by Peter W. Miller
Church of Sant' Andrea delle Fratte in Rome
Contrasting approaches towards the conversion of Jews
With Reflections on Covenant and Mission, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has submitted its contribution to an increasingly disturbing pattern of statements aimed at facilitating "interreligious unity." Exhibiting a rare display of honesty, the now infamous document goes beyond the previously uncontroversial claims that Judaism represents a still valid and potentially salvific covenant with God, and directly challenges the Church's mission towards the Jewish people.
To truly appreciate how far those presenting such views have strayed in recent decades, it's useful to revisit the inspiring story of Fr. Alphonse Ratisbonne, a wealthy Jewish man who would undergo perhaps the most dramatic conversion since St. Paul.
Alphonse Ratisbonne was born a Jew in the Alsace region of Eastern France and would, over the years, develop a particular disdain for the Catholic Faith. Fully embracing the wave of new philosophic trends and scientific advancements, he looked upon Catholics as na´ve, superstitious, unintelligent and foolish. This prejudice would grow to outright hatred when his older brother converted to Catholicism and became a Jesuit priest, essentially "betraying" his family and heritage.
In 1842, on a journey for pleasure undertaken before he was to marry, Ratisbonne made the decision to take a slight detour and pay a visit to Rome. It was there he met a priest, a brother of an acquaintance, who would dedicate himself to the cause of this unlikely candidate's conversion. In an effort to demonstrate the frivolity of Catholicism, Ratisbonne agreed to wear a Miraculous Medal and recite the Memorare daily. Additionally, for his own entertainment and prideful appetite, Ratisbonne would accompany his new acquaintance around Rome, never missing an opportunity to ridicule and blaspheme all he would hear and see.
All that would change on January 20th, when he visited the Church of Sant' Andrea delle Fratte. It was within the walls of this historic church where Ratisbonne would be instantaneously converted by the Mother of God Herself.
"At the moment when the Blessed Virgin made a sign with her hand, the veil fell from my eyes; not one veil only, but all the veils that were wrapped around me disappeared, just as snow melts beneath the rays of the sun." 1
The Mother of God would present to him the glories of the Faith and instantly educate him in its sacred truths.
"It is well known that I never opened a religious book and had never read a page of the Bible, and that the dogma of original sin, which it is either denied or forgotten by modern Jews, had never for a single moment occupied my thoughtsindeed, I doubt I had ever heard its name. How did I arrive at a knowledge of it? I know not. All I know is that when I entered that church I was profoundly ignorant of everything, and that when I came out I saw everything clearly and distinctly." 2
After a thorough inquiry and investigation, Pope Gregory XVI declared the event a true miracle. There was no natural explanation to what happened on that particular day. As Ratisbonne's Roman companion recounts:
"Even if we imagine an illusion in the case of a person of Ratisbonne's character and education, with prejudices so violent, and with such interest both of affection and of position, it could not have been induced or augmented by any outward representation; for in the chapel that was the scene of the miracle, there is no statue, or picture, or image of the Blessed Virgin of any kind." 3
Alphonse Ratisbonne was baptized, ordained and joined the very Society of Jesus he had so violently despised. As he predicted, his family disowned him and revoked his partnership in the bank which was to be his inheritance. He would later receive permission to leave the Jesuits to start the Sisterhood of Our Lady of Sion, which dedicated itself to the conversion of Jews. The sisterhood soon moved to Jerusalem where it established two convents, two schools, three orphanages and a church. The priests assisting Ratisbonne, known as the Peres de Notre Dame de Sion later returned to Europe to establish additional foundations. Less than a century later, during the Nazi persecutions, these holy priests were among the most active rescuers of Jews.4
As was the case when She appeared to St. Juan Diego three centuries earlier, Our Lady demonstrated the same "simplistic" outlook towards Catholicism and conversion that many Catholics today are mocked for maintaining. She did not fill Ratisbonne with a newfound respect for Judaism or encourage him to follow his conscience and "be the best Jew he could be." She clearly showed him the error of his ways and the true light of the Catholic Faith. She did not enlighten him as to the permanence of the Old Covenant, suggest that conversion may not be necessary for his eternal salvation or apologize for past actions of Catholics (although an apology for Her presumptuous actions that day may be in the works). Following Our Blessed Mother's heavenly example, Ratisbonne would take this holy gift and make it his mission to provide it to as many other Jews as possible.
