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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. 

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Author: Ruth Abrams


Ruth Abrams