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The Catholic Church and the Conversion of Jews

jerusalem-980328_1280The prayer for the conversion of the Jewish people in the traditional liturgy of Good Friday has been the object of criticism by representatives of the bishops’ conferences of Germany, and of England and Wales. Spokesmen for both these conferences have requested that this prayer be removed from the traditional liturgy and that it be replaced by the Prayer for the Jews contained in the Novus Ordo missal of 1970. This is a question of enormous importance, both in itself and for the further issues it raises. It accordingly demands a response.

I. The Good Friday prayer for the Jews; content and history

The traditional prayer for the Jews in the liturgy of Good Friday ran as follows:

Let us pray also for the faithless Jews: that almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts; so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord. Almighty and eternal God, who dost not exclude from thy mercy even Jewish faithlessness: hear our prayers, which we offer for the blindness of that people; that acknowledging the light of thy Truth, which is Christ, they may be delivered from their darkness. Through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.[1]

The word ‘faithless’ here translates the Latin term ‘perfidus’. Earlier English translations of the prayer, such as that found in the St. Andrew’s Missal of 1927, translated ‘perfidus’ as ‘perfidious’. This earlier translation renders the meaning of the word ‘perfidus’ found in current Latin dictionaries, which define it as meaning ‘that breaks his promise, faithless, false, dishonest, treacherous, perfidious’ (Lewis and Short). This translation misrepresents the original meaning of the term when the prayer was formulated, which was ‘unbelieving’, i.e. not believing in the Gospel, rather than faithless or treacherous.[2] John XXIII accordingly removed the word ‘perfidus’ from the prayer, so that the prayer in the 1962 missal reads thus:

Let us pray also for the Jews: that almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts; so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord. Almighty and eternal God, who dost also not exclude from thy mercy the Jews: hear our prayers, which we offer for the blindness of that people; that acknowledging the light of thy Truth, which is Christ, they may be delivered from their darkness. Through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.[3]

When Benedict XVI recognised that the traditional Latin liturgy had never been legally suppressed in his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum and encouraged its revival, this prayer was heavily criticised by Jewish representatives and by Catholic ecclesiastics for its description of the Jews as blind and for its requesting their conversion to Christianity. Such criticism did not always distinguish between the 1962 prayer and the earlier prayer that described Jews as perfidious. Benedict XVI accordingly composed his own prayer for the Jews for Good Friday in 2008, which runs as follows:

Let us also pray for the Jews: That our God and Lord may illuminate their hearts, that they acknowledge Jesus Christ is the Savior of all men. Almighty and eternal God, who want that all men be saved and come to the recognition of the truth, propitiously grant that even as the fullness of the peoples enters Thy Church, all Israel be saved. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.[4]

He ordered that this prayer should be substituted for the prayer found in the 1962 missal in the celebration of the traditional Latin liturgy. This decision met with criticism for solid reasons. It was remarked that the Catholic Church ought not to change the most sacred part of her liturgy in response to criticism from non-Catholics. This change was contrasted with that of John XXIII, whose alteration to the prayer was a prudent one. The 1962 prayer was not produced in response to external pressure, and it did not replace the older prayer with a new one. Its removal of one word was meant to prevent mistaken understandings of the meaning of the prayer that could result from changes in Latin usage, and to make it easier to understand the actual meaning of the old prayer. Catholics who were not scholars of ancient and medieval Latin would naturally understand ‘perfidus’ as having the meaning found in Latin dictionaries, and would either falsely think that all Jews were faithless and treacherous, or absurdly intend to pray only for those Jews who were treacherous, and not for trustworthy Jews. Many users of the 1962 missal in consequence continue to use the prayer of John XXIII.

II. Criticism of the call for conversion in the 2008 prayer of Benedict XVI

Benedict XVI’s new prayer did not satisfy the critics of the 1962 prayer, as might have been expected. It was attacked by leading German Catholic bishops, who demanded that it be replaced by the prayer for the Jews in the 1970 Novus Ordo missal. This prayer runs as follows:

Let us pray for the Jewish people, the first to hear the word of God, that they may continue to grow in the love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant. Almighty and eternal God, long ago you gave your promise to Abraham and his posterity. Listen to your Church as we pray that the people you first made your own may arrive at the fullness of redemption. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.[5]

This prayer does not ask for the conversion of Jews to Christianity, and admits of an interpretation that considers Jews to already be faithful to their covenant with God, while still having room for improvement in their faithfulness. These are the features that are held to make it preferable to the 2008 prayer in the eyes of its advocates. The Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales added its voice to the demands of German bishops in a plenary resolution of the conference taken in November 2015. This resolution read:

The Bishops’ Conference requests that the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei review the prayer Pro Conversione Iudaeorum, in the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday, in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, in the light of the understanding in Nostra Aetate of the relationship between the Catholic Church and Judaism.

This resolution was clarified by Archbishop Kevin MacDonald, Chairman of the Bishops’ Committee for Catholic-Jewish Relations, in the following official statement:

In 1970, the Prayer for the Jews in the liturgy of Good Friday was revised so as to reflect and express the teaching on Judaism contained in the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate.

In particular it removed offensive references to the Jews and did not pray for the conversion of the Jews. This was in light of the fact that Nostra Aetate acknowledged the unique spiritual bond between Christians and Jews since it was the Jews who first heard the Word of God.

The 1970 Prayer, which is now used throughout the Church, is basically a prayer that the Jewish people would continue to grow in the love of God’s name and in faithfulness of his Covenant, a Covenant which – as St John Paul II made clear in 1980 – has not been revoked. By contrast the Prayer produced in 2008 for use in the Extraordinary Form of the liturgy reverted to being a prayer for the conversion of Jews to Christianity.

