The Pope on Jesus as the Saviour of the Jews

In 2002, a group of scholars under a committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a document together with some Jewish scholars called “Reflections on Covenant and Mission”. Last year, the USCCB issued its own statement “A note on ambiguities contained in Reflections on Covenant and Mission“. Covenant and Mission had suggested that since Christ gave his command to “Go and make disciples” in reference to the “nations” (explicated in the text of that document as “Greek = ethn?, the cognate of the Hebrew = goyim; i.e., the nations other than Israel”), the Church should not engage in outreach to Jews seeking their conversion and baptism.

Complicating the issue since the release of “Covenant and Mission” was the Motu Proprio “Summorum Pontificam”, which revived the 1962 Missal, including the prayer for the conversion of the Jews in the rites of Good Friday. You all remember this.

Well, as well as the comment about condoms in the new book “Light of the World” (which, by the way, Ignatius Press won’t sell to anyone in Australia because of legal distribution restrictions – you have to talk to the Central Catholic Bookshop for this one), he made the following comment about these issues:

A change also seemed necessary to me in the ancient liturgy. In fact, the formula was such as to truly wound the Jews, and it certainly did not express in a positive way the great, profound unity between Old and New Testament. For this reason, I thought that a modification was necessary in the ancient liturgy, in particular in reference to our relationship with our Jewish friends. I modified it in such a way that it contained our faith, that Christ is salvation for all. That there do not exist two ways of salvation, and that therefore Christ is also the savior of the Jews, and not only of the pagans. But also in such a way that one did not pray directly for the conversion of the Jews in a missionary sense, but that the Lord might hasten the historic hour in which we will all be united. For this reason, the arguments used polemically against me by a series of theologians are rash, and do not do justice to what was done.

Of course, this book is not magisterial teaching. As the Pope wrote in the preface to “Jesus of Nazareth”, “Everyone is free to contradict me.” But on this issue, I don’t think we will.

What I do find interesting is that the Pope rules out prayer “for the conversion of the Jews in a missionary sense“. What does he mean by this? Any ideas?

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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18 Responses to The Pope on Jesus as the Saviour of the Jews

  1. Terra says:

    The answer is easy: Covenant and Mission is not magisterial teaching, and frankly, as more than a few commentators have pointed out, is just plain wrong!

    The Gospels are full of injunctions to convert the Jewish people; the invitation to the gentiles is an added extra not an alternative. And there is plenty of existing magisterial teaching to support this….

  2. matthias says:

    Perhaps he is wary of zealous people who pray for the Jews as if they were pagans,who in their prayers denigrate the jewish observance of the Law and the Sabbath ,and who ignore what the Pope has quite rightly called the “profound unity between Old and New Testament.” But as Terra rightly points out the Gospels are about the conversion of the jews first and then the Gentiles. Perhaps Schutz you could get onto the websites of those jews who have joined the Catholic Church

    • Tony says:

      … the Gospels are about the conversion of the jews first and then the Gentiles.

      I just can’t get my head around this language. What does it actually mean in a practical sense?

      For example, if I have a fanatical Jewish neighbour on one side and an open-minded, searching agnostic on the other, does it have implications about how I relate to them?

      • Peregrinus says:

        I don’t want to put words in Matthias’s mouth, but the Gospels give us abundant examples of Jesus calling his fellow-Jews to conversion, and rather fewer of him addressing a similar call to those of other nations.

        Of course, Jesus never calls them to stop being Jews, or to stop observing the Law or to stop practising Judaism. The course of events since then has led to a situation in which a Jew who converts to Christianity is understood by most Christians and all Jews to be converting from Judaism – he ceases to be a Jew, or to live as a Jew – and this (and a long history of Christian antisemitism) in turn leads to a situation in which Jews hear “missionary” or “evangelical” and think “hostile”.

        I suggest that when the pope says that we should not “pray directly for the conversion of the Jews in a missionary sense”, part of what he is getting at is that Jewish nuance on “missionary”. The conversion to which Jesus called his fellow Jews was in no way inconsistent with or a departure from Judaism, and we need to expand our understanding of “mission” to recover that.

  3. Terra says:

    Peregrinus – Um Council of Jerusalem c50 AD, Acts 15, resolved the question about the necessity of continuing Jewish practices, viz they don’t need to. Are you seriously suggesting that 1960 years of tradition should be overturned now?

    • Peregrinus says:

      Hi Terra

      The Council of Jerusalem addressed the question of whether [i]Gentiles[/i] embracing Christianity were required to observe the Law. It didn’t discuss at all the question of whether [i]Jews[/i] who embraced Jesus as Messiah were thereby exempt from observing the Law, and the evidence from Paul suggests that many Jewish Christians did not regard its decision as referring to them.

