Catholics responds to Orthodox Jews’ grave concern over proselytism and bishops’ note

Rabbi Fabian Schoenfeld / Bishop William Murphy
Rabbi Fabian Schoenfeld / Bishop William Murphy


Representatives of the U.S. bishops and two Orthodox Jewish associations met last week to discuss a recent bishops’ document on the theological and practical relationships between the two religions. Jewish participants expressed concern that the document encourages Catholic proselytism of Jews and “apostasy” from Judaism.

The discussion was part of the regular consultation between the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the Rabbinical Council of America and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the USCCB reports.

On June 18, the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine and Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs issued “A Note on Ambiguities Contained in Reflections on Covenant and Mission.” The note concerned a 2002 statement by a group of Catholic and Jewish scholars who were part of a standing dialogue between the USCCB and the National Council of Synagogues.

The clarifying note explained that the 2002 statement was not an official statement of the USCCB and contained “insufficiently precise and potentially misleading” statements. While praising the document for rightly acknowledging Judaism’s origins in divine revelation, the statement was declared “incomplete” in not addressing Israel’s “unsurpassable culmination” in Jesus Christ.

Additionally, the clarifying note said the earlier statement should not have described interreligious dialogue as “devoid of any intention whatsoever to invite the dialogue partner to baptism." Rather, all dialogue partners are “implicitly invited” to follow Christ.

According to the clarifying note, the 2002 statement also renders the possibility of individual conversion “doubtful” by implying that it is generally not good for Jews to convert, and that is it not good for Catholics to do anything that might lead Jews to conversion.

At the June 25 Catholic-Jewish meeting Prof. David Berger, head of the Jewish Studies Department at Yeshiva College in New York City, said some in the Jewish community had “grave” concerns about the clarifying note.

Prof. Berger said that Orthodox Jews can tolerate any Christian view on the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ as savior of all, but they cannot agree to participate in an interfaith dialogue that is a cover for proselytism, a USCCB press release says.

He and other Jewish participants in the discussion asked if the “implicit witnessing to Christ” effectively means a subtle attempt to convert Jews to Christianity. This would render interreligious dialogue with Catholics illegitimate and “dangerous” from an Orthodox Jewish standpoint.

“We take apostasy very seriously,” he said, referring to the abandonment of Judaism for another religion.

Father James Massa, Executive Director for the USCCB’s Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, said that interreligious dialogue for the Catholic bishops is never about proselytism or any coercive methods that would lead someone to abandon his or her religious convictions.

“The important term in this discussion is ‘witness,’” Father Massa said. “As Catholics involved in a dialogue of truth, we cannot help but give witness to Christ, who, for us, is synonymous with truth. Without acknowledging our indebtedness to God’s revelation in Christ, we cannot sit at the table and speak as Christians about how we arrive at notions of justice, compassion and building up the common good—the very values our interreligious dialogues seek to foster.”

The consultation, co-chaired by Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, New York, and Rabbi Fabian Schoenfeld of Young Israel Synagogue in Kew Gardens Hills, New York, also discussed local state issues of concern to all in the discussion.

Topics included efforts to expand tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools in New York, an issue which united both Catholic and Orthodox Jewish communities in 2006.

Participants also discussed proposed state legislation that would roll back the statutes of limitations on civil lawsuits in cases concerning alleged sexual abuse of minors, regardless of how long ago the alleged crime occurred.

The Rabbinical Council of America supports the proposed legislation, while the Catholic Church in New York believes it targets private institutions. The New York State Catholic Conference supports an alternative proposal that would include public schools in the statute of limitation changes.

The consultation was co-founded in 1998 by the late Cardinal John O’Connor. It meets to discuss moral and cultural issues that impact Catholic and Jewish life in the nation. Previous meetings have addressed anti-religious bias in the media and peace initiatives in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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