“Jews outside the church need to see a Jewish reality inside the church. We don’t evangelize, but if Jews are able to preserve themselves within the church, it will open the floodgates for Jews to come into the church.”—David Moss, President of the Association of Hebrew Catholics
Two gatherings this week highlight different approaches taken by churches on the sensitive issue of Jewish converts to Christianity who wish to affirm their post-conversion Jewishness. Of course, mainstream Jews reject the notion of Christians who somehow remain Jewish, and they understandably take offense when many of their former co-religionists target them for conversion to their new faith. Nevertheless, there are thousands of Catholic and Mormon converts who insist just as fervently that they are fully Jewish; indeed, some claim that their Christian baptisms have made them “complete” Jews. Whether a given church adopts the St. Louis model or its Utah counterpart could decisively affect its ongoing relations with the organized Jewish community.
The Association of Hebrew Catholics (AHC) is holding a three-day conference in St. Louis, and local Jewish leaders are none too pleased. Although the group’s stated purpose is to “preserve the identity and heritage of Catholics of Jewish origin within the Church,” many of the scheduled speakers at the conference have made statements indicating their desire to convert Jews to Catholicism. What really bothers Jewish officials in the Gateway to the West, however, is the past and present involvement of officials from the Archdiocese of St. Louis and the Vatican in activities sponsored by AHC, which is listed as an official organization on the website of the archdiocese. A monsignor, a priest, and an auxiliary bishop will be celebrating Mass at the conference, and an interview with senior Vatican prelate (and former Archbishop of St. Louis) Archbishop Raymond Burke will be shown to the attendees. [Archbishop Burke helped the AHC to relocate from Michigan in 2006]. Pope John Paul II gave an apostolic blessing to the AHC in 1998.
By way of contrast, the semiannual gathering of B’nai Shalom (“Children of Peace”) was held in Salt Lake City last Thursday. Founded 43 years ago, its purpose is to “promote greater understanding of Jewish culture, heritage and traditions, and encourage, assist and promote Jewish genealogy.” Twice a year Jew-loving Mormons, including many Jewish converts, attend a presentation on some aspect of LDS-Jewish relations and/or Jewish culture. This year’s speakers were LDS Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and renowned LDS composer and filmmaker Michael McLean. I addressed the group a few years ago (after ensuring that they did not target Jews for conversion), and have rarely felt such pro-Jewish fervor in an audience.
What was missing at the LDS gathering, however, was any sign of official sponsorship by the church. Indeed, on the home page of the group’s website is this prominent disclaimer: “B’nai Shalom is NOT an official organization of the Church and is NOT sponsored by the Church in any way. This web site is not owned, controlled by or affiliated with the above church. All research and opinions are the sole responsibility of members of B’nai Shalom, and are not official statements of Church doctrine, belief or practice.” Although B’nai Shalom is currently headed by two Jewish converts who believe that they are still Jews, their church neither encourages nor discourages their efforts to increase knowledge and appreciation of Judaism among Mormons.
I don’t take a position on whether Jewish converts to Christianity remain Jews; this is not a debate that I need to join. Both sides make claims that are hard to refute: individuals have a right to define their religion and/or ethnicity, and ethno-religious groups have a right to exclude people. [One would think that the theological antithesis of Judaism would be atheism, not Christianity, but I digress]. As I see it, the problem in St. Louis stems from unmet expectations on the part of Jewish interfaith leaders, many of whom seem to believe that post-Vatican II Catholicism accepts the validity of God’s ongoing covenant with the Jewish people, making their conversion to Christianity unnecessary. Unfortunately, this belief is not supported by the plain language of the text of Nostra Aetate, Vatican II’s groundbreaking statement on interfaith relations issued in 1965. After denouncing anti-Semitism and acknowledging the Jewish roots of Catholicism, the Vatican made the following declaration: “It is, therefore, the burden of the Church’s preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God’s all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows.”
The most philo-Semitic Pope in modern times, John Paul II, had this to say about Catholic-Jewish relations: “Love involves understanding. It also involves frankness and the freedom to disagree in a brotherly way where there are reasons for it.” If I were the Archbishop of St. Louis, I would make one of the following statements at a meeting with local Jewish leaders: 1) In order to preserve our close relationship with the Jewish community, we will adopt the LDS B’nai Shalom model. In the future, archdiocesan officials will not lend official support to AHC, and we will neither promote nor hinder its activities; or 2) Friends must be honest with each other. There is nothing in Catholic teaching that requires Jews to abandon their Jewish identity upon conversion to Catholicism, and there is no prohibition on converting Jews to our faith. Given AHC’s communion with Rome and adherence to Catholic teaching, it is as entitled to our support as any other community that enjoys the Vatican’s juridical approval.
It is my fervent hope that Jewish-Catholic relations in St. Louis and elsewhere will continue to be strengthened. In the case of AHC and similar organizations, I think the B’nai Shalom model is the way to go.
I am indebted to Mary Pedersen, Acting Executive Director of Interfaith Partnership/Faith Beyond Walls in St. Louis, for alerting me to this story. Many thanks also to Tim Townsend for his original reporting on the conference, which can be found at the following links: http://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/faith-and-values/article_5c762b8d-0908-5eb7-b374-d9bce2ab3fc8.html, http://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/faith-and-values/tim-townsend/article_1bd38b58-765b-5dad-81ea-5a164e74cebc.html