Let's clarify the purpose of interfaith dialogue

A new Latin Catholic Mass prays that God help Jews 'acknowledge Jesus Christ' as the savior.

christians in jlem 224.8 (photo credit: David Smith)
christians in jlem 224.8
(photo credit: David Smith)
A new version of a Latin Catholic Good Friday prayer regarding Jews has engendered a vigorous controversy. While omitting the original reference to Jewish blindness, the prayer expresses hope that Jews will recognize Jesus, whom it characterizes as the savior of all people, and it effectively cites a famous assertion in Romans 11:25-26 that when "the fullness of the nations" arrives, "all Israel will be saved." This material is not present in the post-Vatican II vernacular mass, which will remain the most widely used version, but the pope has approved a somewhat more extensive use of the Latin mass in its new and moderately improved formulation. A number of Jewish organizations and rabbinical groups have expressed deep disappointment at this development, in some instances suggesting that this text serves as an obstacle to continued Jewish-Catholic dialogue. The prayer has been characterized as "a regression from the path advanced by the declaration of the second Vatican Council," and one Jewish statement urges the Catholic Church "to deepen its exploration of the full implications of Nostra Aetate's affirmation of the eternal validity of God's Divine Covenant with the Jewish People." DECIDING HOW to react to such matters is not an easy task. On the one hand, I do not find fault with Catholics who believe that Jews will recognize the truth of Christianity at the end of days. I have argued on a number of occasions that there is nothing unethical about such a position, any more than it is unethical for Jews to recite the High Holiday prayers for the universal recognition of the God of Israel by nations who will forsake their current beliefs. At the same time, this prayer for the conversion of the Jews was written by Pope Benedict, who in his earlier life as Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in the Church document Dominus Iesus that a key purpose of interfaith dialogue is mission, which includes the message that conversion is necessary to attain full communion with God. Some interpreters of Dominus Iesus maintained that none of its key assertions apply to Jews because the Jewish people is already with God and requires no further change in its religion. I argued elsewhere that this interpretation is insupportable, and the pope's involvement in preparing the new Latin text underscores this argument. But I also noted that in other writings, Cardinal Ratzinger is apparently willing to wait until the end of days for Jewish recognition of the true faith. IN WEIGHING the appropriate reaction to the new text, we need to separate a number of issues, at least in an initial analysis: 1. the belief, or expectation, that Jews will accept Jesus at the end of days; 2. a shift in the status quo in the direction of more frequent liturgical expression of this expectation; 3. a prayer for Jewish recognition of Jesus as savior before the End of Days; 4. the position that one of the objectives of interfaith dialogue is, however subtly, to bring about such recognition. WITH RESPECT to point one, Jews should stop deceiving themselves that the avant-garde Christian position that Jews will not convert even at the end of days is the mainstream teaching of the Church. They should also stop trying to persuade Catholics to embrace this position, which is almost impossible to square with the traditional Christian belief in the second coming of Jesus. As to point two, I do not think it inappropriate for Jews to express measured disappointment at a shift in the status quo in the direction of more frequent liturgical expression of the expectation of Jewish conversion. This is not because of the belief itself, but because concern with a long history of efforts to proselytize Jews, not to speak of a history of persecution, argues against raising the profile of this Christian expectation. Point three is the most sensitive issue raised by this text. Had the new prayer referred only to Romans 11:25-26, it would be far less problematic. Regrettably, however, the sentence praying for Jewish recognition of Jesus is not clearly set in the context of the end of days and could consequently lead the sort of traditionalist worshipers who will be reciting this text to the conclusion that proselytizing Jews is desirable. The Catholic Church does not in fact support missionary efforts that target Jews, but there is considerable potential that this prayer will be misused. Point four is not stated in this text at all, but a prayer for Jewish conversion in a context that is not unambiguously restricted to the end of days cannot help but evoke the position expressed in Dominus Iesus that an important objective of dialogue is mission. It is this concern that most directly threatens the dialogical enterprise. At the very least, it reinforces the position of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik that interfaith dialogue should avoid quintessentially theological topics. IN THE final analysis, Jewish objections should be carefully formulated and should not indicate that the Christian belief that Jews will convert at the end of days is itself objectionable or tinged with anti-Semitism. But Jews have every right to ask the Church to declare explicitly that notwithstanding both Dominus Iesus and the possible implications of this new prayer, the purposes of interfaith dialogue exclude entirely the objective that Jewish participants come to recognize that conversion to Christianity is necessary to attain full communion with God. The writer is professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University.