The story of Ratisbonne's conversion is not ancient history. This wasn't a Roman centurion or even a medieval prince; he was a modern man in every sense of the term. He was well-educated in the ways of science and modern philosophy, had a prestigious position as a wealthy banker, was betrothed to a beautiful young girl and had every reason in the world to remain in his current state of worldly pleasures. The unlikelihood of the miraculous occurrence was not lost of the recent convert:
"O my God. ... I who only a half hour before was still blaspheming! I who felt such a deadly hatred of the Catholic religion! And all who know me well enough that, humanly speaking, I have the strongest reasons for remaining a Jew. My family is Jewish; my bride is Jewish; my uncle is a Jew. In becoming a Catholic, I sacrifice all the interests and all the hopes I have on earth; and yet I am not mad. Everyone knows that I am not mad, that I have never been mad. Surely they must receive my testimony..."
"A man has a claim to be believed, when he sacrifices everything to a conviction that must have come from Heaven. If all that I have said is not rigorously true, I commit a crime, not only the most daring, but the most senseless and motiveless." 5
Men in Alphonse Ratisbonne's pre-conversion condition are anything but a rarity; millions could easily be found today. However, the nature of priest the Blessed Virgin called him to become is becoming increasingly scarce. Her clear example provided by the conversion of this "modern man" has fallen into the dustbin of history as bishops come up with new ways to obscure the Truth from those who need it most.
A Transparent Set of Reflections
On August 12, the USCCB's Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs under the direction of Baltimore's Cardinal Keeler released the document Reflections on Covenant and Mission which asserts, as most by now are aware, "campaigns that target Jews for conversion to Christianity are no longer theologically acceptable in the Catholic Church." 6
Far from being a selective citation or a misrepresentation of the document's "real message," this statement is featured prominently in the actual document's preface as the key "conclusion." Additionally, it is repeated twice in the brief story that accompanied the document on the USCCB's own Web site and even in its headline. Since the obvious and numerous errors of such a conclusion have been enumerated elsewhere, they won't be repeated here.
As can now be unfortunately expected whenever something of this nature comes out, a number of individuals rushed to defend the document as either being "well in line" with previous post-Conciliar statements, representing "nothing really new" or being somehow defensible as not directly and specifically repudiating Church teaching.
But there was another side that was to be heard before the dust settled. A number of Catholics decided that this was entirely unacceptable and stood up to proclaim that this statement was erroneous and even a sign of apostasy. No, this time it wasn't the pessimistic and disgruntled traditionalists who never seem to like anything, but the very same neo-conservative apologists who can usually be counted on for excuses or misplaced optimism and typically plead with others to give such obviously scandalous teaching the "benefit of the doubt." Gradually, as more and more liberal apologists came forward with their own condemnation of these Reflections, others felt secure in being able to do the same without being labeled "schismatic" and joined in.
Thanks to the Internet, this whole process was run on fast forward for a couple days and resulted in a response from Cardinal Keeler himself. In what was supposedly a retraction, Keeler said that the document "does not represent a formal position taken by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops..." It merely "represents the state of thought among the participants of a dialogue that has been going on for a number of years between the U.S. Catholic Church and the Jewish community in this country," and the purpose of its public release was "to encourage serious reflection on these matters by Jews and Catholics in the U.S." 7
Before moving on, it's worth noting that this non-retraction was quite different than the statements made four days earlier by someone presumed to be the same Cardinal Keeler:
"This joint reflection marks a significant step forward in the dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community in this country. Here one can see, perhaps more clearly than ever before, an essential compatibility, along with equally significant differences, between the Christian and Jewish understandings of God's call to both our peoples to witness to the Name of the One God to the world in harmony. This echoes the words of Pope John Paul II, praying that as Christians and Jews we may be 'a blessing to one another' so that, together, we may be 'a blessing to the world.'" 8
Furthermore, the language employed in the document is hardly representative of some tentative state of thought for the members of a semi-official committee. Emphatic statements are made and attributed to the Catholic Church as a whole. Those who do not hold certain beliefs and are merely positing them for open consideration and reflection tend to steer clear of such phrases as "...are no longer theologically acceptable in the Catholic Church."
