A Response to Robert Sungenis

Robert SungenisOn September 2, 2009, Catholic apologist Robert Sungenis from the Bellarmine Theological Forum (formerly Catholic Apologetics International) published a document entitled The Erroneous Teachings of “Catholics for Israel” in which he directly attacks the legitimacy of our apostolate. This document states that on the Catholics for Israel website “various and sundry claims about the Jews and Israel are being disseminated as Catholic Teaching” but these, according to Sungenis, are “not Catholic teachings.”

Sungenis is known for his anti-Semitic views and frequent attacks against Judaism. Though he claims that he is not anti-Semitic (in the sense of holding a racial hatred against Jews), a cursory glance at his website quickly reveals that he indeed suffers from a negative fixation against the Jews and Judaism (as evidenced, for example, by a recent article posted on his website with the offensive title Abortion is from the Jews, which makes a mockery of Jesus’ words in John 4:22 “Salvation is from the Jews”). We do not intend to expose here the details of Sungenis’ record regarding the Jews and Judaism. These are extensively documented on the website Robert Sungenis and the Jews as well as on its supplementary blogspot. We do find it ironical that Sungenis accuses us of disseminating teachings that are “not Catholic” while he himself was ordered by his own bishop, Most Reverend Kevin C. Rhoades of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to entirely cease from writing on Jewish issues as of August 2007. Far from complying, Sungenis then publicly defied Bishop Rhoades, made defamatory statements against him, and even accused him of teaching heresy (See: By Sungenis Alone and Bishop Rhoades Sets The Record Straight).

After consultation with the Catholics for Israel team it was initially decided that the document was written in a bad spirit and was not worthy of a response, especially given the lack of credibility and negative record of its author in matters pertaining to Judaism. However, we have now reluctantly changed our mind, lest our silence may be interpreted as conceding defeat in face of Sungenis’ attacks. We write our response partly with sadness at the fact that someone who claims to defend the Catholic faith does in fact quite the opposite through his malicious attacks against Jesus’ own people and the very roots of our faith. Yet we also seize this opportunity to clarify our positions towards the Jews, Judaism and Israel. We do not, however, intend to waste any more time by pursuing an ongoing debate with Sungenis. Silence on our part at any future replies from him should not be understood as a concession to any validity of his arguments but rather will be merely because we believe such a debate with him is futile.

Finally, we wish to add that we have informed the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, about our apostolate and assured him of our desire to work in full docility and collaboration with the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.

Ariel Ben Ami
Executive Director
Catholics for Israel

The following dialogue consists of statements from our page What do we mean by "Catholics for Israel" followed by Sungenis' critique, followed by our response to him.

1. CFI: [The Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate (hereafter NA) on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions] affirmed the spiritual bond between Christians and the Jewish people.

R. Sungenis: What is a “spiritual bond”? Would it not have to be a bond in which we share the same spiritual beliefs and practices? If so, then how can Catholics have such a bond with people who deny that Jesus Christ is God, the very essence of the Christian faith? The denial of Christ’s deity is the very essence of the Jewish people and the religion of Judaism. In other words, the Jews believe Jesus Christ was a fraud. Hence, Nostra Aetate does not teach that Christians and Jews have a “spiritual bond,” rather, it says they “have a common spiritual heritage.” A “heritage” refers to the original source of both groups, not that both groups still remain bonded. The original source is Abraham, but unfortunately, the Jews at large rejected the faith of Abraham, the very person who looked forward to Jesus Christ (John 8:56-58).

CFI: The authoritative Latin text of Nostra Aetate reads:

Mysterium Ecclesiae perscrutans, Sacra haec Synodus meminit vinculi, quo poplus Novi Testamenti cum stirpe Abrahae spiritualiter coniunctus est. [As the sacred synod searches into the mystery of the Church, it remembers the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham's stock]

The Latin word vinculum means "chain" or "bond." We are not sure on what basis Sungenis is trying to dismiss the text of Nostra Aetate for what it says - that the Church is spiritually tied with "Abraham's stock," the people of Israel. Sungenis' statement that "the very essence of the Jewish people and the religion of Judaism" is the denial of Christ’s deity is of course a theological absurdity. Much different are the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which remind us that God, after forming Israel as his people, "established with them the covenant of Mount Sinai and, through Moses, gave them his law so that they would recognize him and serve him as the one living and true God... and so that they would look for the promised Savior" (CCC 62, emphasis added). Moreover, the Catechism adds,

