The Church’s Jewish dimension needs to be recovered, Prof. Gavin D’Costa tells Colm Fitzpatrick
In Andrew Marvell’s sardonic 17th Century poem, ‘To His Coy Mistress’, the poet submits that he would spend all of time trying to court a beautiful woman even if this entailed being forthrightly rejected. His steadfastness is described in theological terms: “Love you ten years before the flood, /And you should, if you please, refuse / Till the conversion of the Jews.”
The point Marvell was making is that the notion of the Jewish people being converted to Christianity is so distant and beyond imagination, that it would truly take an eternity to be accomplished, if even possible.
Of course, whether Jewish people need to be converted has been a contentious and widely debated topic in Church history. Making a more concrete move on the issue, the Vatican rocked media headlines in 2015 when it released a landmark document confirming that it neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed to the Jews.
The document, ‘A Reflection on Theological Questions Pertaining to Catholic-Jewish Relations’, written on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate which came out of the Second Vatican Council, maintains that the Church is obliged to view evangelisation to the Jews in a “different manner from that to people of other religions and world views” (40).
Given the confusion this message has created across the religious world, Gavin D’Costa, Professor of Catholic Theology and Head of Religion and Theology at the University of Bristol, hopes to shine a light on the issue as part of the annual Irish Ratzinger Symposium on February 16.
Speaking ahead of his talk, where he will lecture on the topic ‘A disputed question in Catholic theology: Is there any mission to the Jewish people after the Second Vatican Council?’, Prof. D’Costa told The Irish Catholic that he wants to explain why the Church’s “change of attitude towards Judaism” continues to grow.
“Now we’re just slightly 50 years further down the line and I’m wanting to look at the most recent document which came out of Rome which had the amazing line that the Catholic Church shouldn’t carry out any institutional mission towards Judaism.
“So, I’m wanting, number one, to explain the background to how that claim comes about after 2,000 years of mission to all men and women and all nations,” he said.
Prof. D’Costa added that the whole question of mission is often misunderstood, pointing out that it is certainly not the case that Catholics should not be witnessing to Jesus Christ in terms of being the way, the truth and the life, but that it’s important to remember there are other pathways to salvation, as the story of God’s relationship with the Jews indicates.
This understanding of Jewish salvation radically diverges from the traditional approach by the Church prior to Second Vatican Council.
“The traditional position, and I say traditional but it was never authoritatively taught – so we’re not talking about what the magisterium said, we’re just talking about the theological culture – that Judaism had come to an end after the coming of Jesus Christ. It served its purpose as a preparation and now that Jesus has come, those Jews who reject Christ have forfeited the Covenant. They’ve lost their relationship with God,” Prof. D’Costa explained.
“In effect, from a traditional position which says Jews are out of the pale, Vatican II says ‘No’ – the Covenant that God makes with the Jewish people is still valid. And then after you say that, you have to go down the line of addressing a whole series of questions, one of them is the one I’m talking about.”
Indeed, so momentous was this shift concerning Jewish salvation, that it was one of the main causes for the ecclesial split that lead to the establishment of The Society of St Pius X (SSPX).
“Catholics have always said Jews go to hell because they rejected Christ – now Catholics are saying Jews are in God’s book and that’s like overturning centuries of teaching. There was a real kick-back on Vatican II on that issue,” Prof. D’Costa said.
“I would say there are still many pockets of anti-Judaism within the Church today. So, it’s not like a problem solved, it’s just like a process that’s happening.”
While some people have interpreted the 2015 document as saying that Jesus is irrelevant to the Jewish people, Prof. D’Costa explained, that in a way, Jesus could never be irrelevant to his own people, and that inter-religious dialogue about the Messiah is needed between Christians and Jews. This is echoed in the document which states that while there is a principled rejection of an institutional Jewish mission, Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ to Jews, although they should do so in a humble and sensitive manner, acknowledging that Jews are bearers of God’s Word, and particularly in view of the great tragedy of the Holocaust.
Alongside this exploration of Jewish mission, Prof. D’Costa also intends to delve deeper into the Jewish component of the Church, which is often neglected or ignored.
“I want to talk about that element of the Jewish nature of the ecclesia which is if you like not only going back to the time of Jesus when in effect the Church was a Jewish enterprise, and not a gentile one at all,” he says.
“So, you know they go down to the Temple, they partake in the offerings, Jesus is seen as the Jewish Messiah and what it means for the recovery of the Church’s Jewish dimension and its possible connection with a new form of witnessing that the Catholic Church can do.”
It certainly seems from listening to Prof. D’Costa that the relationship between Jews and Christians will continue to grow deeper and more intimate, as the story of salvation unfolds.
Prof. Gavin D’Costa’s talk takes place on Saturday, February 16 from 11am-1pm at St Catherine’s Chapel, St Saviour’s Priory, Dublin 1. For more information email: Mary Frances McKenna at firstname.lastname@example.org