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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Avery Cardinal Dulles' "Covenant with Israel", St. Gregory the Great, and JPII

I have known the late Avery Cardinal Dulles to be a champion of the Second Vatican Council. He is at once eloquent, obedient to the Papal Magisterium, and personable. Each of these attributes presents itself clearly in his sober assessment of the Church’s view of the Old Covenant, which in reality, is a series of many covenants with Mosaic law at the forefront. In his “Covenant with Israel”, Dulles is quick to point this distinction out, raising the question of the supersession of the Old Covenant by the New, and the fact that the two do not necessarily run parallel. Lastly, that God’s fidelity to the people of the Old Covenant remains in force despite their disbelief in His Messiah.

Drawing from a number of papal and conciliar documents, including those of John Paul II, Cardinal Dulles simplifies what has become in Pope Benedict XVI’s opinion, “’an enormous variety of theories’ about the extent to which Judaism remains a valid way of life since the coming of Christ”[1]. Furthermore, Dulles humbly admits to the mystery of God’s saving plan in history without surrendering the certainty of Christ as the only Mediator. For this reason, I will propose Dulles’ conclusions to the “variety of theories” mentioned by Benedict as authoritative. At the same time, I will try to point out those “theories” which are invalid interpretations of Catholic thought about Judaism.

As I said, Dulles is quick to point out the multiplicity of covenants in the Torah, “In Romans, Paul speaks of the Jews having been given ‘covenants’ in the plural.”[2]. It is necessary to understand the differences in meaning behind the word ‘covenant’ in the Biblical language, because they help to determine whether or not they are still efficacious. By and large, it is permissible to view the Old Covenant—exemplified by the Mosaic Covenant on Sinai—as only a means to the end of the New Covenant. But, this principle is not meant to strictly supersede those covenants which are unconditionally instituted by God. Dulles provides the following word definitions to aid the distinction:

The term ‘covenant’ is the usual translation of the Hebrew b’rith and the Greek diatheke . Scholars commonly distinguish between two types of covenant, the covenant grant and the covenant treaty. The covenant grant, modeled on the free royal decree, is an unconditional divine gift and is usually understood to be irrevocable. An example would be the covenant of God with Noah and his descendants in Genesis 9:8-17. God makes an everlasting promise not to destroy all living creatures by another flood such as the one that has just subsided. The covenant to make Abraham the Father of many nations in Genesis 15:5-6 and 17:4-8 and the promise to David to give an everlasting kingship to his son in 2 Samuel 7:8-16 are gratuitous and unilateral. They are also unconditional and irrevocable, though only in their deepest meaning.[3]

I interpret the covenants’ “deepest meaning” to be Christological and personally relational. That is to say, the unconditional covenant is entirely dependent upon the personal fidelity of God despite instances of infidelity on behalf of His people. We do have to take into account the influence of sin in man’s response to God’s invitations to covenant relationship, which, of course, does not apply to the Person of Christ. Therefore, a conditional covenant instituted by God in the old dispensation is proven time and again to be met with failure on the part of the people of Israel. Dulles presents the Mosaic covenant as the prime example of this phenomenon:

The Israelites almost immediately broke the covenant by worshiping the golden calf, but after the people’s repentance, God in his mercy reestablished the covenant. Jeremiah teaches that Israel has broken the Sinai covenant, but that God will give them a ‘new covenant,’ placing his law upon their hearts and making them his people (Jeremiah 31:31-34).[4]

We know, from a Catholic Christian perspective, that this “new covenant” is made possible by the blood of Jesus the Messiah: Son of man and Son of God. Where Adam’s descendants failed to obey the God of the Covenant on account of sin, Jesus restored lasting relationship. It is appropriate to say, then, that all unconditional and some conditional covenants in the old dispensation reach their fulfillment, or are respectively abolished, in the New Covenant[5]. Cardinal Dulles takes great pains to categorize each covenant and explain whether it is fulfilled in the New, or abolished altogether. I will simply refer to his brilliant conclusion to the original question raised by Pope Benedict on “various theories”:

It could be asked whether there are any promises to Israel that are not fulfilled in Christ and are waiting to be fulfilled in some other way. Is Judaism still needed to point to these further possibilities? Paul replies: “All the promises of God find their Yes in Him” (2 Corinthians 1:20). There is nothing incomplete in Christ’s fulfillment of what is promised and foreshadowed in the Old Testament. It is true, of course, that human beings still have to enter fully into that fulfillment […]Judaism, in this view, does not point to possibilities Christ failed to fulfill. But the witness of Jews to their tradition helps Christians understand the foundations of their own faith. By providing a living testimony to the hope of Israel and to the ancient promises, faithful Jews can inspire and strengthen Christians, who share the same hope and promises, though in a new modality.[6]

Those who are quick to accuse Catholics of sympathizing with the Jews, potentially misreading the intent of Dulles above, will attempt to note a change in the way the Church approaches Judaism since Vatican II. Dulles takes great pains to explain how the council’s declaration on other religions, Nostra Aetate, is, “not exhaustive or sufficient”. Furthermore, in terms of priority it is to be counted last among the more important constitutions of the council. But the real question at stake with the Church’s relationship toward Judaism is heresy. Only one heresy is mentioned by Dulles in a quote from John Paul II[7], but I want to make clear that in the debate about the efficacy of the Old Covenant, there are really two heresies at work.

