“The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable:” Another Jewish Perspective

Last week, the Vatican’s Commission of Religious Relations with Jews issued a major document “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable” to coincide the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate. There have been many conferences around the world this year to discuss the 1965 document, what it means today and how to move forward. Even as I type, the members of the Vatican Commission are in Tel Aviv celebrating this document and discussing how to move forward.

This is a first draft subject to change as I work out my ideas.

Most of the global media coverage focused on a few talking points that can be summed up as three: that there is nothing completely new in this document, that there will be no active mission to convert the Jews and that Jews are somehow mysteriously saved without an acceptance of Christ.

My focus is on the document as a whole and the process.

One of the biggest innovations of the document, which took two and a half years to write, was that it was done in consultation with Jews and that there were Jews on the podium at its release that were called on comment on it. Picture the unfathomable: a rabbinic statement that had Christian input and joint religious presentation, which is what we have here.


In the last fifteen years, an era of email and global travel, there has been a flurry of Jewish-Catholic conferences and meetings. Everyone involved knows each other well; everyone emails frequently, and visits each other’s home institutions. Cardinals still annually come to NY Jewish institutions and everyone attends interfaith events like Kristallnacht memorials.

And that is what interfaith dialogue means today. It is not two sides, each foreign to each other, both arrayed against each other to discuss theology. Both sides read each other’s books and op-eds, having visiting lectureships, and are well acquainted with each other. Even an op-ed in a Jewish paper, a colloquium in a university, or a scholarly article on Qumran are part of the dialogue in an information age.

Historical Studies

A second innovation is the extent to which the new document is grounded in historical scholarship. Judaism and Christianity are bound to each other because they both grew out Second Temple Judaism(s); the various sectarian, apocalyptic, hypostatic, and purity ideas of the first century. Both are outgrowths of the Bible, and produce the two religions of Judaism and Christianity. In the background of the document, one hears Daniel Boyarin, Peter Schaefer, and a host of Dead Sea Sect scholars.

In 2001, The Pontifical Biblical Commission, under Cardinal Ratzinger, acknowledged Rabbinic Judaism as a parallel to Christianity worthy of study and respect. The ethos of that statement oozes throughout this document, which considers that there are “spiritual treasures concealed in Judaism for Christians.”  Catholicism teaches now that the rich complimentary Jewish reading is a possible one in that both readings serve God’s will.

After the destruction of the Temple both the New Testament and the Rabbinic literature are parallel responses to changed circumstances. How are they related? Who knows? The discussion starts now with further study.

The document quotes Talmud Sotah, once anathema and labeled blasphemous by Catholics, to understand the Jewish position. It also quotes Avot and Genesis Rabbah, this is a big shift in acknowledging the continuity of Judaism. (See the picture below of Cardinal Kasper in the Yeshiva University beit midrash with a Talmud in hand.) The Church no longer thinks Jews are just the Bible.

The Church is told that it still draws nourishment from the root of Israel. And it mandates that this study should extend to the training of priests. When a generation of priests is brought up with knowledge of Judaism and Rabbinic texts, it will certainly lead to further connections and integration. Will it lead to a generation of Catholic midrashic scholarship and Catholic Hebraists? Will it affect Catholic liturgy and doctrine away from medieval thinking? Time will tell.

Whereas documents of the 1960’s spoke of Divine Love and existential commitment, and documents from John Paul II spoke of the workings of the Holy Spirit, and the document We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah spoke the voice of lawyers, this document speaks the voice of contemporary historical scholarship.

The historical approach is especially shown in the new readings of the New Testament. The document treats Jesus and the originals hearers of his word as Jews. Paul is presented following what is called the New Perspectives on Paul pioneered by E.P. Sanders, John Gager, and James Dunn in which Judaism is not intrinsically rejected. The anti-Judaism statements of the New Testament are removed through the use of rhetorical criticism especially in the reading of the books of Acts, and Epistle to the Hebrews. Now, the anti-Jewish rhetoric is treated as just that, nasty rhetoric directed against a specific small group in the course of in-house fighting.The document specifically labors to emphasize these new readings.

At one point, the document makes a major slide from the fact that contemporary Jewish historians can see Jesus as Jewish to the theological speculation that “Jews are able to see Jesus as belonging to their people.” They are not the same.


The actual proximal function of the document is to clear up the immense confusion on the state of Jewish-Catholic relations on the fiftieth anniversary of Nosta Aetate. Nostra Aetate said much less than people think and the last fifteen years we have seen a flood of diverse opinions and statements.

Prior to Nostra Aetate, Jews were seen by much of Catholic teaching as blinded, the Devil, and false; and that once the Jews have served their purpose then God has forgotten them. Jesus had transcended his origins and had nothing in common with his birth religion, according to this now-outdated view. These were repudiated in 1965.

