Vatican cardinal reassures Jewish leaders over Pope Francis’ comments on Torah

CNA Staff   By CNA Staff

Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in Rome on Oct. 23, 2019. / Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

Vatican City, Sep 10, 2021 / 14:00 pm (CNA).

A cardinal has written to Jewish leaders, assuring them that recent comments by Pope Francis did not devalue the Torah, the Vatican confirmed on Friday.

The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, which oversees the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, published two letters on Sept. 10, written by Cardinal Kurt Koch, who is president of both the council and the commission.

The letters, dated Sept. 3, were addressed respectively to Rabbi Rasson Arussi, chair of the Commission of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel for the Dialogue with the Holy See in Jerusalem, and Rabbi David Sandmel, chair of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations in New York.

The Pontifical Council said that Arussi had written to Koch on Aug. 12, concerning Pope Francis’ general audience address of Aug. 11, dedicated to the Mosaic Law, also known as the Law of Moses.

It added that Sandmel wrote “a similar letter” to the Swiss cardinal on Aug. 24.

The pope’s address was the fourth installment in his cycle of catechesis on the Epistle to the Galatians, in which St. Paul addresses a dispute in the early Christian community over how closely Christians should follow Jewish law.

The pope said: “The Torah, the Law, in fact, was not included in the promise made to Abraham.”

“Having said this, one should not think, however, that St. Paul was opposed to the Mosaic Law. No, he observed it. Several times in his Letters, he defends its divine origin and says that it possesses a well-defined role in the history of salvation.”

“The Law, however, does not give life, it does not offer the fulfillment of the promise because it is not capable of being able to fulfill it.”

The word Torah refers to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, but can be used more broadly to signify Jewish law in its entirety.

Reuters reported on Aug. 25 that Arussi expressed concern that the pope’s comments implied that Jewish law was obsolete.

In his identically worded letters, Koch said that he had consulted with Pope Francis and was replying to the rabbi at the pope’s instruction.

“In the Holy Father’s address, the Torah is not devalued, as he expressly affirms that Paul was not opposed to Mosaic law: indeed, Paul observed this Law, emphasized its divine origin, and attributed to it a role in salvation history,” he wrote.

“The phrase ‘The law does not give life, it does not offer the fulfillment of the promise’ should not be extrapolated from its context, but must be considered within the overall framework of Pauline theology.”

“The abiding Christian conviction is that Jesus Christ is the new way of salvation. However, this does not mean that the Torah is diminished or no longer recognized as the ‘way of salvation for Jews.’”

Koch cited a 2015 speech that the pope gave to the International Council of Christians and Jews.

On that occasion, the pope said: “The Christian confessions find their unity in Christ; Judaism finds its unity in the Torah. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh in the world; for Jews, the Word of God is present above all in the Torah. Both faith traditions find their foundation in the One God, the God of the Covenant, who reveals himself through his Word.”

Koch emphasized that in his general audience address, the pope was reflecting “on Pauline theology within the historical context of a given era” and not commenting on contemporary Judaism.

“The fact that the Torah is crucial for modern Judaism is not questioned in any way,” he wrote.

He continued: “Bearing in mind the positive affirmations constantly made by Pope Francis on Judaism, it cannot in any way be presumed that he is returning to a so-called ‘doctrine of contempt.’”

“Pope Francis fully respects the foundations of Judaism and always seeks to deepen the bonds of friendship between the two faith traditions.”

Koch underlined that the pope agreed with the description of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity in the 2017 document “Between Jerusalem and Rome,” which marked the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s seminal Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, Nostra aetate.

The text, issued by the Conference of European Rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America, and the Commission of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, said: “The doctrinal differences are essential and cannot be debated or negotiated; their meaning and importance belong to the international deliberations of the respective faith communities … However, doctrinal differences do not and may not stand in the way of our peaceful collaboration for the betterment of our shared world and the lives of the children of Noah.”

The document was presented to Pope Francis at the Vatican on Aug. 31, 2017.

In an address, he said: “The statement ‘Between Jerusalem and Rome’ does not hide … the theological differences that exist between our faith traditions. All the same, it expresses a firm resolve to collaborate more closely, now and in the future.”

Concluding his letter, Koch wrote: “I trust that this response clarifies the theological background of the Holy Father’s words.”

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1 Comment

  1. “The Law, however, does not give life, it does not offer the fulfillment of the promise because it is not capable of being able to fulfill it” (Pope Francis), is juxtaposed to “The abiding Christian conviction is that Jesus Christ is the new way of salvation. This does not mean the Torah is no longer recognized as the way of salvation for Jews” (Cardinal Koch). Koch wrongly implies the new way jettisons the Law. Intended to rectify the insult to Judaism the issue remains the wording of Pope Francis. Francis couches the Decalogue as a deficient set of rules, whereas the Decalogue is actually God’s reminder to Israel what is already written in their hearts, “From the beginning, God had implanted in the heart of man the precepts of the natural law. Then he was content to remind him of them. This was the Decalogue” (St Irenaeus Adv haeres CCC 2070). Based on the premise that God implants this law in us, the Natural Law Within (Aquinas) we must assume that this law is perfect, not a perfunctory set of “Rules”. Many Jews Mary, Moses, Joseph, Elijah were exemplary in their observance and sanctified, and apparently many more did not abide faithfully, not because of some deficiency of the law itself, rather the general inability to follow the spirit of the law rather than simply the letter. As the Pharisees. Christ enters our world to merit the grace to live the intent of the Law in spirit and in truth. Perhaps ironically perhaps not, grace is omitted in Ch 8 Amoris Laetitia where Francis gives us his interpretation of rules, the Law the pivot of the current disparity within Catholicism on this very issue, the fulfillment of God’s commandments realized in grace and repentance rather than mercy alone, and the current controversy with Jews over the efficacy of the Decalogue. Koch would have much better told Jews the truth, that Christians believe the new way does not repudiate the Law, rather fulfills it.

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