      The question arose in a context in which Christianity was understood – internally and externally – as a movement of Judaism. Undoubtedly, it played its part in creating the climate in which Judaism and Christianity irrevocably separated, but that didn’t happen until rather later, and had as much and more to do with the Jewish wars and their outcome and aftermath.

      There’s been a great deal of history since then, but the fact remains that Jesus called his fellow-Jews to a conversion which did not involve any compromise of their Judaism. We know, therefore, that such a conversion is conceivable, is possible and has Authoritative sanction. We also know that the call to conversion which the church has historically addressed to the Jews is not a call of that kind. The challenge for us is to bridge that gap.

      • Schütz says:

        And it is one hell of a conceptual challenge, Perry. Whatever the Holocaust may mean for either Jews or Christians, one thing it has meant is that neither can do theology of the other in quite the same way anymore. But, as St Paul might have said, what we shall be is far from clear at this point. How does a Christianity which has been decidedly gentile for 1700 years manage to reconnect with its Jewish roots, and how does it manage to reconnect with a Judaism that is also 1950 years removed from 2nd Temple Judaism?

        • “Whatever the Holocaust may mean for either Jews or Christians, one thing it has meant is that neither can do theology of the other in quite the same way anymore.”

          Is this some kind of ‘Holocaust dispensationalism’?

  4. Jim Ryland says:


    This pope is a thinker, deep and broad. He is also a powerful doctrinal theologian and writer. The sense that I come away with here is that evangelical outreach to other nations takes on the form of a complete conversion. The Jews are already a people of the Book and Covenant. Outreach to them should be a call to expand their faiith and to recognize the Saviour.

    An example (and I do not hold it up as a shining one) would be the organization, “Jews for Jesus”. They remain wholly Jews in observance but also accept the divinity and teachings of Jesus as well as the Eucharistic Sacrifice.

    The councils, both early and late, by their very nature suffered many of the same woes as any parliamentary body… political ambitions, posturing, and “pork-barrels”. The Council of Jerusalem may simply have missed the mark or simply meant to negate the idea that old practices need to continue if the convert is a Jew.

  5. Schütz says:

    A thought worth considering, which only came to mind recently reading something on eschatology:

    The Jewish people in the 2nd Temple period (Jesus’ time) believed that one of the signs of the drawing near of the “age to come” would be the conversion of the gentiles. This must have been a major impulse in St Paul’s drive to proclaim the gospel to the gentiles, and explains something of the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations”.

    So: in the 1st century, it was the conversion of the gentiles which was the eschatological theme.

    Today, more than partly due to St Paul’s teaching in Romans 9-11, it has become precisely the opposite: now the eschatological “marker” is the “conversion of the Jews” to faith in Jesus as the true Messiah of God.

    This is quite a radical turn around, and it needs to be recognised if we are to discuss this matter intelligently.

  6. Stephen K says:

    Very interesting, David. It prompts me to reflect that, at least as the Gospels on the whole portray his teaching, Jesus did not appear to emphasize difference between gentile and Jew in his call to the “kingdom”. Yet, Christianity has become very gentile. The conversion called for, it seems to me, is not then to “Christianity”, but to “the kingdom”, for both Jew and gentile, as Jew and gentile respectively.

    • Schütz says:

      Yes, I think that is a good way to put it. When you read Paul’s epistles, you sometimes get the impression that he is contrasting “Christainity” with “Judaism”, when in fact he is calling both Jew and Gentile to receive the good news of the Messiah Jesus.

  7. Terra says:

    Hmm, I’m not so sure that we have become a ‘very gentile’ religion at all. If you define Judaism as adherence to the 613 laws in the Torah plus the volumes of Rabbinic law that has accumulated since then, then yes, we are not very Jewish.

    But Christianity defines itself as being in continuity with the Old Testament, and seeing its full and real meaning in the light of the New, and in that sense we are very Jewish indeed! I’m not a great Scott Hahn fan, but his book on Revelation (The Lamb’s Supper) provides a useful perspective on the mass as being firmly rooted in Jewish worship traditions (as well as the NT) for example, and so is perhaps helpful in this context.

    The reality is that the debate at the Council of Jerusalem was sparked by the ongoing tussle between those who continued to insist on strict adherence to the law for all (Jew and Gentile alike) and those who didn’t, as St Paul’s famous rebuke to St Peter and various other incidents make clear. In a number of places St Paul makes concessions to the Judaizers in the interests of keeping the peace, but he is quite clear that the New law displaces the Old: baptism replaces circumcision, etc. It was a direction that was clearly foreshadowed by Our Lord on a number of occasions, and the cause of much of the pharisee reaction to him!

