The call from the Bishops of England and Wales that the Good Friday prayer concerning the Jews is quite extraordinary.
It concerns a prayer said in not more than half a dozen churches once a year, and was composed by a still-living Pope.
But even that is not the worst thing. The really worrying thing is the bad theology which underlies the request. The explanatory statement (here) runs as follows: The 1970s prayer reflected the new thinking on the position of Judaism with regards to Catholicism found within Nostra Ætate. This was because Nostra Ætate “acknowledged the unique spiritual bond between Christians and Jews since it was the Jews who first heard the Word of God.” Even St John Paul II had said in 1980 that the covenant had never been revoked. Since the church is giving inconsistent messages the Jewish community is upset, so the new prayer of Pope Benedict XVI should be changed.
Let us leave for a moment that this quote of St John Paul II was made during a speech, and so when he said that the covenant had never been revoked, it has little, unspecified, doctrinal weight. Let us also leave for a moment that if a newer prayer has been issued to replace an older one, then it would seem logical that the newer (Benedict XVI’s) should have priority. If there are mixed messages being given (one of the problems cited by the Bishops), then they should be modified in line with the newer not the older prayer – 1970 out, 2008 in.
But ignoring all this, the truly worrying thing is that this comes from a misreading of Nostra Ætate and the Vatican II documents as a whole. Yes the documents continually stress the close bonds between the Jews and the Church. Yes they are the community who first heard the word of God. But in no place does the Council state or even imply that the message of the Kingdom should not be preached to all people, including the Jews. The forgotten document Ad Gentes is clear on this point.
And what exactly is this covenant that is being appealed to? Which one? Is it one of the Ancient ones of the Old Testament: Sinai, David, Abraham, Adam, Noah, Phineas, the New Covenant? The Old Testament does not speak of ‘the’ covenant, so why is Judaism now to be defined as ‘the people of the covenant’? They aren’t in their own scriptures, they aren’t in the New Testament, they aren’t in the early church, they aren’t in the Vatican II documents.
In trying to avoid charges of supersessionism, the Bishops are proposing an imperialist Christian definition of Judaism which straitjackets it into Christian terms. Oh, and subsumes all of the ‘Jews’ into one undifferentiated lot.
So what are the theological implications of the Bishops’ calls? A dual covenant theology, where one is ‘never revoked’ and the other, in Christ, is the one that we Christians go by? We would have to repudiate Dominus Iesus (2000), ignore Ad Gentes, rewrite the rest of Vatican II, reformulate our Christology and theology of redemption. This is just the beginning. Why should we ignore the covenant with all creation in Noah? How dare we bring the message of Christ to anyone… did not God make them all? Should they not all grow in their revelations of the divine?
Are we really to believe that the Bishops suddenly woke up one morning, seven years after its promulgation and though “wait a minute… there might be a problem with this prayer”. And if not, why have they ignored the deeply seated concerns about the hurt ‘Judaism’ felt for those same seven years?
Or is this internal church politics, where suddenly the Bishops feel brave enough to ask Rome to roll back the theology of Benedict XVI and the use of the Latin Mass? Like some child sneaking into the classroom at the end of the day and scribbling on someone else’s work when the teacher has gone home.
Perhaps this really is out of concern for Jewish/Catholic relations, but the implications are massive. It is based on bad theological foundations and will ultimately lead to more hurt and offense. Bad theology will never lead to good praxis. Bad theology leads to bad situations.
As an aside I wonder which theologians the Bishops consulted. There are few of us in this field. Admittedly I am just a second year PhD student working on ‘Covenantal Theology in Catholic/Jewish relations after Nostra Ætate’ supported by my Catholic Diocese, but hey, what would I know.