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Salvation That Reopens the Door to Intolerance

September 17, 2000|Gary Greenebaum and Robert Guffey Ellenson | Rabbi Gary Greenebaum is Western regional director of the American Jewish Committee. Robert Guffey Ellenson is assistant area director for interreligious affairs for the committee

For more than a generation, Catholic-Jewish relations have been improving. Catholic and Jewish leaders have officially recognized each other as equals, partners and "brothers," and they are optimistic that such developments will trickle down to affect relations at the local, even personal level. Unfortunately, the Vatican's recent pronouncement that non-Catholic religions are "gravely deficient" in spiritual terms threatens to disrupt this progress.

For Jews, the statement comes at a time when expectations are high. The Jubilee Year 2000 promised to be a time of reconciliation and friendship between Jews and Catholics, highlighted by Pope John Paul II's visit to Israel last March. Just last month, Polish bishops issued a statement regretting the destruction of Jews in the Holocaust and renewing their pledge to fight anti-Semitism.

But now Jews are left to wonder: Is the Catholic Church committed to pursuing a friendship of equals with Jews, or are its intentions still colored by supersessionism, the long-held belief that Christianity supplanted Judaism, rendering it forever spiritually unfulfilled?

The Vatican statement, called Dominus Iesus ("The Lord Jesus"), is an attempt to reestablish fundamentals of Catholic doctrine at a time when ecumenical and interreligious thinking is on the rise. Such thinking, which enabled Catholic dialogue with other Christian groups, as well as with Jews, is based on the belief that other major faiths are equally valid as expressions of the universal human desire to relate to and understand the divine.

The Vatican document departs from this idea. It proclaims that religions that do not subscribe to the doctrine of salvation through Jesus alone are in "a gravely deficient situation" compared with Christians, who have "the fullness of the means of salvation." It upholds the equality of individuals but refuses to respect equality in the "doctrinal content" of other faiths. Most alarming to Jews, the document states that in its interfaith dialogue, the church "must be primarily committed to proclaiming to all people the truth definitively revealed by the Lord, and to announcing the necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ."

Although the document declares that it presents no new doctrine, it represents a dramatic retreat from the church's position as it has evolved over the last 35 years. The 1965 statement Nostra Aetate ("In Our Time"), which encouraged Catholics to enter into dialogue with other faiths without the intention of converting them, asserted that the doctrine of Jesus as the sole redeemer of humanity was still a fundamental part of Catholic belief. But the church chose to set aside this theological position and to focus instead on the "mystery" of God's relationship with other faiths. The facts that 12 million Jews survived the Holocaust and Israel was founded were regarded as evidence that God's covenant to sustain the Jewish people is still in effect, even though it cannot be fully explained in Christian terms.

Its willingness to set aside preconceived doctrinal judgments made possible the Catholic Church's commitment to fight persecution of Jews in the world and to root out elements of anti-Judaism within its own teachings. It also made possible the Vatican's official recognition of Israel in 1994 and the pope's visit there. These were the first fruits of a dialogue whose focus was building mutual respect based on understanding of each other's history, beliefs and sensitivities.

Now, the Catholic Church appears to be retreating from its more open policies in favor of more restrictive theological views. Intimations of this change became apparent last year, when several Vatican leaders announced that they were no longer interested in discussing such "political" issues as religious anti-Judaism and the Holocaust and would rather seek out Jewish partners to discuss theology. If Dominus Iesus represents the kind of theological discourse that the church intends to advance, the Jewish world must proceed cautiously in joining it. We must be careful not to return to a dialogue in which the conclusions about Jews and their spiritual validity have already been decided, to their detriment.

One explanation for the document's release is the intensification of the debate between conservative and progressive factions within the Vatican. At the twilight of John Paul II's pontificate, which has been remarkably progressive on ecumenical and interreligious issues, conservatives are seeking to reaffirm the central doctrines that give the church its authority. Among them is Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a chief author of Dominus Iesus, who states in an upcoming book that "Catholics don't want to impose Christ on the Jews, but they are waiting for the moment when Israel, too, says yes to Christ."

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