    And there were continued exchanges between the two sides in the first several centuries as illustrated in the highly polemical writings of many of the Church fathers. Sociologist Rodney Stark for example has argued that in the light of them that in fact most of the converts to the Church in the first few centuries were Jewish not Gentile. He also thinks both sides took steps to differentiate themselves more clearly so that you had to be clear where you stood, and couldn’t flit backwards and forwards between the two camps!

    And there is a reason for that: rituals embody, teach and reinforce what we believe (lex orandi, lex credendi). Trying to maintain Jewish practices after conversion would simply reinforce the idea of adherence to 613 rules as a way to salvation rather than the Christian message about love as the most important of the theological virtues.

    That’s why the Church made the decision it did at the Council of Jerusalem, and why no one should attempt to change that now.

    Oh, and also why we should continue to pray for and work for the conversion of our Jewish friends to Christ, and work and hope for God to bring about that prophesized mass conversion, using whatever words seem most appropriate…

    • Stephen K says:

      I’m not sure, Terra, that though Jesus was an observant Jew, the majority of his first followers were Jewish and the earliest Christian theological origins and praxis were immersed in/entangled with a new covenantal understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures, Christianity as we know it and Christians as they have long been since around the end of the first century, could be said to be in any sense Jewish. And I strongly suspect Jewish people would say the same. Would it not be true to say that the Christian church effectively appropriated the Hebrew Scriptures in a spirit of self-justification rather than true title? Throughout and after the earliest ambivalence of the period in which judaizing was an issue, weren’t Christians regarded by the Jews as heretics and apostates, and didn’t Christians in turn strive to distance themselves in ethos, theology and other dimensions from the Jews and Jewishness? And wouldn’t be true to say that after centuries of regarding Jews as perfidious or deicides – at the worst – or simply lost or unenlightened and “foreign” at the best, it is mightily difficult for Christians to enter into Jewish mindfulness and identity and feel authentic empathy with them? Its true that immersing oneself in the Psalms and Scriptures has a certain effect (there are obviously very spiritual Christians) but it seems to have the baggage of a lot of anti-Jewish apologetic to shrug off. Marcion may have had a too-extreme narrowness of vision and understanding in his rejection of the Old Testament writings, but in a way he typifies or represents something of the Christian mentality after the very earliest decades, to my thinking, at least.
      It is for this reason that I think that praying/working for the “conversion of the Jews” is precisely not what the Pope’s quoted words intended, for it reveals the selfsame attitude of “severance” that has so regrettably coloured so many Christian-Jewish relations and understanding. The call to the love Jesus taught is what is central, surely, not the replacement of the 613 prescriptions of the Torah with the 1600 + prescriptions of the Catechism. Just my own thoughts, mind you, in the interests of consideration.

  8. Schütz says:

    When I said “very Gentile”, I meant ethnicly Gentile. I know Stark’s work. It is very valuable for correcting misconceptions. Nevertheless we know much less than we would like to think about the Jewiah/Gentile makeup of the early Church.

  9. Terra says:

    “Would it not be true to say that the Christian church effectively appropriated the Hebrew Scriptures in a spirit of self-justification rather than true title?”

    That’s certainly not a position a Catholic could ever agree with!

    A large part of the New Testament, particularly Our Lord’s instruction of the apostles after his Resurrection, is about how to authentically interpret the Old Testament. We believe the New fulfills the Old; the New is hidden in the Old. They cannot in fact be separated, as Pope Benedict XVI makes clear in Verbum Domini.

  10. Sharon says:

    Well, as well as the comment about condoms in the new book “Light of the World” (which, by the way, Ignatius Press won’t sell to anyone in Australia because of legal distribution restrictions

    I bought the book from Ignatius Press as an e-book to save on postage.

  11. Christine says:

    How does a Christianity which has been decidedly gentile for 1700 years manage to reconnect with its Jewish roots, and how does it manage to reconnect with a Judaism that is also 1950 years removed from 2nd Temple Judaism?

    Hmmmm. I take the “missionary” context to mean attempts to convert Jews en masse. Of course, individual Jews have always freely become Christian over the centuries but even if every Jewish person in the world accepted Christianity the Church today would be predominantly Gentile because Jews have always been a small part of the world population.

    Then there’s Paul’s discourse in Romans 11:

    I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.” 27 “And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.” 28 As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; 29 for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30 Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. 32 For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. 33 O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?” 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.

    Somehow, it seems, God will work this out to his own glory.

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