Israel is the priestly people of God, "called by the name of the LORD", and "the first to hear the word of God", the people of "elder brethren" in the faith of Abraham. (CCC 63)

We also remember that Jesus, in his humanity, was and remains a Jew, as well as His mother Mary, the twelve apostles and all of his first disciples. Is this not enough ground to constitute a "spiritual bond"? We are quite obviously aware that the majority of Jews still reject Christ and we recognize that the resulting division of Jews and Christians is a tragedy. However it is ludicrous to claim that "the denial of Christ’s deity is the very essence of the Jewish people" since many Jews from the first to the twenty first century have believed in Christ while still maintaining a deep desire to remain faithful to their Jewish heritage and traditions.

2. CFI: that the Church received the Old Testament from the people of Israel.

R. Sungenis: Actually, the Church received the Old Testament from the faithful people of Israel, from Moses and David and those like them. We did not receive it from the “people of Israel” at large. Most of the people of Israel were faithless sinners who were rejected by God for their apostasy, and it is this same disbelief that reigns among the Jewish people today, the very people with whom “Catholics for Israel” claims we have a “spiritual bond.”

CFI: Again, the idea of the "spiritual bond" comes from the declaration Nostra Aetate and not from Catholics for Israel so Sungenis had better knock at the doors of the Vatican if he wishes to contest this expression. But that is not all. Sungenis' anti-Jewish interpretation obviously says things that Nostra Aetate does not say. In fact, by stating that "most of the people of Israel were faithless sinners who were rejected by God for their apostasy," he openly contradicts Rom 11:1 ("Has God rejected his people? By no means!") and NA 4 ("The Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures"). Moreover, it is not uncommon that the people of God be composed of a majority of "faithless sinners" - from Israel in OT times to American Catholics today. By Sungenis' standard God should reject the present American Church for its apostasy - much more so than Israel because while God has formed an eternal covenant with Israel in the Scriptures He has not done so with the American Church. Fortunately it is a foundational biblical principle that the unfaithfulness of God's people does not cancel out God's faithfulness, election and covenant with His people.

3. CFI: that the Church “draws sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree (Israel) onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles” (Rom 11:17-24).

R. Sungenis: Unlike the CFI version, Nostra Aetate does not contain the word “Israel” in its quote of Romans 11:17-24. St. Paul does not say that “Israel” is the olive tree. In fact, St. Paul does not identify the olive tree at all. However, since St. Paul refers the “branches that were broken off” the olive tree to the unbelievers from Israel (Romans 11:7-11), then the only people from Israel that remained on the tree are the faithful Jews, not the nation at large. Unfortunately, the faithful of Israel only made up a small percentage of Jews in Israel...

CFI: True, NA does not contain the word "Israel." However, the context of Rom 11:17-24 makes it abundantly clear that Paul can only be talking about Israel (cf. 11:2, 7, 11, 25, 26). It is hard to comprehend how Sungenis can deny this fact. He himself admits that the "branches that were broken off" are the "unbelievers from Israel." What then could be "their own olive tree" but Israel when Paul promises: "how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree" (11:24)? The use of the olive tree to designate Israel is known from Jer 11:16. Sungenis would be well advised to meditate over Paul's warning in this passage to "not boast over the branches" that were broken off and to "not become proud."

4. CFI: that Jesus the Messiah has by his cross “reconciled Jews and Gentiles, making both one in himself” (Eph 2:14-16).

R. Sungenis: Not quite. The Greek of Eph 2:16 is in the subjunctive case and is referring to the work that Jesus did to make it POSSIBLE for Jews and Gentiles to be reconciled, not that Jews and Gentiles are automatically reconciled merely because Christ went to the cross. The only way Jews and Gentiles can be reconciled with each other is if they are first reconciled with Christ. Once they both accept Christ, only then can there be reconciliation, and only then is there a “spiritual bond.”

CFI: Yes, true reconciliation comes through Christ. We do not deny this. Yet Sungenis continues to deny the "spiritual bond" that is explicitly affirmed in NA. (See point 1 above)

5. CFI: that to the Jewish people belong “the sonship and the glory and the covenants and the law and the worship and the promises; theirs are the fathers and from them is the Messiah according to the flesh" (Rom. 9:4-5).