It took more than three decades for Pope John Paul II to move the relationship forward with three bold innovations. First innovation was to acknowledge Judaism as a living religion with an eternal covenant; second, to recognize the Holocaust; and third to actively acknowledge the state of Israel.

Pope Benedict XVI has moved the religions closer in Catholic thought by teaching that Jews and Catholics share one common Abrahamic covenant based on Genesis 15. In addition, after his works on the life of Jesus, based on those of Raymond Brown, Jesus in his Jewish context is now taken as obvious. But he strongly rejected the idea of two separate but equal covenants-rather one covenant. This document must work within his constraints, but in the future Catholic theologians may not.

Nostra Aetate was a revolution. But it did not in itself offer pluralism, recognize Judaism as a separate religion or, even as John Paul II did, grant continuous validity to Judaism. At the fortieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate in 2005, the recent comments of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger were opening up a diverse chorus of where to go next. This year, the need was to give imprimatur to what was said in the last decade in order to go forward.

Nostra Aetate is laconic in the extreme. What does it mean theologically for Jews to be “Abraham’s stock” or “dear to God.” Therefore, Nostra Aetate has both progressive and conservative interpretations, as do most of the documents of Vatican II. Just since the years 2000, there have been diverse statements from Bishops councils around the world, from Catholic theologians, from Catholic interfaith workers and from contradictory voices within the Holy See.  Various Catholic authors and leaders all have different views on the fine points of the Jewish- Christian relationship.

The working out of the laconic statements is an unfolding of the Church’s position. Different documents on the topic have different levels of authority, not usually known to the lay person. In the process of creating this new document, some of both the progressive and conservative statements have been pruned leaving a certain focused perspective. The document brings together specific lines of development based on statements and interpretations of Pope John-Paul II and Benedict, those of Cardinals Kasper and Koch, along with prior documents of the committee.

The document “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable” has the clear and distinct voice and ideas of Cardinal Walter Kasper throughout. For my readers who do not keep current in Christology and Ecclesiology, it is an understatement to say that Kasper is one of the leading theologians of the Church. His most famous theological opponent is Cardinal Ratzinger on the topic of the authority of Bishops.

Kasper and Ratzinger also seemingly differed in a variety of documents on the role of the Jewish-Catholic relationship. This document is clearly the more liberal voice of Kasper along with the voice of Cardinal Kurt Koch’s “Theological Questions and Perspectives in Jewish-Catholic Dialogue (2011) and Pope Francis’ recent address ‘Evangelii Gaudium. On the other hand, it does not contain the progressive voices referring to dual covenants of Moses and Christ.


Finally, many of the theological positions of the last fifteen years are technically still on the table, if someone wanted to return to them. The media, as to be expected, may overstate the finality of these answers. Tyros to these documents, however, may worry too much about major retractions, not understanding how a conservative church and its doctrine moves dialectically between Cardinals and theologians through the years in order to move forward.  The Church is clearly committed to moving forward in Catholic –Jewish relations, but I know that I will probably live to see this document amended at least twice by further documents.

The Document

The first two sections of the document single out Judaism for special treatment compared to other religions. They note that even though the final draft of Nostra Aetate included comments on Islam and Asian Religions that should not mean that all world religions are the same. Judaism was the heart of the document and its catalyst.  In fact, the document is emphatic that Judaism is not “another religion” than Christianity. The relationship is almost “Intra-religious” – “kind of, or a sui generis relationship.” The two faiths are “not really in dialogue” and they are not having a religious confrontation because they are not really separate.

This is not new but was under the radar. During the years 2000-2006, some of the Jewish interfaith participants kept thinking that Cardinal Ratzinger’s reemphasis on a single covenant meant a lowering of the status of Judaism, when it fact it was a little perceived raising. Ratzinger’s goal was to reign in the theologians of Asian religions such as Jacques Dupruis, whom in their acceptance of Asian religions he thought were removing the need for covenant by replacing it with pluralism. But in the process, there has been an increasing placing of Judaism under the Biblical covenant together with Christianity. For more than a decade, there have been arguments moving from internal Christian ecumenicism into Jewish-Christian relations.

The new dividing line between the faiths is the role of Jesus as divine heavenly authority compared to the Torah as the divine authority; this is exactly where Jacob Neusner placed it in his dialogue with Cardinal Ratzinger. The document quotes Genesis Rabbah to show the structural parallelism in that Christian affirm that Christ pre-exists creation while Jews affirm that the messiah and Torah.  And recently, Pope Francis affirmed that both faiths have one God, share the covenant that is revealed in Christ or the words of Torah. He is constrained theologically to create two paths but not allow for two separate covenants.


Much of the language and ideas on covenant and mission are based on the thinking of Cardinal Walter Kasper, see for example this 2010 document  written by Kasper. The very title of the essay is taken from Romans 11:29 “for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.” And three lines before Paul declares, “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26 ff). Kasper made this a pillar of his thinking in the aforementioned essay and it reappears here.

