VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Catholics should not try to convert Jews and should work with them to fight anti-Semitism, the Vatican said on Thursday in a major document drawing the Church further away from the strained relations of the past.
It was the latest move on a host of issues, such as gay rights and re-marriage, that the Vatican or Pope Francis have made showing a desire to be more compassionate and open and to move further away from entrenched traditions.
In the past, for example, Catholic prayers have denounced Jews for not believing in Jesus. Jews have also accused the World War Two papacy of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust, a charge the Vatican denies.
The new document from the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with Jews stressed recent Vatican teachings that the two religions were intertwined and that God had never annulled his covenant with the Jewish people.
“The Church is therefore obliged to view evangelization (spreading Christianity) to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views,” it said.
It also said Catholics should be particularly sensitive about the significance to Jews of the Shoah, the Hebrew word for the Holocaust, and pledged “to do all that is possible with our Jewish friends to repel anti-Semitic tendencies”.
“A Christian can never be an anti-Semite, especially because of the Jewish roots of Christianity,” it said.
The document coincided with the 50th anniversary of a Vatican repudiation of the concept of collective Jewish guilt for Jesus’ death and the launch of a theological dialogue that traditionalists have rejected.
They believe there should be a so-called “Jewish mission” to convert Jews because they did not accept Jesus as the Messiah. Such traditionalists were therefore bound to be displeased by the document’s words on conversion, a senior Vatican official said.
“In concrete terms this means that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews,” said the document, adding that there was a “principled rejection of an institutional Jewish mission”.
“This is the first formal document that makes it clear there is no intentional desire to actively proselytize amongst Jews,” Rabbi David Rosen, international director of inter-religious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, told Reuters.
Rosen, who is based in Jerusalem, has been a key figure in formal theological dialogue with the Vatican for decades.
Edward Kessler, director of the Woolf Institute for the study of inter-religious relations in Cambridge, said much education of the young had to be done to dispel the notion that Christianity had “replaced and substituted” Judaism.
Kessler, who is Jewish, told a Vatican news conference that both sides had to “ensure the transformation in relations is not limited to the elite, but extends from the citadels of the Vatican to the pews of the Church as well as from the offices of the chief rabbis to the floors of our synagogues.”
Until about 1960, prayers at Catholic Masses on Good Friday, the day commemorating the death of Jesus, labeled Jews “perfidious” and called for their conversion.
That prayer was eliminated from general use after the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council introduced a new missal, or prayer book used at Masses.
But later a prayer for the Jews was allowed to remain in the old-style Latin Mass, sometimes called the Tridentine Rite, used by ultra-traditionalists such as the Society of Saint Pius X, whose members reject the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
In 2008, then-Pope Benedict further reformulated the prayer used by the traditionalists to remove language that Jewish groups found offensive, such as “the blindness of that people”.
Additional reporting by Eleanor Biles; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt