Most Jews do not distinguish between Christian sects. Many would be hard pressed to explain the difference between the Roman Catholic Church and the various Protestant denominations, let alone the eastern branches of Christianity. What Jews “know,” axiomatically, is that Christians persecuted Jews for 2,000 years, and that out of Christian anti-Semitism came the Holocaust.
But every so often there is an event that forces a reevaluation of what we “know.” The Vatican reflection on Jewish-Christian relations released this month is one such event. The document was initially hailed as a call to end Catholic proselytizing of the Jews. It is something less than that, but it is, nonetheless, both noteworthy and welcome.
The Vatican document does come out against “specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews,” as J.J. Goldberg pointed out in The Forward. But the Vatican also acknowledges that “Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also 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 Shoah.” Jews are fully entitled to respond, “No thank you.”
The Vatican document is part of a theological process that began with Vatican II in the 1960s, in which Jews and Judaism are embraced rather than spurned. The years since Vatican II have seen growing levels of cooperation between Jews and Catholics. At the same time, liberal mainline Protestant movements have largely given up their proselytizing to the Jews and have joined with the predominantly progressive Jewish community in coalitions that pursue common goals.
The one area where many Jews and liberal Protestants don’t see eye to eye is Israel. The most unflinching pro-Israel Christians are fundamentalists and evangelicals, the latter who, as their name indicates, see it as their mission to convert Jews. Just as we criticize the Presbyterian Church and United Church of Christ for voting in favor of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, there is a lingering discomfort with evangelicals — despite their support of Israel — whose goals include the conversion of Jews.
In a time of change, the Vatican document is a welcome step forward on behalf of Roman Catholicism. It is also another reminder to our community that there is more about Christianity than what we “know.”