Letter to The Jewish Advocate

Letter of Fr. David C. Michael to The Jewish Advocate

It is, perhaps, understandable that the recent Vatican document Dominus Iesus (The Lord Jesus) has caused some consternation within the Jewish community. The document seemed to come out of nowhere, and news reports have badly misrepresented its content. It is a carefully nuanced theological document that was written to address the situation of confusion in some quarters of the Catholic Church where, as a result of the experience of religious dialogue, new questions have emerged for which solutions have sometimes been proposed that are antithetical to the Catholic faith.

According to Dominus Iesus, religious dialogue “requires an attitude of understanding and a relationship of mutual knowledge and reciprocal enrichment, in obedience to the truth and with respect for freedom.” Authentic dialogue can occur only when the partners come to the table with an unambiguous commitment to their deepest religious identities. In light of centuries of Christian distortion of Judaism, Jews have rightly demanded that Christians listen to Jewish self-interpretation of Jewish identity. We have learned much as a result. Do not Christians deserve the same in return?

Dominus Iesus is a clear restatement of the Catholic Church’s deepest religious identity. Pope John Paul II articulates this masterfully in another unrelated work: Crossing the Threshold of Hope. There, when asked, “What does it mean ‘to save’? What is this ‘salvation’ which … is at the heart of Christianity?” he answers with exquisite simplicity: “To save means to liberate from evil.” He goes on to say, “To save means to liberate from radical, ultimate evil. Death itself is no longer that kind of evil, if followed by the resurrection. And the resurrection comes about through the work of Christ. Through the work of the Redeemer death ceases to be an ultimate evil; it becomes subject to the power of life. The world … does not have the power to liberate man from death. And therefore the world cannot be a source of salvation for man. Only God saves, and He saves the whole of humanity in Christ. ” (emphases in original).

That is our deepest identity as Christians, the “Good News” that we are to proclaim to all the nations – to evangelize, but not proselytize. Although this distinction seems understandable to Catholics, I have noticed that to Jews it appears, at best, tenuous. Because we believe that Jesus has saved all humanity, and that his saving work is made available to all through the Church, we are obliged to witness to our faith. This “evangelization” of words and action always implies respect for the conscience of the other. Proselytization, however, crosses a line. It is a manipulative, or even coercive, attempt to get others to change their religion.

Catholicism is not a pluralist religion, which teaches that God has provided many ways of salvation. It is, however, an inclusivist religion, which teaches that all people, even (righteous living) atheists, may be included in salvation in a way known only to God, but, nonetheless, connected in a mysterious way to Jesus and the Church. When Dominus Iesus states that the fullness of the means of salvation is found only in the Catholic Church, it is not saying that only, nor even all, Catholics are saved, but rather that when others outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church are saved, it is through those saving means which are available, fully, in the Catholic Church.

What of the implications of Dominus Iesus for our relationship with the Jews? It must be stressed that the document is not intended to address, per se, Catholic-Jewish relations, and that it also presupposes the authoritative Catholic teachings on the subject. Thus, when Dominus Iesus speaks of “other religions,” as “objectively speaking … in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation,” the document is not referring to Judaism. That is because, “the Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God’s revelation in the Old Covenant” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #839). Regarding the Jewish people, the Catechism goes on to quote St. Paul: “(T)he gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” In other words, Judaism is a true faith response to the revelation of the One God, a response that continues in its validity. How, then, to understand the intimate religious relationship between Judaism and Christianity? That would seem to be in that category of questions that, Dominus Iesus asserts, is still open to theological inquiry and articulation.

There is no new teaching in Dominus Iesus. Those who read it with care will recognize its consistency with everything the Catholic Church has taught since Vatican II. Our dialogue with the Jewish people has yielded, among other things, the rich fruits of friendship, understanding, respect and cooperation. Certainly not a waste of time in my book.

Rev. David C. Michael

Catholic Chaplain, Brandeis University
Associate Director, Archdiocese of Boston Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs
Archdiocesan Liaison to the Jewish Community