This caused great upset and confusion in the Jewish community since the Church seemed to be giving inconsistent messages.

The Bishops of England and Wales have now added their voice to that of German Bishops who have asked for the Prayer in the Extraordinary Form to be changed. Such a change would be important both for giving clarity and consistency to Catholic teaching and for helping to progress Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

This statement demonstrates that the controversy over the Good Friday prayer for the Jews in the traditional mass goes to the centre of the Christian religion. The critics of the prayer assert that

  1. There is no official mission of the Catholic Church to convert Jews to Christianity
  2. Catholics ought not to try to convert Jews to Christianity
  3. The original Jewish covenant with God continues to be salvific, in such a way that Jews can attain salvation by following the covenant in the way that it was followed prior to the Incarnation of Christ, and do not need to convert to Christianity for the sake of salvation

These criticisms are widely held among Catholic ecclesiastics. An example of this position is to be found in ‘Reconciliation and Mission’, a statement by the United States Catholic Bishops’ Conference:

Thus, while the Catholic Church regards the saving act of Christ as central to the process of human salvation for all, it also acknowledges that Jews already dwell in a saving covenant with God … it now recognizes that Jews are also called by God to prepare the world for God’s kingdom. Their witness to the kingdom, which did not originate with the Church’s experience of Christ crucified and raised, must not be curtailed by seeking the conversion of the Jewish people to Christianity.

Cardinal Walter Kasper advanced this position in his capacity of President of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews at the 17th meeting of the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee, New York, May 1, 2001:

The only thing I wish to say is that the Document Dominus Iesus does not state that everybody needs to become a Catholic in order to be saved by God. On the contrary, it declares that God’s grace, which is the grace of Jesus Christ according to our faith, is available to all. Therefore, the Church believes that Judaism, i.e. the faithful response of the Jewish people to God’s irrevocable covenant, is salvific for them, because God is faithful to his promises.[6]

These quotations make clear the stakes in the attack on the traditional Good Friday prayers. The basis for this attack is a rejection of three positions that are central teachings of the Christian faith. Accepting this attack and changing the traditional prayers would thus implicitly concede the rejection of these positions. When such teachings are attacked, Christians have a strict duty to defend them publicly.

III. Covenant and conversion

This debate turns on the question of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. The English word ‘covenant’ translates the Hebrew word ‘berith’. A covenant is a sacred and binding agreement, whose violation is a terrible sin. There are several covenants made by God with man in the Old Testament. God makes covenants with Noah, Abraham, and David. These covenants are certainly still in force, but they do not pertain to the question of the conversion of Jews to Christianity, since they do not offer a means of salvation that is independent of becoming a Christian. The covenant with Abraham refers to Christ (cf. Galatians 3:16), as does the covenant with David, which promises that a king of the line of David will rule forever. The covenant that is relevant to our discussion is the one that accompanied the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. This is the one that religious Jews consider to be salvific for themselves (the covenant with Noah is the one that they consider to make possible salvation for Gentiles). This covenant imposed the obligation to keep the Law upon the Jews, and promised rewards for keeping it and curses for breaking it. It is described in Exodus 24:

3 Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, “All the words which the LORD has spoken we will do.” 4 And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD. And he rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the LORD. 6 And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. 7 Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” 8 And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

In addition to this covenant, God makes another covenant with the people of Israel in Moab concerning the observance of the Law given on Mount Sinai, a covenant which is described in the book of Deuteronomy from chapter 29 onwards. Here the blessings that come from keeping the covenant and the curses that come from breaking it are described.

That any Catholic ecclesiastic should assert that Jews are saved by the Mosaic covenant without having faith in Christ is astounding. For the teaching that this is not possible is one of the central messages of the New Testament, repeated and developed in many ways. Here is one passage in the Epistle to the Galatians where St. Paul makes this clear:

(Ch. 2:15) We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, 16 yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified. (Ch. 3) 1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? 4 Did you experience so many things in vain?–if it really is in vain. 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? 6 Thus Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 7 So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8 And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are men of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith. 10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no man is justified before God by the law; for “He who through faith is righteous shall live”; 12 but the law does not rest on faith, for “He who does them shall live by them.”

St. John teaches this in his gospel in many places; some examples are the following –

(ch. 1:17) For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

(ch. 5) 37 And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness to me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen; 38 and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe him whom he has sent. 39 You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. … 45 Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; it is Moses who accuses you, on whom you set your hope. 46 If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?

There is a sense in which the Mosaic covenant is irrevocable, in that it symbolises and foretells Christ and his redemptive sacrifice, which itself will never pass away. But the specific observances of the Old Law that are not part of the natural moral law have been revoked with the coming of Christ, who fulfils them and brings the reality they symbolise, and their observation is now neither commanded nor salvific, and is not permitted in some cases.[7] It is a mistake to cite St. Paul’s teaching in Romans 11 that God has not abandoned the people of Israel as meaning that the Mosaic covenant remains a source of salvation for them. Such an interpretation of St. Paul’s teaching baldly contradicts everything else he says in that letter. His meaning in this passage is that God has shown his faithfulness to Israel by preserving a small minority of them who are true to Him, i.e. the minority who are Christians, and will show it more fully in the future by bringing all the people of Israel into the Christian fold.

