Do the Jews have a special place in salvation?

January 15, 2016
Source: District of the USA

Read an analysis of the recent Vatican document that implies Catholics should not evangelize their Jewish neighbors.

The new edition of DICI (no. 328) has been published this morning. From this issue, we have republished the lead article that connects Pope Francis' forthcoming visit to the Rome Synagogue with the analysis of a new document that purports Jews should not be evangelized.

Thirty years after John Paul II‘s visit on April 13, 1986, and six years to the day after Benedict XVI‘s visit, Pope Francis is going to the synagogue of Rome on January 17, 2016. According to the Swiss Catholic Church’s website,, in an article published on November 17, 2015, relations with the Chief Rabbi of Rome are nonetheless “tense”: “Riccardo Di Segni (Chief Rabbi of Rome—Ed.) did not greatly appreciate Pope Francis’ stop at the Israeli wall of separation in Bethlehem on May 2014.” He also judged “curious and even dangerous” the pope’s initiative the following month to unite the Israeli and Palestinian presidents, Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas, at the Vatican for a prayer for peace (see DICI no.298, July 4, 2014). In an interview granted in May 2014 to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Riccardo Di Segni even esteemed that “from a theological point of view”, Jews and Catholics “have nothing to discuss”, although he did say he was “in favor” of keeping up “neighborly relations”.

This visit is to come a little over a month after the publication of a document by the Commission of the Holy See for Religious Relations with the Jews, entitled “The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable: A Reflection on Theological Questions Pertaining to Catholic-Jewish Relations on the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of “Nostra Aetate” (December 10, 2015); this document states that “the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews”. Indeed, “the covenant that God made with his people Israel perdures and is never invalidated,” which leads the Church “to view evangelization to Jews in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views.” The text leads one to think, as the newspaper Le Monde said in its title on December 10, 2015, that “the Catholic Church will no longer seek to convert the Jews.”

An analysis of the Roman document by Fr. Nicolas Cadiet, professor at the seminary of Econe, published on the website Vatican II en questions follows.

Do the Jews have a special place in salvation?

The declaration Nostra Aetate

The conciliar declaration Nostra Aetate (NA), dated October 28, 1965, had intended to explain “the relation which [the Church] has to non-Christian religions” (NA 1). For this purpose it looked for what she might have in common with them. Satisfying the need for religiosity, giving answers to the fundamental questions of life, reflecting on how to live in peace on earth: these are common points that are easy to find among all religions, whether true or false.

As for the Jewish religion, the declaration discusses it last (NA 4) because of the particular ties that bind the Church with the Jewish people. It notes that salvation was first revealed by a divine covenant that was made with this people in the person of Abraham and then developed in a Law communicated to Moses. Within this people the Savior was born, and from among them were chosen the Apostles who started the Church. Most of the Jewish people rejected Christ, although He had been foretold and gave sufficient proof that he was the Messiah announced by the prophets. The Church is recognized as the “new people of God”, but because of the statements by St. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans (Rom. 11), she insists that the Jewish people still enjoy God’s special favor and she awaits the conversion of all peoples. The declaration states that one must not consider the Jewish people reprobates; it deplores the insults and harassment to which they have been subjected, and it reminds the reader that the Church has the duty to proclaim “the cross of Christ as the source of all grace”. With regard to the Jews, the Church wishes to promote “mutual knowledge and respect”.

We see that the document skillfully avoids any statement that would be too disagreeable to the Jews: no reminder of the curse upon themselves uttered by the Jews in the presence of Pilate (Mt. 27:25), nor of the exhortations uttered by the first preachers of the Church to embrace the Christian Faith (St. Peter on Pentecost, Acts 2; St. Stephen, Acts 7).

The present state of the dialogue

This declaration inaugurated the dialogue of the Catholic Church with the Jews; a recent declaration by the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews [1] marked the 50th anniversary of it. Inasmuch as it claims to be a continuation of the path initiated by the Council, we can see it as an authentic interpretation of Rome’s intentions in this regard. Now three features emerge from this document.

