The central claim of supersessionism, an ancient Christian mindset that can be traced way back to the first century, is the forfeiture of God’s covenant with Jews due to their collective guilt over the death of Jesus (Cunningham 1). This ancient thinking could very well be found before the Second Vatican Council. It even found expression from Pope Pius X in a personal message to Theodor Herzl in 1904 – that the Jewish faith was the foundation of Christianity – but was replaced by the teachings of Christ (Cunningham 2).
However, in the same verse in his epistle to the Romans, Saint Paul said: “But as a chosen people, they are still loved by God, loved for the sake of their ancestors. God never takes back his gifts or revokes his choice” (11:28b-29; Jones NT 285). Along this line, the Second Vatican Council affirmed the irrevocability of the Covenant that God made with the people of Israel. All post-Vatican II bishops of Rome, from Pope John Paul II to Pope Francis, affirmed this teaching, refuting supersessionism, and even established a deeper relationship among Catholics and Jews through regular dialogues. Through this paper, I look at the various developments that have taken place to forge a new relationship among Catholics and Jews. I look at some milestones in the form of speeches given by the various leaders of the Church to enrich and deepen this new relationship.
The first impetus towards a renewed relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jews came from Pope Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council (JP2 “Address at the Great Synagogue of Rome” 178). In Nostra Aetate, the Council declared the principles which govern the relationship with the Church and non-Christian religions, including Judaism. Paragraph 4 represented a turning point in the relationship between Christians and Jews through three significant points. First, the Church discovered a bond with Judaism – that it was not outside herself, but an integral part of who she was. This bond was unique; no other religion shared this relationship with the Church. Second, the Church disapproved any imputation of ancestral blame to the Jews over the Passion of Christ. And, third, the Church declared any statement that claimed the curse of the Jews, even on the basis of Christian Scriptures, unlawful. In the third point, the Second Vatican Council finally and effectively refuted the ancient Christian viewpoint which came to be known as supersessionism or the theology of replacement.
In his first visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome in April 1986, Pope John Paul II (180) reiterated the teachings of the Second Vatican Council which expressed the Christian recognition of the “common spiritual patrimony” between Jews and Christians. Before the gathering of the Jews of Rome, the Pope declared without subtlety: “You are our dearly beloved brothers our elder brothers.” He emphasized through Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, as stated earlier, that the Jews will always be loved by God. He also reaffirmed the three points of the Council regarding the Jewish question.
In this visit, Pope John Paul II (181) clarified this attachment in the order of faith, of the “free assent of the mind and heart” through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Pope also expressed his intention to deepen the dialogue between the Church and Jews “in loyalty and friendship” (182). The focus of this Christian-Jewish collaboration, he suggested, should jointly begin by addressing the problem of morality in the field of individual and social ethics where “an acute crisis exists”, in a society “often lost” in agnostic and individualistic thoughts. He proposed that Jews and Christians act together against those threats as trustees and witnesses of the ethics expressed in the Ten Commandments in the pursuit of truth and freedom, both in Rome and around the world.
In another landmark address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1997, the Pope (“Address before the Pontifical Biblical Commission” 191) made a reference to ongoing efforts to bridge the deep divide between Christians and Jews (due to centuries of “reciprocal prejudice and opposition”) and to strengthen the bond between the Church and Jews through the Lord Jesus Christ. He reiterated that a conciliar impetus could lead to changes in the Catholic liturgy (e.g. increasing the use of Old Testament contents in the liturgical Lectionaries and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church). The Pope clarified that the mystery of Christ could not be fully expressed without a reference to the Old Testament because the Lord’s identity was deeply rooted from the people of Israel, being himself an authentic son of Israel (F 236). As such, the teachings of the Lord did not aim to abolish the old revelation, but instead to fulfill it. Indeed, it was the Old Testament which revealed to Christ his prophetic destiny. Thus, separating the Old Testament from the New Testament is depriving Christ his relationship with the Old Testament; detaching him from his roots, emptying his mystery of all meaning, and removing him from human history (192). The Pope expressed that it was not the will of the Lord that Jews be despised and ill-treated, requesting that exegesis be advanced in that direction to decrease tensions and to clear up misunderstandings thereafter (193).
Additionally Pope John Paul II’s visit to Jerusalem on March 26, 2000, generated an opportunity to affirm the roots of Christianity to Abraham and to reaafirm the distinction of the Jews as the “people of the Covenant”. The Pope also sought forgiveness on behalf of the Kingdom of God for the sins that mankind had committed against the Jews (JP2 “Prayer at the Western Wall” 207). In a short span of 14 years, Pope John Paul II walked a long road to bring the Church closer to the Jews.
After Pope John Paul II’s death, Pope Benedict XVI continued the Church’s efforts of bridging the Christian-Jewish relationship with the new goal of confirming and deepening the ties (B16 223). In January 2010, on his first visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome, the Pope reiterated the common bond between Catholics and Jews. He also declared a renewed Christian respect “for the Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament” (226).
But unlike Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI’s address openly identified the Catholic Church as “the People of God of the New Covenant” and Jews as “the People of the Old Covenant” (225). The gist of his address indicated the roles of Catholics and Jews as people of different Covenants with God. The Pope proposed a mutal understanding of the differences in the faiths of Catholics and Jews. He hoped that Jews, too, would respect this point despite their non-recognition of Jesus as the Son of God.