R Sungenis: Not quite. The Greek does not have the verb “belong.” The New American Bible is more correct in its translation, which has “They are Israelites; theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (Rom 9:4 NAB). In other words, the Israelites had AT ONE TIME possessed the adoption, covenants, giving of the law, worship and promises, but no longer. If the Israelites still had these blessings, then nothing was changed from the Old Testament to the New Testament. But the New Testament says with certainty that all the items in Romans 9:4 were abolished because they were finally fulfilled in the New Covenant (cf., 2 Cor 3:6-14; Eph 2:14-16; Col. 2:14-15; Hebrews 7:18; 8:1-13; 10:9).

CFI: Sungenis is twisting the text of the New Testament. The Greek reads:

οἵτινές εἰσιν Ἰσραηλῖται, ὧν ἡ υἱοθεσία καὶ ἡ δόξα καὶ αἱ διαθῆκαι καὶ ἡ νομοθεσία καὶ ἡ λατρεία καὶ αἱ ἐπαγγελίαι

The word ὧν is a relative pronoun in the genitive which means "whose [is]" or "theirs." With the verb εἰσιν (to be) in the present, there is absolutely nothing in the text that warrants a reading of the possession as something pertaining only to the past and no longer valid today. The Scriptures that Sungenis quotes generally address the observance of the Torah's commandments or Temple worship but do not question Israel's adoption, covenants or divine promises. These passages certainly indicate that the Old Covenant is incomplete without the New and finds its fulfillment in it. However, these verses should not be viewed in isolation but considered with other Scriptures with which they remain in tension - Scriptures that affirm the permanent validity of the divine covenant with Israel and of the Torah (cf. Mt 5:17; Acts 16:3; 21:20-24; 25:8; Rom 3:31; 11:28-29).

6. CFI: that the apostles and most of the early disciples were Jews.

R. Sungenis: Yes, in fulfillment of the prophecies that stated that God would save the Jews (cf. Luke 1:67-79). Unfortunately, after that short interval, most of the Jews rejected Christ, so much so, that St. Paul decided to forsake his ministry to the Jews and go to the Gentiles (Acts 13:44-48).

CFI: Sungenis is again taking isolated verses out of context to suit his purposes. Paul was faithful to his statement in Romans that the Gospel was destined "to the Jew first" (Rom 1:16), and so he did not at all "forsake his ministry to the Jews" but continued to go first to the synagogues to evangelize them before turning to the Gentiles (Acts 14:1; 17:2-4, 11-12, 17; 18:2-5, 19, 28; 19:10, 17; 20:21; 21:20). This, of course, yielded mixed results - with some accepting the Gospel and some rejecting it. Even when he was placed under house arrest in Rome at the end of the book of Acts he "called together the local leaders of the Jews" who came in "great numbers" (Acts 28:17-24) to hear him teach about Jesus and the kingdom of God.

7. CFI: that despite the fact that many Jews rejected Jesus and the Gospel, “God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers” and “does not repent of his gifts and his calling to them” (Rom 11:28-29).

R. Sungenis: Of course, we would expect nothing less from God, for God made a promise to Abraham that if any Jew would believe and obey like Abraham, that Jew could also be saved with Abraham (Romans 4:1-24). Salvation is the “gift and calling” of God, and it is the very reason why it is still possible that Jews can be saved today, even though God rejected them as a national entity in 33 AD. The whole context of Romans 11 is speaking about the possibility of salvation, not some special favor God gives the Jews just because they are Jews (cf. Romans 11:14, 23)

CFI: Sungenis turns an unconditional affirmation of God's love and faithfulness towards the Jews - even though "as regards the gospel they are enemies" (Rom 11:28) - into a conditional one which merely speaks about the "possibility of salvation." We invite the reader of good will to read Romans 11 for him/herself and compare Sungenis' tendentious interpretation with Paul's great confidence in the faithfulness of God as he affirms that "the gifts and the call of God [to Israel] are irrevocable" (Rom 11:29). This great confidence is based in God's own promise which He made through the prophet Jeremiah, comparing the permanence of His covenant with the nation of Israel with the permanence of the cosmic order of sun and moon, and of the heavens and the earth:

Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar -- the LORD of hosts is his name: "If this fixed order departs from before me, says the LORD, then shall the descendants of Israel cease from being a nation before me for ever." Thus says the LORD: "If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth below can be explored, then I will cast off all the descendants of Israel for all that they have done, says the LORD." (Jer 31:35-37)

8. CFI: that Jews and Christians will one day worship and serve the Lord together with one voice.

R. Sungenis: They all ready do. Jews have been converting to the Christian faith for 20 centuries. Unfortunately, the number who convert has not increased from the number that came out of Israel three millennia ago. As God told Elijah, only 7000 out of a nation of millions of Jews in the 9th century BC converted their hearts to God. The rest worshiped the devil (Romans 11:3-5). Additionally, there is no promise in the Old or New Testament that says we can expect any great mass of Jews and Gentiles worshipping together than we have already witnessed.

CFI: Sungenis is wrong, for divine revelation tells us that the return of Christ will be preceded by a great movement of Jews coming to faith in Him. Romans 11:25-26 tells us: "a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved." Though we cannot be sure what Paul exactly means by "all Israel," the Catechism of the Catholic Church (674) boldly states that Christ's Second Coming somehow awaits the conversion of the Jewish people:

The glorious Messiah's coming is suspended at every moment of history until his recognition by 'all Israel'... The 'full inclusion' of the Jews in the Messiah's salvation, in the wake of 'the full number of the Gentiles,' will enable the People of God to achieve 'the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,' in which 'God may be all in all'.

One wonders whether Sungenis is unaware of this paragraph or whether he is deliberately ignoring it.

9. CFI: that although “the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.”

R. Sungenis: Yes, it is obvious that those who were not there at the time of Jesus’ death cannot be charged with Jesus’ death. By the same token, this also means that the Jews present at Jesus’ death are liable for his death, and thus it is incorrect to say, as some Jewish scholars have said, that the Jews had nothing to do with the death of Christ and all the blame should be put on the Romans.

CFI: This point is already made in the sentence from NA above: "the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ." It is interesting to note that while Sungenis is willing to twist or explain away all the texts that are positive towards the Jews, he goes out of his way to reaffirm and emphasize any negative point. However, we know what was Jesus' reaction to his executioners and his prayer for them: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do" (Luk 23:34). One wonders to what extent Sungenis has endeavored to apply this magnanimous prayer to his own attitude towards the Jews.

10. CFI: that consequently, “the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures;” and so the Church “decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”

R. Sungenis: Correct. St. Paul says in Romans 11:1 that God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. But the immediately following context that defines what God means by his decision not to reject them concerns only the offer of salvation to the Jews, not that God is still regarding the Jews and the nation of Israel as a separate and privileged people as He did in the Old Testament. God’s interest in the New Covenant is in saving the Jew from his Jewish religion which denies that Jesus Christ is God and denies that he offered the atonement for the sins of the world. Hence, when St. Paul says that “God has not rejected his people,” he means that God, even though he judged the nation of Israel at large as apostate, has not rejected ALL of the Jewish people, for He will save any Jew then or today who wants to be saved.

CFI: Again Sungenis is making stunning interpretive leaps by forcing his anti-Jewish theology into the sacred text that says nothing of the sort. Scripture is clear: "God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew" (Rom 11:2). There is not a word in the New Testament about "saving the Jew from his Jewish religion" (cf. Acts 16:3; 21:20-24; 25:8) or about God "judging the nation of Israel at large as apostate" as Romans 9-11 makes abundantly clear.

11. CFI: Open Questions - While Nostra Aetate has provided an essential foundation for a positive Catholic theology of Israel, it has but laid the most basic building blocks of this foundation, while leaving many questions open and unanswered. Examples of such questions are: Given that God’s gifts and calling to Israel are irrevocable, even while a majority of the Jewish people has to this day not accepted the Gospel, what exactly is Israel’s role in God’s plan of salvation since the coming of Jesus the Messiah?

R. Sungenis: This is not an “open question,” since neither the Bible nor the Church has ever taught that Israel (the nation and its people in the Middle East) has a unique or special role in God’s plan of salvation other than what has already been stated, that is, that the Jews, since they have not been forsaken in toto, still have the invitation to join the Catholic Church and become parishioners or priests. Those who try to establish a unique role for the Jews just because they are Jews are rejecting the teachings of both the Bible and the Church.

