Catholics Called Wrong Not to Evangelize Jews

Religion News Service/September 7, 2002

Argument: Southern Baptist officials say Catholics' agreement not to try to convert them denies Jews salvation. Jewish groups are outraged at claim.

Nearly a month after Catholics and Jews signed a joint statement that underscored a new understanding on salvation, the document continues to cause controversy, and has driven a wedge between Jews and evangelicals in the nation's largest Protestant church.

The Aug. 12 statement, signed by representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Council of Synagogues, said Catholics should no longer try to evangelize Jews because they "already dwell in a saving covenant with God."

Trying to convert Jews is "no longer theologically acceptable in the Catholic Church" because of a recognition of a "divinely given mission to Jews to witness to God's faithful love," the document said.

Such sentiments did not sit well with some Protestants.

Soon after the document was issued, the director of Jewish outreach for the Southern Baptist Convention said "there can be no more extreme form of anti-Semitism" than to deny Jews a chance to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ.

"Asking Christians to abandon evangelism, even for a single ethnic group, is akin to asking Jews to eat ham and cheese sandwiches," Jim Sibley told Baptist Press, the denomination's official news service.

Touching a Nerve

In many ways, there is nothing new about the Jewish-Catholic understanding on salvation or the Southern Baptist insistence on evangelizing. But, with the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11 looming with all its pleas for interfaith understanding, the controversy has touched a nerve that underlies religious relations.

It also exposes the complex relationship between Jews and evangelicals; Jews are grateful for evangelicals' strong support of Israel, but they cannot accept the Baptist belief that non-Christians are destined for hell.

Sibley's comments riled the Anti-Defamation League, which called his remarks "the height of hypocrisy." The ADL has long been critical of the Southern Baptists' outreach to Jewish groups.

"To suggest that the Catholic Church ... is engaging in extreme anti-Semitism is offensive and completely absurd," said Abraham Foxman, the ADL's national director.

War of Words on TV

The public war of words also spilled over to the rambunctious realm of talk television. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., dueled with pop culture guru Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on Phil Donahue's show on MSNBC.

"I can't compel any person to believe in Christ, but I do have the responsibility, with gladness and joy, to share the good news of the Gospel, knowing that all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ shall be saved, whether Jew or gentile," Mohler said.

Boteach, visibly angered by Mohler's remarks, called him a "spiritual Neanderthal with repulsive, revolting views" and a "liability to Christianity."

And the ever-controversial Jews for Jesus movement, which believes that Jesus is the messiah that Jews have been waiting for, also stepped in. David Brickner, the group's executive director, said the bishops had "crossed the line" and betrayed their responsibility to spread the Gospel.

"Jews need to hear the Gospel. Period. Excluding my Jewish people from Christian witness is theologically and biblically untenable, yet this is exactly what American Catholic bishops" did, Brickner said.

Baltimore Cardinal William Keeler, the bishops' top ecumenical liaison, applied the brakes. In a mid-August statement, he cautioned that the document does not represent official policy of either the bishops' conference or its ecumenical committee.

Reflection Encouraged

Keeler said the only real power of the document is to "encourage serious reflections on these matters" by Jews and Catholics. He left the door open for individual Jews to make the choice to become Christians.

Rabbi A. James Rudin, the former interreligious affairs advisor for the American Jewish Committee, said the issue raises some important questions for evangelicals when leaders of the country's largest church--Catholics--no longer see evangelization of Jews as a priority.

"It puts the evangelicals in a bit of a theological corner," said Rudin, a veteran of Christian-Jewish dialogue. "If the Catholic Church is not seeking the conversion of Jews, then why are [evangelicals] doing it?"

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