Commentary Magazine


To the Editor:

My good friend and colleague in the dialogue, Rabbi Balfour Brickner, once quipped that there were some in his community who have a difficult time taking yes for an answer. The theological dialogue (and that is what it is) between Howard Singer and myself on the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council’s statement on the Jews would seem to be a case in point [Letters from Readers, September, commenting on Mr. Singer’s article, “The Rise and Fall of Interfaith Dialogue,” May].

Mr. Singer’s position appears to be that despite the Catholic Church’s own official teachings to the contrary, supersessionism is “central” to Christian doctrine, and therefore that it is what we mean no matter what we say. My position is that Mr. Singer, gently put, is wrong in his understanding of Catholic doctrine.

One of the essential rules of interreligious relations is that each partner alone has the right to define his or her own position. Mr. Singer’s attempt to tell Catholics what they believe violates that principle, no less than the old Christian “teaching of contempt” did with regard to Judaism.

The Catholic Church does not teach that Christianity has “superseded” Judaism or replaced it in God’s design. So, yes, Judaism is “a suitable and proper witness” to God; and, yes, Judaism “carries God’s approval,” and, yes, “Judaism in some sense has always been a if not the, true faith.” These matters, which have long since been resolved in the dialogue, present no difficulties in belief for devout Catholics today, Mr. Singer’s no notwithstanding.

Pope John Paul II, speaking to representatives of the Polish Jewish community in Warsaw, mentioned just one aspect of Judaism’s continuing “mission in the contemporary world.” Speaking of the Jewish people’s memory of the Holocaust, and uniting his voice with it, the Pope declared: “You have become a loud warning voice for all humanity . . . a saving warning. In this sense you continue your particular vocation, showing yourselves to be still heirs of that election . . .” (June 14, 1987). This deeply moving declaration, I would submit, is unambiguous. It is also a result of theological dialogue and reflection.

Mr. Singer questions how we can hold such a position regarding Judaism’s validity and still proclaim, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, “the Cross of Christ as the sign of God’s all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows.” If one believes in the incarnation (as Christians must), the logical dilemma Mr. Singer poses is only an apparent one.

God alone saves. On this Judaism and Christianity agree. But for us Christians, Jesus is “one in Being with the Father,” as our creed states. The affirmation concerning “the Cross” is comprehensible, then, within the context of the doctrines of the incarnation and the resurrection.

These affirmations, it should be carefully noted, are not affirmations about the institutional Church or membership in it, any more than the Jewish affirmation of Zechariah 14:9 (“The Lord shall become King over the whole earth; on that day the Lord shall be the only one, and His name the only one”) is an affirmation concerning membership in the Jewish people. Indeed, both have an eschatological dimension that makes them essentially comparable in the hope and faith they express.

Mr. Singer once again has raised issues that can only be dealt with properly through in-depth theological dialogue. Will he say yes to it? Or does he prefer Jews and Catholics to remain in mutual ignorance of one another’s beliefs? That is the central issue of our exchange.

Eugene J. Fisher
Executive Secretary
National Conference of Catholic Bishops
Secretariat for Catholic-Jewish Relations
Washington, D.C.

Howard Singer writes:

Eugene J. Fisher deliberately avoids confronting what I wrote. I wrote that interfaith “dialogue” will not win the respect of most Jews until the results go beyond theological declarations and affect the larger issues and events of the contemporary world. I wrote that despite benevolent statements issued by Christian groups, “comparatively little appears to have changed in practice.” I wrote that the language of theology is a morass of ambiguities permitting all sorts of woolly contradictions, thus requiring unpersuasive supplementary “clarifications” and guidelines. I wrote that, for all these reasons, many Jews suspect that the old, officially repudiated ideas still linger under the surface. I pointed to the Vatican’s apparent reluctance to recognize Israel as an example of what stirs Jewish doubts. Mr. Fisher refuses to respond to any of this and simply accuses me of “not taking yes for an answer” and trying to tell Catholics what they believe.

Mr. Fisher would narrow the “central issue” of dialogue to the question of whether Jews and Catholics will remain ignorant of one another’s beliefs. But most Jews are perfectly content to remain ignorant of Catholic theology (and, if the truth be told, of their own). Most Jews feel the only important issue is whether the Christian effort to right an ancient wrong (by disseminating more humane attitudes toward Judaism and Jews) will ever get beyond formal declarations. The problem is that Mr. Fisher thinks of theological declarations as sufficient unto themselves, while Jews see such declarations merely as statements of good intentions, not yet followed by deeds.



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