The Vatican report and the devil in the details

Acquaintances who previously never saw a need to discuss my Jewishness with me are saying things like, “Hey, I heard the Pope is gonna let you guys off the hook.” Huh? What hook? The Church has hung us on so many hooks over the centuries, how can we know from which hook to free ourselves?

So I thought the new document published on December 10 by the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, “The Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable,” might deserve consideration. When I saw the headlines claiming that the Vatican was now telling Catholics not to try to convert Jews, I experienced controlled euphoria mixed with a little bit of suspicion. After all, the devil is in the details, or so the saying goes.

News media are notorious for interpreting what people say and then publishing their interpretations as if they are the quotes themselves. So I decided to look closer. I discovered that it’s not quite what many of the headlines were saying. The Vatican report does not instruct Catholic laity to refrain from witnessing to Jews. It’s just that there will no longer be any official institutional effort to convert Jews.

According to the Vatican report, Catholics can continue to bear witness of their faith to Jews. Of course, anyone with common sense would know that it’s the personal one-on-one witnessing that goes on between two individuals, especially two people who already know one another, that is the most effective. No Jew would listen to a priest in a robe showing up at his or her front door with Catholic literature, but a friendly co-worker celebrating her grandbaby’s recent baptism might at least initially sound heartwarming and interesting.

We had been called “perfidious” in Good Friday Catholic Masses until 1960. The Tridentine Rite of the Society of Saint Pius X referred to the “blindness” of “that people” until 2008. Jews have not changed that much. We are still just as “rebellious” and “stiffnecked” as always. Surely the Church won’t totally abandon us when we are so in need of saving. As it turns out, the relatively ineffective, official Catholic institutional efforts to convert us will cease, but the more effective one-on-one witnessing by Catholics to convert Jews will continue unabated. So the headlines were mostly window dressing.

But there were some changes for the good. According to the new Vatican report, a Christian can never be an anti-Semite and God has never annulled His covenant with Jews. That’s a mouthful. We supposedly also are granted special status in that the Church will now view evangelization to Jews differently than conversion efforts to people of other religions because of Judaism’s unique role in providing roots 2,000 years ago from which Christianity could grow. So far, so good.

The new Catholic report did provoke other Christian organizations engaging in the proselytizing of Jews to want to go on record. David Brickner, the executive director of the so-called Jews for Jesus organization, condemned the Vatican report for pandering to Jewish leaders. No apologies would be forthcoming from Brickner.

Brickner’s organization, the self-proclaimed “largest” mission in the world seeking to convert Jews, will continue to use its branches in 13 countries to do what it has always done. No surprises there.

The name Jews for Jesus is something of a misnomer. Jews do not believe in three gods. Only one. Many members of Brickner’s organization have no closer connection to Judaism than a great-great-grandfather who didn’t eat pork. I’ve talked to several of them myself. Many members of so-called Messianic Jewish congregations are actually non-Jews who claim no Jewish connection. They actively seek to proselytize Jews to Christianity.

Exactly why would a Jew abandon faith in one God for belief in Three, that is, the Trinity? HaShem told Abraham that the outward sign of His “everlasting covenant” with Abraham and his descendants was circumcision. How could any Jew deny what HaShem told Abraham in favor of the Apostle Paul’s new religion?

Since the days of Abraham, any non-Jewish males who embraced the faith of Abraham were required to become circumcised just like anyone born Jewish. Why would Apostle Paul diminish the central role of circumcision in the divine covenant between HaShem and those who would later identify with the faith of Abraham by telling new converts that they didn’t need to be circumcised?

Call it “Jewish paranoia.” We can own it. Multitudes of Jews were forced by the Church over the centuries to convert, die, or be expelled. So we are a little skittish or “touchy” when it comes to our Jewishness and uninvited efforts to convert us. We have learned to hold our friends close and our enemies even closer.

We have a historical responsibility to “watch our own backs” because usually no one else will. The righteous among the nations who risked their own lives to save Jews from certain death at the hands of Nazis are called heroes because they were the exceptions.

We are grateful to the Catholic Church for Jewish children who were safely hidden from the Nazis by wholesome priests during the Shoah, but after the war Jewish homes should have been found for the children. The Church, describing the matter as delicate and complex, has not always been transparent concerning the identities of Jewish children who were turned over to orphanages and Catholic families and grew up not knowing they were Jewish.

We certainly don’t want to return to the bad ole’ days of Catholic inquisitions or pogroms. Catholic leadership has come a long way in the last 50 years since the Second Vatican Council’s Nostra Aetate to make amends for injustices committed by the Church against Jews. We appreciate all gestures of goodwill.

We respect and cherish our Catholic friends. Yet when Catholics want to exercise their freedom of speech in sharing their religion with us, we should exercise our freedom to say “no” and politely decline. Catholicism was not your Yiddishe mame’s religion. A person who believes in the Trinity is a musharik, or polytheist, according to Islam. This is especially true for Judaism, the religion through which Muslims and Christians learned about God in the first place

May we be faithful to the declaration that has preserved the faith of our fathers and mothers for thousands of years and whose words graced the dying lips of countless Jewish martyrs through the ages: Hear, O Israel. HaShem is our God. HaShem is one.

Yoeli’s Mandate: Leave your mark, make a difference for the good, and do your part to make sure that they never again devour Jacob or make his habitation waste.

You may write to Yoeli Kaufman at

About the Author
Yoeli Kaufman earned his bachelor’s degree in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures and then worked as an analyst and Arabic translator for U.S. Army Intelligence. His master’s degree was in Educational Administration from Temple University in Philadelphia. Eli now regularly writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Times of Israel, and Diario Judío México.
Related Topics
Related Posts