a union only between a man and a woman. As leaders of our respective faiths, we, as Orthodox Rabbis, communal leaders and representatives of the Roman Catholic Bishops of the United States, wish to affirm our shared commitment to the ordinance of God, the Almighty One, who created man and woman in the divine image (Gen. 1:26-27), so that they might share as male and female, as helpmates and equals (Gen. 2:21-24), in the procreation of children (Gen. 1:28) and the building up of society.

We now confront a demand that same sex unions be classified as marriage. Advocates of this position argue that to do otherwise is to engage in a form of discrimination against homosexuals. We recognize that all persons share equally in the dignity of human nature and are entitled to have that human dignity protected, but this does not justify the creation of a new definition for a term whose traditional meaning is of critical importance to the furtherance of a fundamental societal interest.

God’s design for the continuance of human life, as seen in the natural order, as well as in the Bible (Gen. 1-3), clearly revolves around the union of male and female, first as husband and wife, and then as parents. A unique goal of marriage, which is reproduction and the raising of families, exists apart from that of same sex unions, which cannot equally participate in this essential function. While others may claim the right to establish private relationships between persons of the same gender that simulate marriage, the legal classification of such relationships as marriage dilutes the special standing of marriage between a man and a woman. Since the future of every society depends upon its ability to reproduce itself according to this natural order and to have its young people reared in a stable environment, it is the duty of the state to protect the traditional place of marriage and the family for the good of society.

While others have the freedom to disagree with us, we hope that even those outside of our common religious traditions will recognize that we speak from the truth of human nature itself which is consistent with both reason and the moral life. We also call upon our local faith communities to consider carefully the long held traditions of Jews and Christians on the nature of marriage as built upon the commitment of a man and a woman desirous of establishing a family for contributing to the common good of humanity.