This does not mean that Jews who are in a state of invincible ignorance about Christ’s teaching and mission cannot be saved. Nor does it amount to a statement of some form of ‘supersessionism’, according to which the Jews have been rejected as God’s people and their place has been taken by Christians. This is a theological hypothesis that is distinct from the evangelical teachings on the Mosaic covenant, and that is on the face of it irreconcilable with what St. Paul teaches in Romans 11. But it does mean that their salvation cannot come to them through the Old Law and the covenant that requires its observance. Archbishop Kevin MacDonald, Cardinal Walter Kasper, and all those who agree with them, are thus rejecting the central teaching of Christianity on salvation. They cannot be called Christians, let alone Catholics.

The claim that the Mosaic covenant continues in existence in its original form has a number of significant implications. This covenant requires the observance of the Old Law in its entirety. If it is still in force, that means that if this observance is rejected by Jews, they become subject to the curses set out in the book of Deuteronomy, and their salvation is lost. In claiming that the Old Covenant is still valid, Cardinal Kasper and his followers are implicitly consigning to hell all those Jews who do not keep the Old Law. This includes a number of Cardinal Kasper’s Jewish fellow participants in the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee, such as Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor (a Reformed rabbi whose organisation promotes abortion as a human right), the late Leon Klenicki (erstwhile Latin American director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism), Joel Zaiman (a Conservative rabbi whose religious movement rejects less of the Old Law than Reformed Judaism, but considers it to be ‘historically conditioned’ and thus subject to alteration), and the late Michael J. Signer (a Reformed rabbi). It also of course includes St. Peter and St. Paul, who both ceased to observe the Old Law.

Of course Cardinal Kasper is aware of this. When he maintains that the Mosaic covenant is still salvific for Jews, he does not understand the covenant in the way that it is understood by Holy Scripture, the Catholic Church, and orthodox Jews. He does not think of it as having a real, literal existence as an agreement between God and the people of Israel, whose conditions God requires to be observed in the way described in the Scriptures; he thinks of it as a historically conditioned human construct that has some relation to divine actions and purposes. All the Catholic ecclesiastics who share Kasper’s view that the Mosaic covenant continues in existence in its original form hold this view. It is simply an extension to Jewish belief of the modernism about the Catholic faith that they learned in the seminary. The literal component of Kasper’s position is his claim that Jews are under no obligation to follow Christ and to convert to Christianity.

The ‘Catholic-Jewish’ ‘dialogue’ from which criticism of the traditional Good Friday prayers emerges is thus fraudulent in multiple ways. The Catholic participants in it do not hold the Catholic faith. Their alleged respect for the Mosaic covenant between God and the Jews is a lie, because they do not in fact believe that it ever existed. Most of the Jews involved in the ‘dialogue’ do not believe in the Mosaic covenant either. The ‘dialogue’ has nothing to do with the vast majority of believing Jews and makes no advances in relations between them and the Catholic Church. In fact it will eventually cripple any discussions between Jews and Church authorities. There is no way that Catholic authorities will be able to persevere in denying a central and undeniable message of the New Testament, by maintaining that Jews can continue to be saved by observing the Mosaic covenant and that they have no obligation to become Christians. Jews who now take Cardinal Kasper and his associates at their word on the position of the Catholic Church with respect to them will eventually find out that they are being flagrantly deceived, and will lose all trust in the leadership of the Church.

Even the idea that the two sides of the ‘dialogue’ belong to different religions is fraudulent. Both sides, modernist Catholics and Reform Jews, in fact share the Masonic, Enlightenment view that different religions are just different ways to one and the same God; ‘there is one God and … people employ many different ways to seek, and to express what they know of God’.[8] They share the Enlightenment rejection of literal belief in divine revelation, the literal belief that motivates Orthodox Jews to follow the Old Law and believing Christians to hold that Christ has replaced the Old Law. The ‘dialogue’ is in fact a tool for a group of men who share religious principles inimical to both Catholic and Jewish belief to advance these principles among Catholics and Jews.

This discussion of Christian teaching on the Mosaic covenant makes it unnecessary to dwell at length on the assertions that there is no Catholic mission to Jews and that Catholics ought not to convert Jews. These claims are totally absurd, and in fact a reversal of the truth about the first period of the Catholic Church. When Jesus first called the apostles and sent them to preach, he forbade them to preach to Gentiles or Samaritans, and instructed them to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew ch. 10). The initial mission of the church after Pentecost was only directed at Jews. Gentiles only began to be accepted as Christians after the establishment of the diaconate and the martyrdom of St. Stephen (cf. Acts ch. 11). Even after the admission of Gentiles to the Church, we see St. Paul giving priority to the evangelisation of Jews, by preaching first in synagogues and only afterwards to Gentiles. This priority was a recognition of a Jewish right and privilege; as God’s chosen people, they were entitled to hear the message of salvation before the Gentiles did. If there was no Christian mission to Jews, there never would have been a Catholic Church, since the Church was initially entirely Jewish in her composition. We need not hold that all Jewish rejection of the Christian message is deliberate sin in order to insist that the Church is committed to this mission. Such a mission should be undertaken for the simple reason that Jews are human, hence fallen, and in need of salvation by Christ.