The document says that the church did not see what Paul was saying for two millennium because they were misled by theories of replacement and supersessionalism. Now they seek to return even as it remains a mystery how it works.

In this document, a covenant “means a relationship with God that takes effect in different ways for Jews and Christians.” A new covenant can never replace the old.

The document clearly seeks to drive out any vestiges of nineteenth century Lutheran Marcionism of thinkers such as Kant, Harnack, and Kierkegaard. Both, the old and new covenants are paradoxically eternally valid.

Jewish and Catholics use the word covenant differently. For Catholics, the world is devoid until God reveals himself with self-disclosure and a covenant of faith. Only those included in the covenant can know God, thereby excluding non-Biblical people. For Jews, covenant is circumcision, Torah, Sabbath, law, and peoplehood. And for Jews, God can be known by all people of the world naturally.

The document acknowledges that the Jewish covenant is circumcision, Torah, Sabbath, law, and peoplehood, their knowledge of Judaism would certainly recognize this. But the Catholic position is that the Noachide covenant as developed by the prophets is the more universal and advanced covenant.

The document see the Jewish reading of the covenant as particularistic and the Christian one as available for the entire world. The document asks “Jews could with regard to the Abrahamic covenant arrive at the insight that Judaism without the church would be in danger of remaining too particularist and of failing to grasp the universality of its experience of God.”

The document assumes that two different paths would endanger Christianity. It specifically faults and seeks to correct the many writers who took the 1985 “Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis” as implying two parallel ways to salvation, Mosaic covenant and Christ.

kasper talmud
(In the YU Beit Midrash)


Yet, the seeming bombshell of this document the statement that Paul would not exclude salvation from those Jews who do not believe in Christ.

Jews sharing the single covenant with Christians are saved. “That the Jews are participants in God’s salvation is theologically unquestionable, but how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery.” But how can this be harmonized with the universal Christ? It is a “mystery of God’s work.” This statement will certainly be clarified in later generations.

However, there are already many resources for working out this salvation without an explicit knowledge or assent to Christ. In the 1960’s Karl Rahner proffered the idea of the anonymous Christian in which Christ can work through people even if they are unaware of it. Gavin D’Costa, a decade later, formulated a theory of the Holy Spirit working on people without their knowledge and there are a variety of Evangelical solutions such as Clark Pinnock’s concept of Christ coming to people after they die. Even if these earlier formulated are not directly used there is a shelf of various positions that seek to be inclusivist, that, is, included the other in one’s own scheme.

To offer a analogous case, recent Vatican theologians have stated that babies who die without baptism no longer go to limbo. But then how are they saved? There is a  recent January 2007 Vatican document that is still working through the issues and offers hope and mystery that they go to heaven.  Each separate theological commission is working through similar issues left open by Vatican II.

How does the Church relate to the salvation of modern Jews, especially non-observant or secular Jews? This document has not confronted the issue


On the important question of mission, the document says there is no active mission to the Jews. Let us look back at the “covenant and mission” controversy of 2002, progressives and conservatives split between active mission and no witness at all. This document attempts to strike a balance.

On the other hand, the Jewish side reluctantly learned the difference between active mission and witnessing.The bad days of active mission are over but the Catholic Church will always witness her faith to welcome people into her fold and assume that she is the fulfillment of the biblical promise.

Conclusion of the Document

If Judaism is not a foreign religion requiring dialogue, then what is the purpose of dialogue? The purpose in this document is to add depth to knowledge from the “spiritual treasures concealed in Judaism for Christians.” In addition, dialogue is now “for the joint engagement throughout the world for justice and peace, conservation of creation, and reconciliation,” and finally it is to combat Anti-Semitism.

The conclusion of the document affirms that Christians should relate to Jews as “people of God of Jews and Gentiles, united in Christ.” I am not sure that any Jewish theologian would be comfortable with this formulation.  Judaism is a separate religion and religious community.

Nevertheless, there is no need to flog your favorite Jewish thinker; one can firmly say that Jews do not see themselves as “United in Christ” without having to cite Soloveitchik. Many on the Catholic side understand how we feel and are committed to acknowledging the ongoing validity of the Jewish covenant but they are working within their own theological restraints. And even in the wider context of this document, the phrase should not be over read.

In addition, some Jews feel more comfortable engaging Protestants, Muslims, or even Hindus (only the latter two naturally understand my dietary restrictions, need to hand wash before eating, and prayer times).

There were two Jewish documents written in response this past week, one from the French Rabbinate and the other from a group of English speaking rabbis living in Israel. They need their own discussion.

Overall, a firm commitment to moving forward, to more study, to a obligation to including Judaism in seminary formation of clergy, and to a greater familiarity. Looking at this from the vantage of 1965, or even of 1998, this is a worthy document.

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