A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar.
The rabbi buys the first round, but the priest is not stingy either and buys the next. They spend a few hours telling priest and rabbi jokes, and then compare notes on pastoral problems. At closing time, they bid one another good night. The good rabbi heads off to his family, the good father to his rectory. Nobody tried to convert anybody else.
It’s no joke.
On August 12, a joint Catholic-Jewish statement hit the presses, “Reflections on Covenant and Mission ,” which declared to all the world that, in the words of Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal, “neither faith group believes that we should missionize among the other in order to save souls via conversion. Quite the contrary: we believe both faith groups are beloved of God and assured of His grace.”
This has actually been more or less the teaching of the Catholic Church since the 1960’s, when it renounced the discrimination of Christian Europe’s past to affirm Judaism as the “elder brother” in faith of Christianity, noting the critical importance of the Jewish heritage, culture, and faith of Jesus and all the early apostles and saints.
What it means is that a Jew who wishes to become a Catholic is welcome, but Catholics don’t go combing the world looking for Jewish converts. There is no assertive mission with the requisite pamphlets and slogans, as in the case of evangelical messianic group, Jews for Jesus. We don’t try to convert the Jews like we might other non-Christians.
According to Catholic thinking, such a strategy would be equivalent to saying God doesn’t keep his promises. The Bible tells us that God made a covenant with Abraham, Moses, David, and a whole lot of patriarchs, matriarchs, and prophets on behalf of the people of Israel. Pope John Paul , along with many Catholic theologians, says God hasn’t changed his mind. That covenant is still in force�God keeps his promises.
But not everyone in the Christian camp agrees. All this has set off a firestorm. It feels like a betrayal of Christian principles to some. Some are saying: If you are not really trying to talk people into becoming good Christians as the Bible calls us to, then what’s the point? We might as well all become Buddhists or secular humanists.
The Baptists are particularly ticked off. But even many conservative Catholics think it was wrong of the U.S. Catholic bishops (the Catholic side of the dialogue) to release the statement, going back on hundreds of years of actively trying to convert Jewish folk to the Christian faith. They think it a little two-faced and perhaps sounding like we’re not quite convinced of the truth of our own faith.
But the bishops’ position is basically the Vatican’s position. Has the Vatican gotten wishy-washy? This is not a charge frequently lobbed at Pope John Paul II or his curia in Rome, generally known for being on the traditional side.
Rather it seems that in matters of faith, the pope and the U.S. bishops believe that Catholics have something not only to teach but to learn. Yet for many people in this world of ours, this is not the case. To them, those they perceive to be in error have no rights at all. They see no point in wasting time listening to those they cannot convince.
In that context, to just talk�without any intent to convert or persuade�is a radical act. Aware of that, the Jewish-Catholic team meant to communicate in the document total respect for the freedom of each side in dialogue. You and I renounce any power we might have over each other and come to the table of dialogue as equal partners with something to learn. Just like our hypothetical priest and rabbi at the bar.
It’s no joke. It’s a sign of great hope.