A further issue that needs discussion in connection with mission to the Jews is an unfortunate statement on this subject by the FIUV. In response to the statement by the bishops of England and Wales, the FIUV issued a press release defending the 2008 prayer and arguing against any revision of it. The press release contained these passages:

‘The prayer looks forward to the incorporation of the Jewish people, of which Our Lord Jesus Christ and His first disciples were all members, in the salvation won for the human race by Christ on the Cross, a reconciliation which, as St Paul teaches, will be fulfilled only towards the end of history. … Walter, Cardinal Kasper, defended the 2008 prayer, explaining that a hope that Jews accept Christ, which may be fulfilled only by God, rather than by targeted proselytism, and eschatologically (at the end of history), is nothing more than a necessary consequence of the Christian faith … ’[9]

These passages give the impression of agreeing with Cardinal Kasper’s claim that the conversion of the Jews requested in the prayer is not intended to be brought about by Catholic missionary efforts, that it refers only to the conversion of the Jews that will occur in the last days, and that it does not ask for the conversion of Jews here and now. We will assume that the 2008 prayer asks for the same thing as the earlier prayers, an assumption that its wording justifies. On this assumption Cardinal Kasper’s remarks are baseless. If it is granted that the prayer refers to the conversion of the Jews that is prophesied to occur in the last days, that does not mean that it is not also asking for the conversion of the Jews as a people here and now. No-one knows when the last days begin, or whether or not they have already begun, and no-one knows the length of time between the conversion of the Jews and the Second Coming of Christ. Several Scriptural texts state that the last days have already arrived (e.g. 1 John 2:18). The preaching of the gospel throughout the earth is also an eschatological sign that will only occur in the last days, but no-one would therefore conclude that prayers for the preaching of the gospel throughout the earth are not asking for that preaching to occur contemporaneously with the prayer that is being made, and are simply asking for this event to occur whenever in the last days it is planned by God to occur. Such a prayer would be completely pointless, as would the Good Friday prayer on Cardinal Kasper’s interpretation of it. The Good Friday prayer of the Jews has always been understood as asking for the conversion of the Jews to happen in the times that the prayer is being offered, and it cannot be defended as meaning something else.

IV. Catholic efforts to Convert Jews

It is thus clear that the Good Friday Prayer for the Jews in the traditional liturgy not only ought not to be changed for the 1970 prayer, it must not be changed; for such a change would under present circumstances amount to an endorsement of the reasons given in favour of this change, and would hence be a rejection of the Catholic faith. If anything, the 1970 prayer should be abolished. The claim that Nostra Aetate teaches that the Mosaic covenant is still salvific is untrue – that document is too vague to make this claim – but the fact that that document can be interpreted as compatible with Cardinal Kasper’s position shows that it is gravely deficient.

The false statements made by ecclesiastical officials about the continuing salvific power of the Mosaic covenant must be corrected by the highest Church authority. Such a correction will give rise to protests from Jews, who not unreasonably will consider that they have been deceived by the Catholic Church.

Catholics will be inclined to respond to such protests by apologising for the deception, and saying that if Jews do not like the idea of converting to the Catholic faith they can choose not to do so, just as they can choose to close the door on Jehovah’s Witness missionaries. This response, while not incorrect in itself, will however not be sufficient to address the situation, because for centuries after the high Middle Ages Catholic efforts to convert Jews were rather different from Jehovah’s Witnesses coming to the door.

The character of these efforts from the Middle Ages onwards is best approached by considering the novel theological principles that underpinned them. Traditional Catholic theology concerning Jews and Jewish religious practice is best exemplified by the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas on this subject. St Thomas followed St. Augustine in holding that Jews and Jewish religious practice should be permitted by the Church and by Christian states as a witness to truth of the Christian religion. Jewish religious practice was in his view the only form of non-Christian religion that was entitled to toleration in itself, rather than on the grounds of the harm to the common good that would result from its suppression. St. Thomas assumed the general legal position of his time, according to which Jews had the legal status of slaves of the ruler, but he advised against their condition being made worse in any way. He held that Jews, like Christians, should be prevented from practicing usury, but he asserted that they should be provided with other opportunities for making their living. He condemned forced baptism and taught that anyone who was compelled to be baptised should be conditionally rebaptised if they later came to freely desire baptism. He taught that the natural law gave Jewish parents the right to raise their children in their own religion, and that Christians were forbidden to forcibly baptise Jewish children against the will of their parents.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century, however, Duns Scotus argued for quite different positions on Christian treatment of Jews. He conceded that it is not licit for private persons to forcibly baptise the children of Jews and to bring them up as Christians, but asserted that it is licit and desirable for Christian princes to do so. He argued that baptism is validly conferred on adults even if they only accept it because of threats of violence and death. He stated that it is desirable for Jews to be forcibly baptised in this way; ‘Moreover, my opinion is that it is religiously just for those [Jewish] parents themselves to receive baptism forcibly with threats and fear, because although they will not be real believers at heart, the evil for them to be stopped from serving their law with impunity is less than serving that law freely. What is more, if their children are well educated, they will be real believers in the third and fourth generation.’[10] Scotus dealt with the prophecy of the conversion of the Jews during the last days by stating that the fulfilment of the prophecy could be allowed for by transferring a small number of Jews to a distant island and permitting them to continue the practice of the Mosaic law there.

The position of Scotus rather than the one of St. Thomas was followed by Catholics from the 13th century on. The mendicant orders preached that Jews should either be forcibly converted or expelled from Catholic societies. Catholic rulers followed this advice, and expelled the Jewish populations of England, France, Naples, much of Germany, Spain, Sicily, and Portugal. The situation of the large Jewish community in Spain is particularly significant. After the reconquest of the Iberian peninsula by Catholics, many thousands of Jews were massacred by Christians, and large numbers of them converted to Christianity to escape death. The abilities of these converted Jews and their descendants made an important contribution to the Golden Age of Spain and to the Catholic Church; St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and a large number of the first Jesuits, including Diego Lainez (an important figure at the Council of Trent), were of Jewish descent. The very success of converted Jews provoked the envy of other Spaniards, who responded to it with legislation discriminating against Catholics with Jewish blood. Discrimination against Jews on racial rather than religious grounds was thus introduced among Catholics. In 1593, the Jesuits excluded Catholics of Jewish descent from the Society of Jesus (this regulation was abolished in 1946). The fact that a regulation could be imposed that disqualified Jesus Christ from membership in his own Society demonstrates the existence of a deep irrational prejudice against Jews. This prejudice was fostered by an intensive propaganda that demonised Jews in support of the policy of forced conversion or expulsion. A strange psychological attitude towards Jews came to exist among some Catholics; a paranoid fear that saw Jews at the root of all evil, while also taking them as a permitted outlet for the vices of hatred, cruelty and calumny that are proscribed by the Christian religion.

