Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI has commended continued dialogue and mutual affection between Christianity and Judaism, while also calling for the conversion of Jews.
On Thursday, the pope met a delegation from the American Jewish Committee (AJC) at the Vatican, and urged Christians and Jews to "to build bridges of understanding across all barriers." He spoke of the "rich common patrimony" of Christians and Jews that "distinguishes our relationship as unique among the religions of the world," and called for a "dialogue characterized by mutual respect and love."
But the day before, speaking to 30,000 pilgrims gathered in St. Peter's Square in Rome, Benedict inaugurated a new series of weekly catechetical lessons by making an appeal for the conversion of Jews.
The pope told the crowd that the 12 apostles symbolically stood for the 12 tribes of Israel. "By their mere existence, the 12 - called from different backgrounds - have become a summons to all Israel to conversion, and to allow themselves to be reunited in a new covenant, a full and perfect accomplishment of the old," he said.
The leader of the AJC delegation and president of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, Rabbi David Rosen, told The Jerusalem Post that while the pope's call for conversion "could easily be misread," there was no contradiction in the pope's two addresses.
The pope was speaking "theologically" about the "end of time" and "not issuing a call to convert people today," Rosen said. The pope believes it to be "highly inappropriate" to proselytize Jews, Rosen said by telephone from Rome.
Unlike certain Christian churches "where the elements of error have crept in, in [Judaism] there is nothing false," the pope told Rosen.
Meeting with German rabbis in the synagogue of Cologne on August 19, 2005, Benedict said: "In those areas in which, due to our profound convictions in faith, we diverge... we need to show respect and love for one another."
Questions over conversion were last sparked by an August 2002 report released by the US Catholic Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. In a joint statement released with the National Council of Synagogues, the bishops said "targeting Jews for conversion to Christianity" is "no longer theologically acceptable in the Catholic Church."
Other Catholic leaders repudiated the statement. Cardinal Avery Dulles, one of the Church's leading theologians, said this view "does not forthrightly present" Catholic teaching or Pope John Paul II's view that the "Church is the ordinary means of salvation and that she alone possesses the fullness of the means of salvation."
However, the leader of the Catholic Church's interfaith efforts with Jews, Cardinal Walter Kasper, agreed with the American bishops.
"This does not mean that Jews in order to be saved have to become Christians; if they follow their own conscience and believe in God's promises as they understand them in their religious tradition, they are in line with God's plan, which for us comes to its historical completion in Jesus Christ," Kasper said in a November 2002 interview.
Rosen noted that the difficult historical relationship between Catholics and Jews had improved in recent years through high-level talks between the Vatican and Jewish groups.
For example, on February 28, the Vatican and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel released a joint statement denouncing euthanasia. The Chief Rabbinate's participation in the dialogue, Rosen said, "is a sign of how far the Catholic-Jewish relationship has advanced, unparalleled by any other relationship that Judaism has with any other religious denomination."