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Ed. The following was reprinted in The Hebrew Catholic, issue #78, with permission of the publisher, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN. This article was taken from Chapter 14: Catholicism and Other Religions in the book Epiphany: A Theological Introduction to Catholicism by Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P. Epiphany is now out of print. However, the complete book may be read here at the Christendom Awake web site, developed and maintained by Mark Alder, a Hebrew Catholic.

Vocation of Israel … Remains Intact

Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P.

How, then, does the Catholic Church see other religions? We must begin with Judaism, the Church’s own root and mother. Not only does our New Testament still contain a letter to the Hebrews – Hebrew Christians, Jewish Christians – but its whole canon bears witness to the pangs of birth as the Church emerges from Judaism. We may be tempted to think of this as the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis, but this would be to ignore the tragic sense of loss, breathed by so many pages of the New Testament, at Israel’s failure to recognize the Christ. There is nothing tragic about the metamorphosis of a caterpillar.

It is true that many Christians understand the Old Testament better than some Jews. It is also true that the Church’s own understanding as the englobing subject of revealed faith, surpasses in range what Judaism can say of its own Scriptures. Nevertheless, it seems obvious that there must be a special inwardness or intimacy in the way that Jews live with the Hebrew Bible and the other literature that made, or reflects, the world of the Gospels. No Gentile can, for instance, feel the devotion to the Torah that a Jew feels. No Gentile Christian can grasp the implications of Jesus’ identification of himself as the Torah in person in the way that a Jew might. In this perspective it is extremely unfortunate that the church of the Hebrew Christian failed to survive within the Catholica. Had it done so, the universal Church would have included within the unity of the same faith, sacraments, and governance communities especially devoted to the memory and observances of the Jewish ancestors of the Christian way – a living witness not only to non-Christian Jews but to Gentile Catholicism also.

The principal Jewish objection to the Church where doctrine is concerned is her affirmation of the divinity of Christ. However, it can be noted that in the first centuries of the Christian era, the same theological principle guided a process of internal clarification among both Jews and Christians: the infinite qualitative distinction between the uncreated and the created, ruling out as this does any suggestion of intermediate beings or conditions. Just as Judaism pruned away its more extravagant apocalyptic imagery, and a tendency to angelolatry, so the Church shunned the homoiousion (“like in being [to the Father]”) of the semi-Arians and clove to the view that either Christ is consubstantial with God or he is of no transcendent significance whatever. It is possible that it was an initial encounter with an implicitly heretical Christianity rather than direct confrontation with the orthodox tradition of the Nicene faith that accounts for the vehemence of rabbinic Judaism’s rejection of patristic Christianity.

The main Jewish objection to Catholicism in the realm of practice must be the Church’s mixed record of treatment of the Jews in her midst. There were indeed numerous verbal and physical attacks on Jews carried out more or less under Christian auspices. Yet on the whole, and this is not so often adverted to, higher ecclesiastical authority tended to moderate negative action towards the Jews either by the populace or by secular princes. It can be suggested that hatred for Jews on the part of European Christians was fundamentally a reaction of the residual pagan – the “old Adam” – against the originators of “bondage” to pure worship and high ethical norms. In this sense, violence against Jews was a rebellion against Christianity itself, under the figure of a less powerful proxy. By the time of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, we are dealing not so much with a Christian civilization but with a European civilization which a century-and-a-half previously had embarked on a rapid process of de-Christianization.

Judaism’s distinctive continuing light can add to the Church an orthopractic concern with the mitzvoth, the divine precepts, whose actualization is a sign that makes present the Creator’s reign and a celebration of a total liturgy, referring the creation to the Creator and so consecrating it to God through human agency.

Since Judaism is not in the fullest sense a different religion from Christianity, there can be and are such a thing as Hebrew Catholics, Jews who have entered the Church but with every intention of maintaining their Jewish heritage intact. They insist with Paul that “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew,” for “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). A Catholic Christian, contemplating the mystery of Israel, can be, accordingly, only a qualified supersessionist. Inasmuch as Israel’s Messiah has come, and fashioned his new community, the call of Israel is indeed superseded. Yet the vocation of Israel, to witness that the One who has come is truly her long-expected Savior and that the salvation he wrought is the genuine fulfillment of the promises of the Hebrew Bible, remains intact. For the Paul of Romans, the prospect of this perduring election of Israel reaching full term is a cause of eschatological joy: “If their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!” (11:12). Hebrew Catholics, meanwhile, have a special place within the Church; their association enables them to experience a common identity as the prototype of the Israel of the end, and not merely a random collection of assimilated Jews.