1) Marcionism: Dulles quotes JPII’s warning against Marcionism, which is the error of disregarding the Old Testament as inapplicable to Catholic Christianity

2) Judaizers: those who deny the council of Jerusalem’s conclusion that Gentiles need not be circumcised or practice Mosaic law to be Christians

These are ancient errors that did not arise on account of the Second Vatican Council. Indeed, the proper interpretation of relationship between Christians and Jews has plagued the Church from her earliest days and grew particularly chaotic in the Medieval age, as well as in regard to the more recent Shoah. To further illustrate that Cardinal Dulles’ solutions are nothing new to the Church, I want to give an example from the life of St. Gregory the Great. His acceptance of the Jewish people is by no means heretical, but is exemplary for the modern disputes over covenant:

Gregory to Bacauda and Agnellus, Bishops;
The Hebrews dwelling in Terracina have petitioned us for license to hold, under our authority, the site of their synagogue which they have held hitherto. Therefore let your Fraternity, with our above-named brother and fellow bishop, diligently inspect this place, and if you find that there has been any annoyance to the church, provide another place within the fortress, where the aforesaid Hebrews may assemble, so that they may be able to celebrate their ceremonies without impediment. But let your Fraternity provide such a place, in case of their being deprived of this one, that there be no cause of complaint in future. But we forbid the aforesaid Hebrews to be oppressed or vexed unreasonably; but, as they are permitted, in accordance with justice, to live under the protection of the Roman laws, let them keep their observances as they have learnt them, no one hindering them: yet let it not be allowed them to have Christian slaves.[8]

Like a good land-lord, St. Gregory proves himself a wise manager of real estate. Far from prohibiting the Jews from worship or practice of Mosaic customs, he allows them to assemble nearby the Church. Lastly, he warns against any injustices that might result from their proximity to Christians, pointing out oppressive tendencies in both camps.

Without any inner monologue from St. Gregory, I can only estimate as to why he allowed the Jews to live so close to the Christian Church. My educated guess would be his understanding of the value of their relationship with the God of Israel. In that case, he and Dulles agree that while the Old Covenant is simply a means to an end of the New Covenant, it does remind those members of the New Covenant of that means. Christ, of course, is the capstone of the entire edifice and its founder.

Hypothetically, if St. Gregory were to make heretical decisions in the aforesaid situation, they would play out as follows:

1) Disregard of Jewish heritage altogether and perform forced baptisms on those who remain near the Church

2) Allow the Jews to celebrate their liturgy in the Church, while being careful to remove all images that cause offense to them

These responses would correspond respectively to the heresies most closely associated with Judaism. Between the example of the life of St. Gregory and the teaching of Cardinal Dulles, it is fair to say that no changes have occurred in the Church’s authentic approach to Judaism.

If anything, more dialogue has been emphasized by John Paul II and other popes with Jewish people and leaders. Given an honest assessment, such dialogue in favor of mutual learning and appreciation of our covenant-keeping God can only enrich our love of the true Messiah, and hope for his return in glory.


[1] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Peter Sewald. God and the World. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002.

[2] Avery Cardinal Dulles. “The Covenant with Israel”. http://www.firstthings.com/article/2008/08/the-covenant-with-israel

[3] Ibid. *Further clarification from Dulles: “The term b’rith is usually translated “covenant,” but this translation tends to emphasize the bilateral and conditional character of the engagement”.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.


[8] St. Gregory the Great. Epistle X: To Bacauda and Agnellus, Bishops. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf212.pdf

Update as of 03/19 from Fr. Brian Harrison, https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=9168:
This essay is based on the premise expressed by the Catholic adage lex orandi, lex credendi (the Church’s official prayer expresses her authentic belief). Its purpose is to make clear that while Pope Benedict’s new prayer certainly implies the supersessionist position, much of the subsequent media commentary, both favorable and unfavorable, is quite mistaken in seeing this prayer as a liturgical reversion to that position. For one cannot ‘revert’ or ‘return’ to a position that was never at any stage abandoned. And I hope to show here that the Church’s liturgy since Vatican II has never ceased to affirm supersessionist doctrine.

(and again cont'd)
It was actually by means of the covenant with “Abraham and his descendants” that God “revealed his law to them through Moses”. Then, prophets also living under that subsidiary Mosaic covenant prepared the way for the final stage in God’s salvific plan, in which the one great covenant would be extended to embrace “all humanity” through the new and definitive covenant sealed in the blood of Christ. At no stage in this process has the ancient covenant with Abraham been revoked or superseded, because God’s people in all three stages beginning with the patriarch himself – first, from Abraham to Moses, secondly, then Moses to Christ, and finally, from Christ till the end of time – have been living under its terms.

While these terms have changed in their secondary features (baptism has replaced circumcision, for instance, and the first day of the week has replaced the seventh) the fundamental principles have remained the same throughout. And what are these fundamentals? On God’s part, a promise of blessing to the whole world through Abraham’s descendants – above all, the Messiah; and on the part of God’s people, faith – faith in his revealing word. As Paul repeatedly stresses in Romans 4 (vv. 3, 9, and 22) and in Galatians (3: 6), Abraham “put his faith in the Lord, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness” (Genesis 15: 6). And just as faith in God’s Word required acceptance of the revealed Torah and the word of the prophets in the period from Moses to Christ, so, since the coming of Christ, that same gift of faith involves accepting also the fullness of revelation that designates him as the Savior of all mankind. Hence, all those with faith in Christ are now, whatever their ethnic origin, “children of Abraham” (Gal. 3: 7)...Pope John Paul himself made clear which covenant he held to be unrevoked in addressing Australian Jewish leaders in Sydney on November 26, 1986. He emphasized that:

. . . our attitude to the Jewish religion should be one of the greatest respect, since the Catholic faith is rooted in the eternal truths contained in the Hebrew Scriptures, and in the irrevocable covenant made with Abraham.

Never, in fact, has any papal or conciliar document affirmed that the covenant God made with Israel through Moses, with all its distinctive cultic, civil, dietary and other prescriptions that still form the basis of Judaism, still remains valid and “unrevoked” for Jews after the coming of Christ

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