This policy of persecuting Jews and the prejudice that accompanied it was a new development in Catholic history, as Jewish historians have recognised.[11] It was not produced simply by the influence of Duns Scotus. Its spiritual cause was the influence of the broad theological movement he belonged to, which was the 13th century Augustinian school and its 14th century nominalist successors. These schools exalted God’s power at the expense of his goodness. Duns Scotus held that God could dispense men from the second table of the Decalogue, making murder, theft and sodomy legitimate if he commanded them; the nominalist William of Ockham went further and said that God could make any action good simply by commanding it, including idolatry and hatred of Himself. St. Thomas on the other hand taught that God’s goodness ruled out his commanding or legitimising the violation of any commandment of the Decalogue. The Augustinian school became dominant in the Church after they secured the condemnation of positions of their opponents (including St. Thomas) at the University of Paris in 1277 and at Oxford in 1277 and 1284. The condemnations of St. Thomas’s positions were lifted in 1325, but by this time nominalist theology of one form or another dominated the Church.

The nominalist God, whose power was detached from goodness, was a monster that could not be a real object of love. Service of such a God was motivated by ego-identification with limitless tyrannical power rather than by charity. Of course the nominalist understanding of God coexisted in the late medieval Church with Scripture, doctrine, and devotion that contradicted it, but it was deeply influential – Calvin’s God is its heir – and especially influential with those clerics who were involved in combatting non-Catholic religions. By removing the moral barriers imposed by the teaching of St. Thomas and presenting them with a God whose will was untrammelled by respect for natural law, it offered them the intoxicating pleasure of ideological cruelty; tormenting their victims while rejoicing in their virtue and the purity of their service to God in doing so. The Jewish population of Catholic Europe offered the best opportunity for gratifying this pleasure. This was the spiritual motivation for the new approach to Jews. This approach was not really concerned with their conversion or salvation, as the remark from Duns Scotus above makes clear, and it was predictably ineffective in producing conversions. It was aided by the calamities of the 14th and 15th centuries, which included plague, war, and economic decline; these produced anger and despair that found a convenient outlet in the persecution of Jews.

This historical period is the cause for the strength of Jewish aversion to attempts by Catholics to convert them. They associate such attempts with brutal persecution, exile, and death. To this day the main groups within the Jewish population trace their origins to various Christian persecutions; Sephardic Jews are the descendants of Jews expelled from Spain, and Ashkenazi Jews are the descendants of Jews expelled from France and Germany. The modernists who support Cardinal Kasper’s position rely on the fact that Catholics who challenge their views can be confronted with this history, which has many horrifying and indefensible aspects and which they would rather not recall.

In fact, however, a better understanding and presentation of this historical period is the key to making it possible for Jews to consider the truth of Christianity. The theological inspiration for the persecution of Jews that disfigures it can be shown to be a late and un-Christian development. The widespread Jewish belief that traditional Christianity intrinsically supports hatred and persecution of Jews can thus be dispelled. The moral problem of paranoid hatred of Jews among Catholics has not entirely disappeared, and forms an obstacle to any approach to Jews. When its historical origin is understood, it can be more effectively combatted.

This historical understanding is also important for combatting the Enlightenment views that underlie the position of Cardinal Kasper and his associates. The Enlightenment was not as a rule opposed to belief in the existence of God; what it rejected was the idea of divine revelation. This rejection is well documented in Peter Gay’s The Enlightenment, an Interpretation; The Rise of Modern Paganism, whose title speaks for itself. Nor was it opposed to anti-Semitism; Voltaire, Diderot, and Ernest Renan despised Jews and developed an ideological basis for anti-Semitic persecution.[12] Adherents of the Enlightenment have nonetheless had great success in presenting themselves as promoters of freedom and tolerance. The crucial tool in this presentation is a ‘black legend’ of the Catholic Middle Ages, as a time of violence, persecution, and barbarism motivated by religious faith. The evidence for this ‘black legend’ was gathered from the later Middle Ages, which furnish some basis for it. When it is understood that this period was guided by a nominalist ideology that fundamentally distorted Catholic teaching, this ‘black legend’ loses its plausibility. It can then be pointed out that the ideas of the Enlightenment themselves originate in this period,[13] and that the ideologically-based cruelty practiced by its devotees in Revolutionary France and Communist countries are simply a mutation of the nominalist original. It becomes clear that believing Catholics and Jews share an enemy in Cardinal Kasper and his ilk; this provides a real basis for limited agreement (rather than ‘dialogue’) between Catholics and Jews.



[1] Oremus et pro perfidis Iudæis: ut Deus et Dominus noster auferat velamen de cordibus eorum; ut et ipsi agnoscant Iesum Christum, Dominum nostrum. (Oremus. Flectamus genua. Levate) Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui etiam iudaicam perfidiam a tua misericordia non repellis: exaudi preces nostras, quas pro illius populi obcæcatione deferimus; ut, agnita veritatis tuæ luce, quæ Christus est, a suis tenebris eruantur. Per eumdem Dominum nostrum Iesum Christum Filium tuum, qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti Deus: per omnia sæcula sæculorum. Amen.