However, Pope Benedict XVI confirmed, as did his predecessor Pope John Paul II, that the Covenant God made with the Jews was irrevocable. He also emphasized the role of the Decalogue in guiding the faith and morals of the “people of God”, referring to Catholics, Jews, other Christians, and other non-Christian people together (B16 226). He pointed out three diverse areas of synergy between Catholics and Jews, centered on the Ten Commandments. The first area constituted the demand of the Decalogue to recognize one Lord against the temptation to construct other idols (“golden calves”), something that continues to transpire among those who do not recognize God even in present times. The second area involved the call to respect and protect life against injustices and abuses, encouraging a joint witness to the supreme value of life against all selfishness and towards the transformation of the world into a place of justice and peace (226-227). And, finally, the third area encompassed the call to preserve and promote the sanctity of family and its witness to the gift of new life (227). The Pope reiterated a combined exercise of generosity towards the poor, women, children, strangers, the sick, the weak, and the needy; all acts of mercy, which are central to the Jewish tradition.
Pope Benedict XVI (227) invited Jews for a common journey, while remaining aware of the differences of tradition, in responding to the common call from God. This common journey has already witnessed several benefits through common projects, such as the establishment of a common Catholic-Jewish teaching on creation and the environment (228). He repeated the invitation towards a joint cooperation for the good of humanity as a sign of growing fraternal love between the two communities, particularly in Rome.
The Pontifical Biblical Commission document, The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scripture in the Christian Bible, provided a scriptural account of changes in the Catholic-Jewish relationship over time (PBC 260). The Commission proposed a re-reading of one testament in the light of the other as a means to enrich and deepen the Catholic-Jewish bond (261) as well as to understand the changes this bond has witnessed through centuries.
However, the PBC (262-263) warned of certain approaches to re-reading the scriptures that might lead to errors. For instance, metaphorical re-reading enabled the reinterpretation of biblical teachings into contemporary contexts, but also created the danger of superimposing private and arbitrary interpretation of “the biblical text and the concrete reality of salvation history”. Saint Thomas Aquinas observed that this approach would only allow the reader to discover in a biblical text what he already knows. However, the literalist approach, too, although had been proven valuable, held the danger of denying the value of the allegorical method. The contemporary challenge remained this Christian interpretation that avoided arbitrariness while respecting the original meaning of the Scriptures.
The PBC (263-264) recommended an approach parallel to the development of the salvation history, which was characterized both by unity and gradual progression and realization, including respect of the reality of continuity in certain areas and discontinuity in others. This approach incorporated an openness to the unforeseen, which was the case of Christ’s mystery that failed to be anticipated by human imaginations in advance and was, thus, capable of breathing a new life and reality in the present times. As a result, it insisted that the apologetic approach in attributing probative value to the fulfillment of prophecy must be rejected (264-265). This insistence had contributed to harsh judgments of Jews by Christians based on readings from the Old Testament.
Consequently, the definitive fulfillment of the promise will be realized during the resurrection of the dead and the appearance of the new earth (PBC 265). Like Jews, Christians continue to live in expectation of something to come. The only difference in this expectation is the Christian certainty that the One who will come will be the Jesus Christ the Apostles knew and lived with. That same Jesus Christ, for Christians, is already present and active among mankind; that is, among citizens of the Kingdom of God. This provides a Christian interpretation of the Old Testament, which does not blur the differences between the Law and the Gospel, while carefully understanding the clear differences between the successive phases of revelation and the salvation history. Thus, it should be a theological interpretation that is historically grounded as well.
At present, Pope Francis continues his efforts at deepening the Catholic-Jewish relationship as two communities of God’s people. In his address to the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations in June 2013, the Pope made a more definite Catholic stand in the Church’s relationship with the Jews stating: “Due to our common roots, a Christian cannot be anti-Semitic!” (F 236). His experience convinced him that such a relationship should be based on friendship and joyful companionship with the resultant enrichment of both communities through encounter and dialogue as both groups grow as people and as believers (237).
Pope Francis believes that constructive dialogues must be characterized by a common respect for cultural distinctiveness between Catholics and Jews as well as mutual fraternal responsibility (F 237). This will show benefits in their common role as leavens of society and as a communal life-giving force for democracy. Continuing dialogue is the only means to the growth of individuals, families, and societies as the benefits of the goods of all cultures are enjoyed together in the mutuality of exchange. In his address to Brazilian leaders in July 2013, he reminded the people: “Either we stand together or we all lose” (238). In line with his theme of unity of all people, Pope Francis devalued the contemporary role of proselytism as “downright nonsense” (238). Instead, he said, the motivation must be towards understanding each other, listening to one another, and increasing one’s knowledge of the world.
The declaration of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on the inseparability of the Old Testament and the New Testament in the Christian Scriptures indirectly reaffirms the inseparability of Catholics and Jews. Without the Old Testament, the New Testament would never be able to understand the “life, death, and glorification” of the Lord (PBC 261; cf. 1 Cor. 15:3-4). Indeed, the Catholic Church believes that the relationship between the two testaments are reciprocal. The New Testament must be read in light of the Old Testament; while the Old must be re-read in light of the New.
Since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has worked to deepen the relationship between Christians and Jews through brotherly dialogues and enriching Catholic teachings with Old Testament contents. From Pope John Paul II to Pope Francis, the Church has reemphasized its stand of brotherhood through common spiritual roots with Jewish people. This relationship has deepened through the years, with each side respecting the commonalities of their roots and the differences of their respective traditions. This mutuality appears to be the direction of current Catholic-Jewish relations and cooperation. Judaism and Christianity are working together, as brothers and sisters, and responding to and fulfilling the call of God from their specific faith contexts, both in their commonalities and differences as two diverse but unified people of God.
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