CFI: There is no point in returning to the points that are made in Romans 11 since Sungenis in intent on sticking to his tenuous interpretation. Apparently he is more Catholic than the pope. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have affirmed that the Church's relationship to Judaism is in fact unique and special since the Jewish religion is "intrinsic" to the Catholic religion:

It is evident that dialogue of us Christians with the Jews stands on a different level with regard to the dialogue with the other religions. The faith witnessed in the Bible of the Jews, the Old Testament of Christians, is for us not a different religion but the foundation of our own faith. (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “L’eredità di Abramo” (The Heritage of Abraham), appeared in L’Osservatore Romano, on December 29, 2000).
The Jewish religion is not 'extrinsic' to us, but in a certain way is 'intrinsic' to our own religion. With Judaism therefore we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.... (Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah; Cf. Pope John Paul II, Speech at the Synagogue of Rome, 13 April 1986)
The problem of Jewish-Christian relations concerns the Church as such, since it is when ‘pondering her own mystery’ that she encounters the mystery of Israel... There is also an ecumenical aspect to the question: the very return of Christians to the sources and origins of their faith, grafted on to the earlier Covenant, helps the search for unity in Christ, the cornerstone. (Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate n. 4; cf. also CCC 839)

12. CFI: Jesus’ great commission to the Church to “preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15) remains intact, particularly to the Jewish people since the gospel is “the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the non-Jew” (Rom 1:16). How should the Church faithfully express her missionary calling to the Jewish people in respect, sensitivity, and love, mindful of not repeating regrettable abuses that were committed in the past?

R. Sungenis: First, neither Nostra Aetate nor any other official teaching of the Catholic Church has said that the Catholic Church committed “regrettable abuses…in the past” against the Jews. Second, the phrase of St. Paul’s in Romans 1:16 is not to be interpreted as if the Jews, above any other ethnic group, have a priority in receiving the Great Commission. Hence, CFI’s statement that the “great commission…remains intact, particularly to the Jewish people” is fallacious. In the Greek language, the clause “to the Jew first and also for the Greek” means that Paul will preach the Gospel to the Jews and Greeks first. This was fitting since Rome was filled with both groups, but not with “barbarians and the ignorant.”

CFI: Sungenis' refusal to admit the terrible past of Christian anti-Semitism is shocking. Is this an abysmal ignorance of history or again a statement driven by ideology? The Church's Magisterium shows much more sensitivity to the troubled history of Jewish-Christian relations than Sungenis:

"In the Christian world... erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people and their alleged culpability have circulated for too long, engendering feelings of hostility towards this people". Such interpretations of the New Testament have been totally and definitively rejected by the Second Vatican Council. (Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah; cf. Pope John Paul II, Speech to Symposium on the roots of anti-Judaism, 31 October 1997, 1: L'Osservatore Romano, 1 November 1997, p. 6.)
The hostility or diffidence of numerous Christians toward Jews in the course of time is a sad historical fact and is the cause of profound remorse for Christians aware of the fact that “Jesus was a descendent of David; that the Virgin Mary and the Apostles belonged to the Jewish people; that the Church draws sustenance from the root of that good olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild olive branches of the Gentiles (cf. Rom 11:17-24); that the Jews are our dearly beloved brothers, indeed in a certain sense they are ‘our elder brothers.’”(International Theological Commission, Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past 5.4)

Moreover, Sungenis' reading of Rom 1:16 is yet another distortion of the Greek text. Anyone with an elementary knowledge of Greek can attest that "Ἰουδαίῳ τε πρῶτον καὶ Ἕλληνι" means precisely "to the Jew first and also for the Greek."

13. CFI: How should Jews who encounter Jesus the Messiah and find the fullness of truth in the Catholic Church continue to live and express their Jewish identity as Catholics Jews?

R. Sungenis: They aren’t. This is precisely the destructive ethnic distinction that St. Paul tried to dispel from the Jews, and a teaching that the Catholic Church upheld throughout her history, especially at the Council of Florence. If the Jew wants to become Christian, then he must forsake all the Jewish identity markers of the Old Testament, for they were merely types and shadows that mean nothing today because they have all been fulfilled in Christ (Col. 2:15-16; Gal 3:1-5; 5:1-4). Instead, the converted Jew should be asking himself how he can better promote the beliefs and practices of the Christian faith at the same time he seeks to divest himself of his strictly Jewish identity. A true Jew, as St. Paul teaches in Romans 2:28-29, is not someone who is circumcised in the flesh, but who is circumcised in the heart. Hence, all Christians are spiritual Jews, for physical Jews do not count for anything as far as God is concerned, except as a group of people who need to be saved and to whom the invitation of salvation remains open.