Also, the idea that this document did not represent the views of other bishops runs contrary to the statements made to writer Chris Ferrara when he contacted the USCCB:
"...Bill Ryan of the USCCB's Office of Communications advised me personally that RCM is no "working document" but a final document of the USCCB Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs Committee. Ryan added 'I haven't heard any bishop say that this statement does not reflect their views' and that he did not think it 'departs in any way from the thinking of the bishops.'" 9
Not that the same bishops who had so much trouble keeping their priests from repeatedly raping young boys should be trusted with safeguarding teachings they openly regard as obsolete, but thus far no American Bishop has made any serious effort to distance themselves from Reflections and some have even gone on record with statements very similar.
After Keeler's non-retracting pronouncement was made, everyone was able to breathe a collective sigh of relief, secure that this document which was so clearly problematic did not represent "official Church teaching." It bears noting that whatever collegial importance it attributes to itself, the USCCB is not capable of promulgating official Church teaching of its own accord (i.e. when not reiterating Magisterial teaching). In a sense, the claim that this document is not "official" is meaningless as no teaching the USCCB releases ever is.
Just the same, these are the documents used by American bishops as the basis for future teaching and policies. For years, Environment in Art and Catholic Worship served as the justification for repeatedly destroying Catholic churches and cathedrals under the guise of "renewal." Always Our Children was riddled with errors but is still used to defend various "gay/lesbian ministries" and dissident teaching on sexual disorders. Even though nothing they ink is ever "official" in the Magisterial sense, as we've already seen, it is made to sound as such so that it can achieve the same effect without the annoying burden of requiring basis in truth. Reflections made concrete and emphatic statements with no question or equivocation. It was not the scattered result of some brainstorming session but an organized, researched and deliberate pronouncement.
Based upon Cardinal Keeler's quick non-retraction, several Catholic publications keyed in on the fact that the USCCB's Reflections did not "represent official teaching," some even publicizing this "clarification" as the headline of an article describing the whole controversy. Although Keeler's follow-up statements are worth noting for those who may be unclear as to the authority of the USCCB in such matters, is it not much more newsworthy that a high-ranking Cardinal is openly promoting heresy and apostasy?
Keeler's "clarification" did not a retract or justify any of the document's errors. He merely said that the bishops had not explicitly approved it and it may not be in its final form. He gave no indication that Reflections contained anything questionable, just that it was not "official" the obvious implication being "not yet," since the other bishops had not yet voted on it.
Is the severity of such erroneous claims somehow mitigated by the fact that they haven't been put to a vote? Does that fact that not all the bishops who appointed Keeler to head this committee have officially approved this document render its problems non-existent? What if Cardinal Egan (to select a bishop at random) was appointed as head of the USCCB Committee on Catholic-Muslim Dialogue and released a statement which made the claim that "due to increased respect toward the Muslim people fostered by Vatican II and post-9/11 dialogue, the Catholic Church now considers Mohammed a divine prophet and efforts to convert the Muslims theologically unacceptable"? Then on the date of its release, Egan was quoted as saying this document represented a "significant step forward" which showed "an essential compatibility" between Catholicism and Islam. Would American Catholics await word on just how "official" these statements are before deciding the level of concern and response justified? Would "Recent Statements Not Official" still be a more prudent headline than "High-Ranking Cardinal Spreads Heresy and Apostasy"?
The fact that concepts so fundamental to the Catholic Faith are being treated so casually by high-ranking prelates in the Church should be the cause for significantly more alarm, regardless of whether a majority of other bishops vote their agreement.
Out of Nowhere?
Contrary to what many would like to hope, the conclusions in Reflections are not all that new or surprising. They reflect views which are held by a number of priests, bishops and cardinals in the Church views which, although seldom stated so clearly, serve as the basis for many "ecumenical" and "interreligious" activities.