[2] See e.g. John M. Oesterreicher, ‘Pro perfidis Judaeis’, Theological Studies 8 (1947): 80-96, at

[3] Oremus et pro Iudæis: ut Deus et Dominus noster auferat velamen de cordibus eorum; ut et ipsi agnoscant Iesum Christum Dominum nostrum. (Oremus. Flectamus genua. Levate) Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui Iudæos etiam a tua misericordia non repellis: exaudi preces nostras, quas pro illius populi obcæcatione deferimus; ut, agnita veritatis tuæ luce, quæ Christus est, a suis tenebris eruantur. Per eumdem Dominum nostrum Iesum Christum filium tuum, qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti Deus: per omnia sæcula sæculorum. Amen.

[4] Oremus et pro Iudaeis: Ut Deus et Dominus noster illuminet corda eorum, ut agnoscant Iesum Christum salvatorem omnium hominum. (Oremus. Flectamus genua. Levate.) Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui vis ut omnes homines salvi fiant et ad agnitionem veritatis veniant, concede propitius, ut plenitudine gentium in Ecclesiam Tuam intrante omnis Israel salvus fiat. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.

[5] Oremus et pro Iudaeis, ut ad quos prius locutus est Dominus Deus noster, eis tribuat in sui nominis amore et in sui foederis fidelitate proficere. Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui promissiones tuas Abraham et eiusque semini contulisti, Ecclesiae tuae preces clementer exaudi, ut populus acquisitionis prioris ad redemptionis mereatur plenitudinem pervenire. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.

[6] The meeting is described on the Vatican website at

[7] The question of whether the continued observance of the ceremonial precepts of the Old Law is permitted depends on the character and motivation of the observances in question, according to the teaching of Benedict XIV in his learned encyclical Ex Quo. ‘Although the ceremonial precepts of the old Law have come to an end with the promulgation of the Gospel, and the new Law does not contain any precept which distinguishes between clean and unclean foods, nevertheless the Church of Christ has the power of renewing the obligation to observe some of the old precepts for just and serious reasons, despite their abrogation by the new Law. However, precepts whose main function was to foreshadow the coming Messiah should not be restored, for example, circumcision and the sacrifice of animals, as Vasquez aptly remarks in 1, 2, Divi Thomae, vol. 2, disp. 182, chap. 9, sect. ex quibus omnibus. Precepts regarding external discipline and cleanliness of body, the kind which contain the precepts on clean and unclean foods, may be restored. The Western as well as the Eastern Church assumed this practice; this is documented from the earliest centuries.’

[8]Masonic Service Association of North America, Statement on Freemasonry and Religion, at The statement continues; ‘Freemasonry is far from indifferent toward religion. Without interfering in religious practice, it expects each member to follow his own faith and to place his Duty to God above all other duties.’


[10] Duns Scotus, In IV Sent., d. 6 q. 4, in Opera Omnia vol. 16 (Paris: Vivès, 1894), p. 489a; translated in Henri A. Krop, ‘Duns Scotus and the Jews: Scholastic Theology and Enforced Conversion in the Thirteenth Century’, Nederlands Archief voor Kerkgeschiedenis/Dutch Review of Church of Church History 69 (1989), p. 165. See on this subject Nancy L. Turner, ‘Jewish Witness, Forced Conversion, and Island Living: John Duns Scotus on Jews and Judaism’, in Jews and Christians in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, Michael Frassetto ed. (Routledge, 2006), which corrects some of Krop’s claims.

[11] ‘For centuries after Augustine, Jews managed to live relatively peacefully with their Christian neighbours; Christians rarely called for their extermination or their expulsion from the community, and when they did, Jews often had recourse to intervention from higher ecclesiastical authority.’ Jeremy CohenThe Friars and the Jews; The Evolution of Medieval Anti-Judaism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), p. 21. ‘… The period between the break-up of the Roman Empire and the Crusades—roughly the sixth to the eleventh centuries—was comparatively favourable for the Jews. … In general it may be said that social and economic relations remained good.’ Joshua Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1943), p. 159. Trachtenberg’s work is a good source for the demonising of Jews in the later Middle Ages. (He attributes the lack of such demonising in the earlier period to the imperfect Christianising of Europe, but this alleged imperfect Christianisation has no historical basis.)

[12] See Arthur Hertzberg, The French Enlightenment and the Jews: The Origins of Modern Anti-Semitism (New York: Schocken Books, 1970), and Djamel Kouloughli, ‘Ernest Renan : un Anti-sémitisme savant’, Histoire, Epistémologie, Langage, vol.29 , n°2, 2007.

[13] On this subject see John R. T. Lamont, ‘Consciencefreedomrightsidols of the Enlightenment religion’, The Thomist 73 (2009).

22 thoughts on “The Catholic Church and the Conversion of Jews”

  1. God cannot break His covenants; but that does not mean they cannot be abrogated by the other party. There is all kinds of evidence from Scripture that the Old Covenant was abrogated – just not by God but by the people:

    Isaiah 24:5 The earth also is defiled under the inhabitants thereof; because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant

    Jeremiah 11:10 They have gone back to the evil ways of their ancestors of old who refused to obey what I told them. They, too, have paid allegiance to other gods and worshiped them. Both the nation of Israel and the nation of Judah have violated the covenant I made with their ancestors.Jeremiah

    They had the promise of a New Covenant -as found an Jeremiah (and Baruch):

    Jeremiah 31:31 Behold the days shall come, saith the Lord, and I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah.

