Pope Benedict 248.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
The Vatican said last week that it would not interfere in a conflict that has flared up between US Catholic bishops and leading Jewish groups over Catholic proselytizing.
Cardinal William Levada, the president of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Holy Office of the Inquisition), said the Vatican would leave the issue in the hands of the US Catholic Church to resolve, according to Rabbi David Rosen, director of the American Jewish Committee's Department for Interreligious Affairs.
Rosen, who met with Levada in Rome last Wednesday, said on Monday that the Vatican's decision not to get involved in the conflict was connected to the trend toward decentralization in the Church that began after the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965.
Relations between Jews and Catholics in the US have dampened after the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which represents the Church in the US, said in an official statement that interfaith dialogue with Jews should be used to invite Jews to become Catholics.
The statement fueling the tension was issued by the bishops in June to clarify a 2002 document called "Covenant and Mission."
The bishops said that the earlier document mistakenly played down the importance of sharing their beliefs and was therefore misleading.
"While the Catholic Church does not proselytize the Jewish people, neither does she fail to witness to them her faith in Christ, nor to welcome them to share in that same faith whenever appropriate," said Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut, chairman of a bishops committee on doctrine. He had said the revisions affirmed statements from the Vatican.
Jewish groups issued a response on August 18. They said that while they "pose no objection" to Christians sharing their faith, dialogue with Jews becomes "untenable" if the goal is to persuade Jews to accept Jesus as their savior.
"A declaration of this sort is antithetical to the very essence of Jewish-Christian dialogue as we have understood it," Jewish leaders said in a letter to the Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The signers were the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and rabbis representing the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements.
Levada, who replaced Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger after he became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, is responsible for elucidating the Church's theology.
According to Rosen, Levada made it clear that there was intrinsic value in conducting interfaith dialogue with Jews even without any ulterior motives of proselytizing.
He also made a clear distinction between "witnessing," or sharing the New Testament, and proselytizing, which was wrong.
The tensions between Jews and Catholics are rooted in a complex theological debate about salvation for those outside the Catholic Church.
As a result of reforms in the Catholic Church begun during the Second Vatican Conference, Catholicism's theology vis-Ã -vis Judaism changed. The Jews were seen to have an eternal covenant with God.
"There were those in the Church who interpreted this to mean that Jews did not need to embrace faith in Jesus as savior to be redeemed," explained Rosen. "Therefore, they did not need to hear the Christian message."
However, others in the Church adopted a different understanding of this eternal covenant, he added.
"Some saw it as one of God's secrets that would be revealed at some time in the future. And I believe that is the position of the pope.
"But many saw no contradiction between affirming this eternal covenant between the Jews and God while at the same time adhering to the position that Jews need to accept Jesus as savior."