CFI: The idea that Jews should lose their 'ethnic identity' when they come to faith is utter nonsense. Are Chinese Catholics no longer Chinese? Why would Jews cease to be Jews upon believing in their Jewish Messiah?

Sungenis continues to use a language of supersessionism that is foreign to the NT. For example, the expression "spiritual Jew" is a fabrication not found anywhere in the NT. Rom 2:28-29 merely states that external circumcision is not enough and Jews also need the "circumcision of the heart." Paul is not in any way extending the designation of "Jew" to all Christians. Furthermore, if Sungenis would have honestly read these verses in context he would have also included the next two verses. Not surprisingly, he omitted them because they single handedly destroy his anti-Jewish theology, stating in the clearest fashion that the advantage of the Jew and of circumcision is much in every way:

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews are entrusted with the oracles of God. (Rom 3:1-2, emphasis added)

The Scriptures that Sungenis quotes from Colossians and Galatians are also irrelevant to his point. Paul is arguing here against "Judaizers" who are trying to force Gentiles to be circumcised and become Jews, in violation of the decision taken at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15:5-21 (where it was decided that Gentile converts do not need to be circumcised and become Jews). In no way is Paul forcing Jews to abandon their Jewish identity. The decision of the Council of Jerusalem, in fact, points to the exact opposite. When James declares that the apostles should not "trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles" (Act 15:19) to be circumcised and to observe the Law of Moses, this presupposes that the Jewish-Christians still did these things.

Indeed, we see several instances of Paul's faithfulness to Torah and to his Jewish identity in the book of Acts: he has Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3). He is in a rush to return to Jerusalem in order to celebrate a Jewish feast: "I must by all means keep this coming feast in Jerusalem" (Acts 18:21, preserved in some manuscripts). Also on his following trip "he was hastening to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost" (Acts 20:16). Following his arrest by the Romans he declares (not in the past but in the present tense): "I am a Jew, from Tarsus" (21:39; 22:3) and "I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees" (Acts 23:6). Paul pays for sacrifices in the Temple to prove that he is not teaching Jews to abandon Moses and the customs of Torah (Acts 21:20-26), and later affirms: "Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I offended at all" (Acts 25:8). It is thus clear that Paul was still proud of his Jewishness long after his conversion.

The decisions of the Council of Florence (1438-45) concerning the Jews which Sungenis mentions were ecclesiastical disciplinary decisions that were conditioned by their time. They do not pertain to Catholic doctrine and are not binding today, much less infallible. If Sungenis insists on the validity of the decrees of this council, then he must also advocate that Jews be compelled to listen to Christian sermons under pain of severe penalties. He must forbid Jews to employ Christians and prohibit Christians from eating with Jews or even having extended conversation with them. Sungenis should also insist that Jews not be given any public offices or admitted to any academic degrees. He should underline that they are to be "compelled, under severe penalties, to wear some garment whereby they can be clearly distinguished from Christians." Moreover, Sungenis should insist that Jews be "made to dwell in areas, in the cities and towns, which are apart from the dwellings of Christians and as far distant as possible from churches." These embarrassing examples suffice to show that to appeal today to the (non-infallible) disciplinary decrees of the Council of Florence is ludicrous. If anything, Catholics today should adopt an attitude of humble repentance in regard to these discriminating and humiliating practices that Christians inflicted upon Jews in the past (see point 12 above).

The only thing that the NT and the Church say clearly about the Torah is this: although "the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good" (Rom 7:12), observance of the commandments is not sufficient for salvation (Gal 2:16, 21). Catholics for Israel does not consider circumcision or Torah observance to be binding on Jewish-Christians, but neither do we see an imperative to force them to abandon their cultural and religious heritage.

