I do not think it means what you think it means


It’s very easy to bond with people over shared experiences. That’s a lot of what the personal narrative essays on this website are about. What’s more exciting is when people bond over shared differences–not in spite of having different beliefs, history or culture, but because of it.

That’s why the decision of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to issue a “clarification” of an earlier 2002 document on Catholic-Jewish relations seems to be going over like a lead balloon in the Jewish community. In the words of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Unless “clarification” always means “complete reversal of previous position.” As J.J. Goldberg writes in an article in the Forward,
“A Counter-Revolution in Jewish-Catholic Ties”:

Most of the new clarifications, seen through Jewish eyes, look more like retractions of reforms we’d thought were long-settled church doctrine.

Among the earlier statement’s “ambiguities” are declarations that “both the Church and the Jewish people abide in covenant with God,” that both religions “have missions before God to undertake in the world” and that the Jewish mission “must not be curtailed by seeking the conversion of the Jewish people.” In fact, as the new statement helpfully clarifies, the “fulfillment” of the Jewish covenant “is found only in Jesus Christ.” Jews have a “right to hear this Good News” in “every generation.” And it’s the job of Christians to fill them in.

Goldberg also notes, to me most significantly, that the Council of Bishops did not discuss this with Jewish dialogue partners while it was in process or even give them a warning that it was coming out. Orthodox groups that had been part of the dialogue responded in kind, shooting from the hip with an immediate response June 29, while other Jewish groups tried to engage in discussion for a month and a half before they expressed “serious concerns” about the future of Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

Reading another piece in my local Catholic paper The Boston Pilot, “Jewish leaders say bishops’ June statement could hurt dialogue”, I had some insight into why Catholics might not understand the (to me entirely predictable!) negative Jewish reaction. Some Catholics may have had concerns that Jews were not allowed to convert to Catholicism:

By stating that the Jewish people’s “witness to the kingdom … must not be curtailed by seeking the conversion of the Jewish people to Christianity,” the document “could lead some to conclude mistakenly that Jews have an obligation not to become Christian and that the church has a corresponding obligation not to baptize Jews,” they added.

(emphasis mine)
There is a big difference between Judaism and Catholicism, and it is this: we do not think it’s a big favor to people to proselytize them. I’ve had people who were raised Catholic ask me if that was because Jews were snobs, which is funny if you know how negatively Jewish religion and culture both view proselytization. Some interpretations of Jewish law consider proselytizing coercive and a way to invalidate a conversion! It’s a very different view of what shows respect for another religious group, and I think we have to keep reaching out to each other to bond over that shared difference. 

6 thoughts on “I do not think it means what you think it means”

  • As a Catholic, albeit a bad one, I was glad to see that the Pope clarified what I think had been an error in some people’s interpretation of John Paul II’s teachings, even in statements on this site. I think it had been understood by some people as actively discouraging Catholic priests from converting Jews, even those who might want to become Catholic. That’s never been the teaching. Catholics have always taught that salvation comes through the Church and belief in Christ, who died to save us from our sins. There’s also always been a teaching that perhaps we can trust to the mercy of God to save those good people who were ignorant of Christ or never had a chance to learn about Him or join the Church. But since we don’t know for sure, we hope people will join the Church. Modern Catholics aren’t really active proselytizers, but the Church certainly does hope for more converts.

    I don’t think that necessarily precludes dialogue with other religious groups like Jews and coming to agreement on shared principles or civilized disagreement, but it’s better for all concerned that we lay it on the table what we actually believe and teach.

  • Ruth, I know what I am talking about – and I once taught in a Catholic school!  Denying history does not make it disappear.  The Catholic Church does teach that it is the “one true holy Catholic Church” – the one true Church with a capital “C”.  I am waiting for Catholics to  speak out on what the bishops have said.  You seem very concerned about what the Catholic Church says and how Catholics may react as opposed to how your fellow  Jews feel about this.  I am mightily offended, by the way.

  • Hey Alix, I think it’s important not to characterize the entire Catholic Church in this way. It’s a very big and diverse religious body and I would not feel comfortable with people saying something like this about Judaism as a whole. It’s good to communicate with Catholics how Jews feel about proselytizing, but let’s not demonize all of Catholicism. Especially not when we’re talking about what gets in the way of dialogue–we don’t want to say exactly the same kind of thing back! There wouldn’t have been a reaction from the Jewish community if Jewish and Catholic leaders hadn’t been engaged in interfaith dialogue for the last 40 years or so. A lot of folks on our site are Catholics married to Jews who are working out how to stay Catholic, and we want them to keep talking too.

  • The Catholic Church considers itself the “one true faith” and makes no bones about it – and they believe that this is “welcome news” to people who dare to disagree. If you speak to ex Catholics about why they converted out, many of them will tell you that they were tired of hearing their faith was the “one true one” and tired of being told to  feel sorry for people who did not agree.  The Catholic  Church has taken a very imperialistic and militaristic view of its mission.

  • I can’t say, because I’m not watching the Church the way you are, but it looks to me like they are focused inward and may be acting out of a desire to appease groups within the church. What do you think? It certainly makes sense to me considering what I now know from following the Jewish press about the internal politics of the Jewish community.

  • Thanks for writing this post, Ruth. The USCCB certainly hasn’t been making Christian-Jewish dialogue any easier these days. I wish I could be a bit more surprised by their persistent inability to understand what’s inherently offensive to Jews. Is it my imagination or has the Vatican become more dense during this pontificate?  

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