VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- In their relations with Jews, Christians cannot conceal the strong missionary dimension of their faith, but also must recognize that Jews do not have to convert in order to be saved, a top Vatican official said.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, said Nov. 6 that Christians take a different missionary approach toward Jews than toward followers of other non-Christian religions.
That's because Christians and Jews share a long biblical and religious tradition, a belief in the same God and a conviction that God will complete human history, he said.
The main difference between the two faiths -- the salvific role of Jesus Christ -- must also be acknowledged, he said.
"The universality of Christ's redemption for Jews and gentiles is so fundamental throughout the entire New Testament ... that it cannot be ignored or passed over in silence," Cardinal Kasper said.
"This does not mean that Jews in order to be saved have to become Christians; if they follow their own conscience and believe in God's promises as they understand them in their religious tradition, they are in line with God's plan, which for us comes to historical completion in Jesus Christ," he said.
Cardinal Kasper spoke at the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College. His text was made available to Catholic News Service by his office at the Vatican.
The cardinal's comments came amid increasing debate in the United States over the church's missionary attitude toward Jews. Last summer, Catholic and Jewish participants in a national dialogue issued a document that repudiated campaigns that target Jews for conversion, prompting criticism by some Christian leaders.
Cardinal Kasper said he wanted to "take the bull by the horns" and discuss the sensitive issue of mission -- in part, he said, because Christian-Jewish dialogue must look honestly at the hardest questions.
He said he recognized that the topic of mission evokes bitter memories among Jews because of forced conversions in the past.
"We sincerely reject and regret this today," he said. He noted that the Catholic Church now condemns all means of coercion in matters of faith.
But mission must be discussed, because it is a key concept for the Christian faith and part of the Christian identity, he said.
"We cannot cancel it, and if we should try to do so, it would not help the Jewish-Christian dialogue at all. Rather, it would make the dialogue dishonest and ultimately distort it," he said.
"If Jews want to speak to Christians, they cannot demand that Christians no longer be Christians," he said.
He said substituting the historically loaded word "mission" with another term like "evangelization" or "witness" may be helpful to Jewish-Christian dialogue, but will not by itself resolve the problem, which touches upon the very identities of both religions.
Cardinal Kasper pointed out that Christians and Jews share the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament; the common figures of Abraham, Moses, patriarchs and prophets; the covenant and promises of a unique God; and a messianic hope.
Because of all that, "mission understood as a call to conversion from idolatry to the living and true God does not apply and cannot be applied to Jews," he said.
That has tangible consequences, including the fact that there is "no Catholic missionary activity toward Jews as there is for all other non-Christian religions," he said.
Both religions open toward the future and the hope of fulfillment that God alone can bring, he said. But while Jews still expect the coming of the Messiah, Christians believe he has come as Jesus and will be revealed at the end of time as the Messiah for Jews and for all nations, he said.
While it may be painful for Jews to listen to such professions of Christian faith, it is inevitable in honest dialogue, the cardinal said.
"Our Jewish friends may say, as they do: 'You look on us with your Christian eyes.' Yes, we do, and how could we do otherwise? Jews, too, look on us with their eyes and out of the perspective of their faith," he said.
"We must endure and withstand this difference, because it constitutes our respective identities," he said.
Cardinal Kasper said that while Christians cannot "remain silent on our hope in Jesus" it is not a question of "targeting" Jews or others for conversion. For modern Christians, evangelization is accomplished primarily by living the faith and "giving testimony of Jesus Christ to all and in all places," he said.
That cannot be renounced by Christians, even though this testimony is undertaken differently in relations with Jews, he said.
Cardinal Kasper said the question of mission will ultimately be resolved in the context of a Christian theology of Judaism. The church is only at the beginning of this process, which began with the Second Vatican Council, he said.
"The long period of anti-Judaistic theology cannot be overcome in only 40 years," he said.