First, Judaism appears as a legitimate religion: Christianity and Judaism after the destruction of Jerusalem are like brothers, born of 1st century Judaism: “two siblings who—as is the normal course of events for siblings—have developed in different directions” (CGI 15). Their differences therefore seem to be only family squabbles! In particular, since the Jews refer to the Old Testament, their interpretation must be considered as “a possible reading” to which it lends itself as well as to the Christian reading (CGI 25 and 31). “A response to God’s word of salvation that accords with one or the other tradition can thus open up access to God, even if it is left up to his counsel of salvation to determine in what way he may intend to save mankind in each instance”(CGI 25). However the document recalls that Christ is the Savior of all: there are not “two paths to salvation” (CGI 35).

This brings us to the second point: the Jewish people have a special place in salvation history that is difficult to define: although the Church is “the new people of God” (NA 4), it is necessary to reject as “deprived of its foundation”, even in the Epistle to the Hebrews, the theory that the Church replaces this people as the new Israel replaces the Old (CGI 17). Instead, the Church is the fulfillment of the promises made to Israel (CGI 23) and of the Old Covenant which is not revoked but fulfilled (CGI 27). Although the Church is “the definitive and unsurpassable locus of the salvific action of God” (CGI 32), without Israel she “would be in danger of losing its locus [i.e., role] in the history of salvation” (CGI 33, 34). It seems therefore that God’s plan of salvation requires the continued existence of Israel, not only as a people, but as a religion, since the fact “that the Jews are participants in God’s salvation is theologically unquestionable, but how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery” (CGI 36).

The third point is therefore concerned with the Church’s practical attitude toward the Jews: no proselytism, or rather no “specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews”, because the evangelization to them must be viewed “in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views” (CGI 40). The role of Catholics will therefore be reduced to a witness of faith “in a humble and sensitive manner, acknowledging that Jews are bearers of God’s Word, and particularly in view of the great tragedy of the Shoah [Holocaust]” (CGI 40). A discreet allusion is made to the call to both Jews and Gentiles to receive baptism (CGI 41). Finally, the purpose of the dialogue will be to make sure that Catholics learn from the Jews regarding their interpretation of Scripture (CGI 44), that they work for peace in Israel (CGI 46) and give witness by common humanitarian efforts on behalf of the God of the Covenant (CGI 49).

Catholic doctrine

The acrobatic verbal feats of this diplomatic document disguise Catholic truth. Let us recall it briefly.

There is no need to prove that the Jewish people have a preeminent role in salvation history; all of Scripture testifies to it: Israel is the chosen people, which was prepared despite is chronic infidelities to be the cradle of the Messiah who would obtain salvation, not only for the Jews now, but for all peoples. The means of salvation before the coming of Christ demanded, for the Jews, circumcision and obedience to the Law, and for the gentiles, a mysterious “remedy of nature” by which they professed faith in the future Savior.[2]

Whatever ritual may have expressed this faith, there has never been and there never will be salvation apart from the Redemption accomplished by the Son of God, since “there is one God: and one mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). “For there is no other name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Ever since the principal act of this work of salvation was accomplished, the Savior’s sacrifice on the Cross, in order to be saved it is normally necessary to receive Baptism and to embrace the Catholic faith: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned” (Mk. 16:16). Someone who involuntarily is prevented from knowing the Church and of belonging to it should have the at least “implicit desire” to do so; this desire is “so called because it is included in that good disposition of soul whereby a person wishes his will to be conformed to the will of God.”[3] This disposition concerns all human being without exception, and therefore the Jews also. To reject Christ formally is to reject salvation.[4]

