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Vatican calls on Catholics to stop trying to convert Jews

Declaration asserts Jewish people can be saved without converting, urges Christians to work with them to fight anti-Semitism

Jews can secure eternal salvation without converting to Christianity, senior Catholic theologians said in a report published Thursday, in the latest refinement of their stance on a vexed theological issue.

Addressing a question that has long blighted relations between the two faiths, the report also unequivocally stated that the Catholic Church should not actively seek to convert Jews to Christianity, and called for the church to work to eliminate anti-Semitism.

The document, issued by the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, not only effectively affirmed that Jews can be saved independently of Jesus, but described Christianity’s relationship with Jews as a shared patrimony.

“Although Jews cannot believe in Jesus Christ as the universal redeemer, they have a part in salvation, because the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable,” the report concluded, according to a summary released to the media.

The belief that the only way to salvation is through belief in Jesus Christ is a fundamental tenet of every strand of Christianity.

But it has also been blamed for creating an evangelical tendency responsible for some of the darkest periods in the history of religion, notably the anti-Muslim crusades of the Middle Ages and centuries of Christian anti-Semitism.

Catholic Bishops at the Second Vatican Council in Rome, 1965. (CC BY-SA, Wikimedia commons)

The latest report reiterates that it is only thanks to Jesus’s death and resurrection that all people have the chance of salvation, but accepts that Jews can benefit from this without believing in him.

The authors appear to acknowledge that they are effectively squaring a theological circle.

How Jews being saved while not believing in Christ “can be possible remains an unfathomable mystery in the salvific plan of God,” they say.

The report noted that Christian evangelism to Jews was particularly sensitive issue because it involves the “very existence of the Jewish people.”

“The Church is therefore obliged to view evangelization to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views,” it said.

In concrete terms, the world’s largest Christian denomination said it neither “conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.”

The document went on to say that while Christians remain called to “bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ,” to all people, speaking to Jews about their faith should be done in a “humble and sensitive manner,” particularly in light of the Holocaust.

“A Christian can never be an anti-Semite, especially because of the Jewish roots of Christianity,” the document said, quoting Pope Francis. It further pledged to “do all that is possible with our Jewish friends to repel anti-Semitic tendencies.”

The report, which does not constitute a formal change to official Catholic doctrine, was published to mark the 50th anniversary of the close of a landmark Vatican Council that attempted to draw a line under centuries of persecution of Jews based on Catholic teaching.

The council, widely known as Vatican II, disowned the concept of collective Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus, decried anti-Semitism and emphasized the shared heritage of the two faiths.

Relations between the two faiths have warmed steadily since then, and were helped by a 1998 report from the same commission that called on Catholics to repent for their failure to do more to prevent the Holocaust while stopping short of blaming the Church as an institution for its silence under the leadership of wartime pope Pius XII.

Catholic-Jewish relations have been bolstered by the election of the current pope, Francis, who has a long-standing friendship with Argentinian rabbi Abraham Skorka, with whom he jointly published a book of conversations about issues of ethics, morality and faith.

He is due to become the third pope to visit Rome’s main synagogue when he meets members of the Italian capital’s Jewish community on January 17.

The synagogue is located just across the River Tiber from the Vatican, in an area still known as the Ghetto where, under the orders of Francis’s predecessors, Jews were confined for more than three centuries until their emancipation at the end of the 19th century.

Rabbi David Rosen, The American Jewish Committee’s international director of interreligious affairs, welcomed the new Vatican document.

“The new ‘Reflection’ document clearly repudiates replacement or supersessionist theology; and expresses an increasing appreciation and respect for Jewish self-understanding, reflected in recognizing the place of Torah in the life of the Jewish people,” Rosen said in a statement.

However, Rosen expressed disappointment the document failed to acknowledge “the centrality that the Land of Israel plays in the historic and contemporary religious life of the Jewish people,” and the groundbreaking role the Vatican II Council played in establishing diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel.

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