Reflections represents the latest step in a process that has been going on for years and provides an honest glimpse into the philosophy of modern ecumenists. Their lines of argumentation are systematically set forth in the Catholic component. Citing a string of documents, encyclicals and statements dating clear back to 1965, Reflections calls upon the current Pope for support:
John Paul II has explicitly taught that Jews are "the people of God of the Old Covenant, never revoked by God," "the present-day people of the covenant concluded with Moses," and "partners in a covenant of eternal love which was never revoked." 10
as well as the Vatican's Cardinal Walter Kasper, who told the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee last year in New York:
"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." 11
This latest reference demonstrates that traditional Catholics are not the only ones who interpret this Vatican official as specifically telling Jews that conversion is not necessary for salvation. Those statements came after Dominus Iesus, were never repealed, no public admonishment was given and now they are being used to support arguments repudiating the Church's mission to the Jews. Even such, this is still the man who the Pope has appointed to work with non-Catholics to achieve "unity."
Recently, we have also seen the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC), a delegation overseen by Cardinal Ratzinger, release a relativistic statement based the new modes of thought supposedly necessitated by the Second World War. The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible was a work described by Ratzinger as recognizing "the Jewish reading of the Bible as a possible reading." 12
Building its case on such a basis, Reflections seems to be less of an aberration than the next step in "interreligious progress" with the Jews. But what was so different about this statement to cause such shock and disdain in those usually defending any and every perceived "development"? Was it due to the fact that it came from one of the same American bishops who had shown an inability to be trusted in the most rudimentary of responsibilities? Or was it just too big of a step taken too fast?
Either way, the revolutionary blitzkrieg of ecumenism has not been stopped, but merely forced to re-examine its tactics and try another approach. Perhaps the Reflections document should have been content to focus on the newly-discovered permanence of the Old Covenant, thus laying the groundwork for a future rejection of Christ's mandate to baptize all nations. Such a document would have been defensible (or at least defended) as it would have reiterated something John Paul II had previously taught. In fact, even though most of the usual suspects eventually voiced displeasure with the document, some expressed what can only be classified as reserved disagreement ("it may not have phrased Church teaching in the clearest terms") or even veiled support ("nothing in this document is necessarily new").
Just as those who support a male celibate clergy are helping plant seeds for a revolution by supporting female pastors, altar girls, extraordinary ministers and so on, those who've supported every step of this "progress" in "Catholic-Jewish dialogue" are backing themselves into a corner. As long as statements that the Jewish rejection of Christ as the Messiah is a "possible interpretation" or that the Old Covenant is still valid and even salvific are defended as reasonable "developments" rather than blatant corruptions, there remains no reasonable basis to cry foul when such a train of thought arrives at its philosophical destination.
All these statements, documents and events aren't isolated and unrelated occurrences, but specific components of a larger effort an effort towards an undefined type of "unity" between Catholics and non-Catholics which does not involve any manner of conversion. Those pushing for change in the Church are not stupid. They know that direct attacks upon or contradictions to prior teaching are typically not received well, but have seen the potential of a longer, multi-step process that gradually "develops" thought and practice from point 'A' to point 'B'. If Catholics are going to continue marching along with the revolution, defending all things that aren't explicitly and definitively heretical, they're going to have a hard time complaining when they don't like where the parade ends up.
A long line of Popes, saints, Church Fathers, Doctors, Ecumenical Councils and even the Mother of God herself have, through teaching and example, shown us the Truth of the Catholic Faith and the necessity of converting non-Catholics. It's now more necessary than ever to consider whether those promoting "ecumenical dialogue" and "interreligious unity" are seeking that same conversion in the same sense. Despite the excuses and disclaimers, documents like Reflections on Covenant and Mission would indicate they are not.
1 "The Conversion of Ratisbonne" Roman Catholic Books, p.71 (2000)
2 Ibid., p.71
3 Ibid., p.37
4 Ibid., p.75
5 Ibid., p.36-37
6 Consultation of the National Council of Synagogues and the Delegates of Bishops Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, "Reflections on Covenant and Mission" (8/12/2002) [RCM]
7 USCCB "Reflections' Represent Present State of Dialogue, Cardinal Says" (9/16/2002)
9 Ferrara, C., "Propping Up the Great Fašade" The Remnant (8/31/2002)
11 Walter Cardinal Kasper, "Dominus Iesus." Address delivered at the 17th meeting of the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee, New York, May 1, 2001
12 Zenit.org, "Jewish Scripture Is a Key to Understanding Jesus, Document Says" (1/17/2002)