    Christ’s Church is the inheritor of the New Covenant, as Jesus established it beginning at the Last Supper. If the Catholic Church says the Old Covenant is still in force, that can only be true from God’s perspective, because there is practically no one today following all the rules and sacrifices of the Old Covenant so therefore they themselves have abrogated it. As Saint Paul indicated, if a single rule is broken then the entire Law is broken. So it seems like their best chance is to follow the New and everlasting Covenant.

      • Yes you are correct:
        James 2:10
        For whoever shall keep the whole law and shall offend in one point, he has come under the guilt of breaking all

        Paul said something which is similar
        Rom 2:25
        Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision.

  2. The suspicion of and their subsequent expulsion in Spain was also driven by the Jews’ conspiring with the Moors against the Christian order.

  3. If one truly believes in Jesus as Christ, Messiah, the begotten son of God, who followed God’s Scripture to its fulfillment, we must indeed pray for the conversion of all souls to Him. That Glory is due Him. We must however acknowledge that this conversion is up to God, in God’s good time, as He sees fit. We cannot force it upon anyone. From History we have seen this attempted in many different ways including gravely sinful acts that do no honor to God. If any prayer, or implied directive from christian leaders to commit such grave sins against God’s own people those prayers are now an offense. Any person with even a smattering of common sense faith would see that there are those who decide that in the name of God they must incite violence, condemnation, rebuke, etc of Jewish peoples as being God’s will and do so. I find it rather offensive my self that in the old version, the church specifically states the Jewish faith, rather than all faiths that do not worship Jesus as Christ. Are they not just as hell bound as we believe the Jews would be? That is why the prayer has changed to reflect our desire for the world to recognize Jesus as Christ. Jews are our brethren, their relationship with the One True God through out time is what has allowed God’s grace to come upon us. We must be humble enough to allow God to do what God wants, in His time, to bring all people, His chosen people, to His Son and the Savior of the World.

    • I think you have it about right, and I agree that it serves (has served) no good purpose ever to attempt any kind of force in this. The same goes for relations with all who reject Christ, viz. force can play no part in converting them. That said, the notion that we should consider the covenant of the Old Testament as still binding as it was before Jesus’ appearance on Earth is repugnant to not only the Church’s traditional teaching but to common sense itself. Those who say otherwise, as the author of this article avers, are up to no good.

    • I find it rather offensive my self that in the old version, the church specifically states the Jewish faith, rather than all faiths that do not worship Jesus as Christ.

      I’m not sure I understand your objection. The Good Friday prayer for the Jews is one of several calling for the conversion of the world to Christ and his Church. The Jews get one, as do unbelievers, people of other non-Christian religions, and non-Catholic Christians. Jews aren’t singled out for special treatment, although we might note that they’re the only group mentioned who take significant offence.

      The brethren thing is overstated, in my opinion. “Rabbinic Talmudic” Judaism bears only slight resemblance to the religion practiced prior to AD 70. It was created by the Pharisees (the only Jewish group left standing) in reaction to the destruction of the Temple, complete with all the Pharisaic hallmarks (purity laws, tithing regulations, Talmudic meta-meta-commentaries, etc.) that Jesus condemned in no uncertain terms. The post-Temple Talmudic commentaries also contain some strikingly offensive blasphemies against Our Lord, his Blessed Mother, and Christianity in general. This is all a matter of the historical record.

      The Catholic Church is the New Israel, the only true inheritor of the Old Covenant. If Jews are to be saved, they will be saved through Christ.

      • Absolutely. Rabbinic Judaism is younger than Christianity and is not the same Hebrew religion practiced by Jews before the destruction of the temple. As an old rabbinical saying goes, ‘the Talmud permits what the Torah forbids’.

  4. Thank you so much for this exposition on nominalism and the nominalist God. It is a jewel.

    Much more can be said about the ascendancy of nominalism within the Church – let’s say, this week, at Krakow.

    Or, even within Trad ways of looking-about.

  5. Just an observation: When St. Junipero Serra, the Franciscan, built his string of Californian missions, he carried with him two images: one of Mary of Agreda, the other of Duns Scotus.

    I am, settled in the Mother Lode, much a Californian. I know her mind: her present presence rising from her parentage. The proclamation of Serra’s sainthood resolved a Californian something, and holds the promise of making something anew. Yet, Junipero Serra pressing Scotus’ image to his devotional and administrative heart (he excelled in both) does explain a certain Californian this & that, however secondary to his devoted mission. That must be admitted. It explains.


    As a concept *abrogation* is a powerful word. And, as with all words of power, it can be tempted towards mischievousness – or worse. For instance, in Islam abrogation retains totalitarian authority: a law unto itself. It is no surprise that Islam and Christian/secular nominalism (early or late) can so easily mate as a Venn Diagram.

    For all its usefulness, abrogation’s temptation is towards capriciousness and arbitrariness – that is, towards the exercise of *pure will*. When it yields it forsakes its proper station as concept – its place within the proper (lawful) of things – and enters into the demonic, or, at the least, becomes of use for demons: the enemy of truth, of *things*, of truth-telling.

    As a concept with such power (and historical mischievousness) abrogation must, first, be carefully and thoroughly defined; and, second, its use and application (the welding of its power – its wont to be authoritative) must be carefully and thoroughly bound and marked off.

  6. QUOTE: The abilities of these converted Jews and their descendants made an
    important contribution to the Golden Age of Spain and to the Catholic
    Church; St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and a large number
    of the first Jesuits, including Diego Lainez (an important figure at the
    Council of Trent), were of Jewish descent. The very success of
    converted Jews provoked the envy of other Spaniards, who responded to it
    with legislation discriminating against Catholics with Jewish blood.

