Catholics in U.S. told not to try to convert Jews

Baltimore archbishop, rabbi played large roles in bishops' group policy

August 14, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

In a statement culminating decades of improved relations after centuries of Catholic hostility toward Jews, a U.S. bishops' committee has stated that Jews should not be targets for conversion to Christianity.

The bishops said the "saving covenant" God made with Israel is still valid and was not superceded by the message of salvation preached by Jesus Christ.

"A deepening Catholic appreciation of the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people, together with a recognition of a divinely given mission to Jews to witness to God's faithful love, lead to the conclusion that campaigns that target Jews for conversion to Christianity are no longer theologically acceptable in the Catholic church," said the joint statement issued by Catholics and representatives of Reform and Conservative Jews.

Two Baltimore religious leaders played significant roles in crafting the statement: Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore; and Rabbi Joel Zaiman, senior rabbi of Chizuk Amuno, who represented the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism.

"It's a clear expression of the church, vis-a-vis Judaism and the Jewish people, that we're not `fair game,'" Zaiman said.

Many evangelical Christians see evangelizing non-Christians, particularly Jews, as a religious obligation. For example, during the High Holy Days in 1999, the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention urged its members to pray for the conversion of Jews.

Although the Catholic Church advocated forced conversions of Jews as recently as the 19th century, it has not been church policy to proselytize Jews for decades.

Relations between Catholics and Jews have steadily improved since Vatican II, the church council in the early 1960s that modernized many church practices. In 1986, Pope John Paul II made an unprecedented visit to a synagogue in Rome, and two years ago, he visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where he placed a prayer in a crevice asking God to forgive Christian persecution of Jews.

The document released this week is a reaffirmation of this developing theological rapprochement, but in some of the strongest and clearest language used to date, scholars said.

"It's a far more explicit statement than anything I've seen," said the Rev. Christopher Leighton, director of the Baltimore-based Institute for Christian & Jewish studies. "What was implicit was made unmistakably clear."

Eugene J. Fisher, the bishops' adviser on Jewish-Catholic relations, said the document also breaks ground in asserting that Catholics and Jews share a common religious mission.

"We're saying we can stand together before the world and witness to the one God together," he said.

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