What then remains of the Old Covenant? Doesn’t St. Paul say about the Jews that “the gifts and the calling of God are without repentance” (Rom. 11:29)? Now aren’t the worship, the doctrine and the observances imposed on the Jews part of these gifts? It would be nonsense, though, to think that St. Paul considers Jewish worship to be still valid. The Epistles to the Romans and to the Galatians are precisely doctrinal presentations which rigorously prove that the Jewish observances are absolutely powerless to obtain salvation. As for the Epistle to the Hebrews, it shows that the countless sacrifices of the old Law were only ineffective figures of the unique sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which alone finally brings about the reconciliation of mankind with God. This is why “there is indeed a setting aside of the former commandment, because of the weakness and unprofitableness thereof” (Hebr. 7:18). The most striking sign of this abolition was the tearing of the Temple veil at the moment of our Savior’s death (Mt 27:51). And this is also why there is something blasphemous about practicing Jewish observances today, because, besides their ineffectiveness, they imply an affirmation that the Savior whom they prefigure has not yet come. As St. Paul says: “If you be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing” (Gal. 5:2).[5]

What then are these gifts and promises of God that still hold today? First of all there is the salvation that had been promised them. For the Jews, like all peoples, are called to benefit from the Redemption wrought by the Savior. Moreover they were the first to be called to it, since Our Lord reserved His preaching to the Jews, and the Apostles likewise began with them, according to Jesus’ commandment: “Go ye not into the way of the Gentiles and into the city of the Samaritans enter ye not. But go ye rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt. 10:5-6). Could anyone dare to maintain that such a favor corresponded insufficiently to the promises made before to Abraham and to his successors? Nothing prevents either us from seeing a continuation of the temporal favors granted to Israel in the mere continued existence of this people through history, and for a long time without its own territory. Likewise in the prosperity and influence that it enjoys (which has had its ups and downs in the past).

Finally, it remains to be said about this people that it has a special place in salvation history. First because the Savior was born of it. But St. Paul emphasizes something else (Rom. 11): the infidelity of this people at the time of our Savior’s coming, and the preaching which was then directed toward the pagans remind the latter that their calling is unearned, even more than that of the Jews. For everyone it is supernatural. But the Jews had a claim to it in the promise made to them in a special way. Thus the Jewish people, the recipients of this gracious promise of God, are witnesses to the gratuitousness of salvation. They are also witnesses to God’s fidelity, because Saint Paul hints at a mysterious mass conversion of Jews at the end of time (Rom. 11:12-15 and 25-26), a conversion that will be even more striking than was the entrance of the pagans into the plan of salvation.


What should the Church say to the Jews? As she does to all, she preaches to them salvation in Jesus Christ and the necessity of baptism. Hence it is scandalous to suggest, as the document of the Pontifical Commission does, that current Jewish practice and current rabbinical interpretation of Scripture could be legitimate, since they ignore the actual coming of the Messiah 2,000 years ago. To say that “the Jews are participants in God’s salvation of God … without confessing Christ explicitly” is not so much an “unfathomable divine mystery” as a shameful diplomatic pirouette. St. Peter, before the invention of dialogue, had told the Jews of Jerusalem:

Do penance: and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins. And you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, whomsoever the Lord our God shall call" (Acts 2:38-39).

Fr. Nicolas Cadiet

(Sources: apic/—DICI no. 328, 1-15-2016)


1 “The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable: a theological reflection on relations between Catholics and Jews on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of Nostra Aetate” (December 10, 2015) (abbreviated GCI).

2 Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 98, a. 4 and q. 103, a. 1.

3 Letter from the Holy Office to the Archbishop of Boston (August 8, 1949), DS [Denzinger] 3870.

4 Cf. The Anathema of the Council of Trent, Session 5, June 17, 1546: Decree on Original Sin, canon 3:

If anyone asserts that this sin of Adam (which is one in origin and transmitted to all and is in each one as his own by propagation, not by imitation) is taken away either by the forces of human nature, or by any remedy other than the merit of the one mediator, our Lord Jesus Christ, who has reconciled us to God in his own blood, (Rom 5:9 ff.), 'made unto us justice, sanctification, and redemption' (1 Cor 1:30)… let him be anathema. 'For there is no other name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved' (Acts 4:12). Whence that word: 'Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who taketh away the sins of the world' (John 1:29). And that other: 'As many of you as have been baptized, have put on Christ' (Gal 3:27).” DS 1513.

5 Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 103, a. 4. This is why the Angelic Doctor considers the observance of Jewish rituals as a mortal sin.