    OBSERVATION: Mapping Say-Sacks disease (past & present) among the Native & Mexican populations of the border territories of the United States and northern Mexico – along with other documentary sources – suggest that the Spanish Catholic conquest of Mexico was very much a *converso* affair. Makes sense. The expeditions to the New World gave Spanish Catholics with Jewish backgrounds an opportunity to expend their time and talents (often lives) away from the *nominalist* prejudices of the Iberian Peninsula. Had its attractions.

    Of course, the historian’s questions remain. How much of this *background* played out in the Spanish conquest and settlement of Mexico, let alone the evangelization of the native population? And, knowing how much talent participates in historical events the question of influences cannot only) be settled by arriving at the percentage of Conquistadors with *converso* backgrounds; much more goes into the making of history’s operations. Did these conquistadors/missionaries/settlers, the historian may ask, give much thought to the working-out of who they were; or was that even necessary, with the fact of it simply being there for us to sort it out?

    New World Catholicism, in not in insignificant ways, built a presence different from Mother Spain. Its explanation includes more than asserting that Spanish Catholicism overlayed a Native population. Maybe it took a gang of Spanish Conquistadors with *converso* backgrounds to receive our Lady of Guadeloupe. Catholicism in Spanish America was very much a missionary church – so unlike Hapsburg Spain. In itself, that explains something.

  7. God can not break His Covenants but people do and that was what happened when the Jews rejected Christ the Eternal Word and His Catholic Church. All the Jews that I know that left their Rabbi and converted to the Catholic Faith have been divorced from their families and Jewish friends that is how hateful Jewish are to Jesus Christ and the Holy Church. Just yesterday a American Rabbi ordered the Pope to close the Catholic Church there which is very scandalous. Like this American Rabbi owns Auschwitz Prison Camp that their belief only Jews died in the Holocaust. Catholic Saints died also at the hands of the Nazis. But this has been going on for nearly two thousand years. It continues. Jews need to be converted to the Catholic Faith. St. Stephen, St. James the Bishop of Jerusalem were Martyred converting the Jews, who were Jewish themselves. The late Cardinal Lustige who was a converted Jew became Cardinal of France and preached Homilies in Paris at Notre Dame every Sunday at 5:30 Mass. He went to Israel and had a very rude welcoming. Being called a traitor. At an interview on an Israeli radio show Cardinal Lustige was asked; how it was since he lost his Jewishness converting to Catholicism. Card. Lustige reply was that he never lost his Jewishness but was more Jewish because he was a fulfilled Jew in the Catholic Church like the Apostles. It was not the political correct answer. It was a True answer. It’s important to save souls and it is the only act of Charity is to Convert Jews.

  8. Where did the Jews and other God-fearing people go before Jesus redeemed mankind? They went to Hades.

    What happened in that realm when the dead heard and saw the Redeemer after his death? They found themselves in Paradise because the LIFE was with them.

    Why did Jesus return and establish his Church or family on earth? He did so to provide those still to be born the opportunity to be in communion with him for all time. Jesus is the Way, the only way, to that Life. Nobody, absolutely nobody, gors to the Father except in, with and through Jesus.

  9. It is about time the Catholic authorities began to loudly complain about the mockery of Our Lord and Our Lady by Jewish writers and producers in Holywood. They forever blaspheme the name of Our Lord and attack the Church. As an example, I began to watch the movie Pan, written by Jason Fuchs. The film, starring Hugh Jackman, portrayed nuns in an orphanage as cruel and gluttonous.The children’s stolen rations were found by “Pan” when he twisted the nose of a statue of Our Blessed Lady, revealing a hidden compartmemt under the floor stacked with food. We hear so much from Jewish quarters of ant-semitism and hate crime but what is this type of behaviour if not anti-Catholic and a hate crime by faithless, Jewish, media professionals. Enough is enough. I pray for the conversion of faithless Jews everyday. (And Muslims too) Good Friday is the day the Church collectively prays for them. This is an act of charity and true mercy.

  10. He that knoweth his brother to sin a sin which is not to death, let him
    ask, and life shall be given to him, who sinneth not to death.

    There is a sin unto death: for that I say not that any man ask.

  11. Dr. Lamont cooks up a theory that expulsion of Talmud-believers from Christian lands was mainly the result of the rise of the theology of the antinomian Duns Scotus and the Nominalist school, and asserts that Aquinas was hostile to expulsions in all cases. The theological basis for expulsion of unconverted Judaics is Biblical: separation from a racist, pagan nation which might otherwise gain malevolent ascendance over Christians and goyim. Moreover, Lamont identifies the masonic-secular Enlightenment with Jew hate rather than with the enormous advancement of the power and influence of anti-Christian Judaics. He omits the fact that Luther’s nemesis Eck was a Nominalist and that the popes gradually permitted usury among Catholics predicated on Nominalist theory. His most egregious oversight is found in the course of his argument decrying (quite rightly) racial animus against Judaics even when they converted to Christ. A datum he omits however, is that Catholic conspirators who advanced the prestige of the Babylonian Talmud inside the Church launched savage, racist attacks on Judaic converts to Catholicism who dared to reveal the evil of the Talmud. We saw this with Nicholas Donin (Lamont has himself parroted rabbinic criticism of Donin in an article for “Homiletic and Pastoral Review”), and most notoriously in the vile racist campaign against the convert Johannes Pfefferkorn by “progressive” Renaissance Catholic forces heavily invested in the rehabilitation of the Talmud.


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