14. CFI: How should Catholics of Jewish origin relate to the Torah and to the observance of its commandments?

R. Sungenis: The simple answer is, by accepting what the Catholic Church has accepted from the Torah, and rejecting what the Catholic Church has rejected from the Torah. This is not an “open question” for Jews to decide. Jewish Christians are under the authority of the Catholic Church, and only what the Catholic Church deems fitting from the Torah can be assimilated. As such, the Catholic Church has stated quite clearly throughout her history, and made even more definitive in the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, that all rituals, types, symbols and any other Jewish identity markers used in the Torah, have no meaning today and are not to be adopted by anyone. The only part of the Torah that the Church has taken as its own is the moral commands, for they were created by God long before the Jews existed.

CFI: CCC 522 states that God "makes everything converge on Christ: all the rituals and sacrifices, figures and symbols of the 'First Covenant.' CCC 1964 speaks of the Old Law as preparation for the Gospel, but it does not use anything near Sungenis' supersessionist language. Where does the Catechism say that rich Jewish feasts such as Passover, Hanukkah, or the Feast of Tabernacles, for example, should "not be adopted by anyone"?

15. CFI: Given that God’s gifts and calling to Israel are irrevocable, one of the most central of these gifts is the land of Israel – a gift that was never revoked by the New Testament. What is the significance of the land of Israel today and of the recent return of the Jewish people to the land of their forefathers?

R. Sungenis: Here we notice another insertion of words into the biblical text. The author says “Given that God’s gifts and calling to Israel are irrevocable,” but the actual text says, “for the gifts and call of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). St. Paul is merely giving us a general truth of God, that is, if God promises something, he does not go back on his word, whether it applies to Jews or Gentiles or anything else. The New Testament did, indeed, revoke the land of Israel from the Jews, since the Jews who were once given the land of Israel had those property rights revoked when the Old Covenant was revoked (2Cor 3:6-14; Hebrew 8:1-13). The Torah is clear that the land of Israel was part and parcel with the covenant between God and Israel. Hence, if there is no separate covenant for the Jews then there is no separate land for the Jews. Accordingly, the New Testament mentions nothing about the Jews being able to keep the land of Israel, especially in Romans 11 right after the verse in question (i.e., verse 29: “for the gifts and call of God are irrevocable”). The remaining verses, Romans 11:30-33, only speak of God offering salvation to the Jews, not a parcel of land in the Middle East. It is only Jewish political aspirations that seek to support the occupation of Israel as a divine right, otherwise known as Zionism, the very political movement that the author of Catholics for Israel advances.

CFI: Once again the context of Rom 11:29 could not be clearer that the gifts and calling are intended for Israel. Sungenis completely contradicts himself here, correctly stating that "if God promises something, he does not go back on his word, whether it applies to Jews or Gentiles" and then immediately adding that God actually went back on His word to Israel. Sungenis continues to falsely assume that the covenant with Israel is abolished to now try to prove that the divine gift of the land to the Jews was abrogated, thus using circular reasoning. The tragedy here is that Sungenis is striking at the very heart of God's nature and faithfulness. For the Lord promised the land of Canaan unconditionally as an everlasting inheritance to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and this promise was subsequently confirmed through Moses (Gen 13:14-17; 17:5-8; 26:3-4; 35:10-12; 50:24; Ex 32:13; Deut 1:8) and the prophets. As we have written elsewhere:

God’s covenant with His people, with the land of Israel as its sign and guarantee, is unconditional and immutable, like the covenant He has made with day and night and with heaven and earth (Jer 33:25-26). It was never revoked by the New Covenant. And so even when Israel sins gravely God’s covenant with them remains firm. Even when their unfaithfulness results in divine punishment and exile, God repeatedly promises that He will gather them back into the land He promised to their forefathers and will pour out his Spirit upon them and give them a new heart (cf. Deut 30:1-6; Isa 11:12; 14:1; 43:5-6; 49:12; Jer 3:16-18; 16:14-16; 32:41; Ezek 11:17-20; 36-37; Amos 9:14-15; cf. Holy Land or Israel?)

16. CFI: Statement of Faith - In light of Nostra Aetate and of the above questions, Catholics for Israel proposes the following statement of faith: Concerning the Jewish people: We DO: affirm an unconditional love for the Jewish people, our “elder brothers in the faith.”

R. Sungenis: That depends on what “unconditional love” means. If it means that Catholics are to preach the Gospel to the Jews despite how the Jews continually reject the Gospel, then the phrase is being used correctly. But if the implication of “unconditional love for the Jewish people” is that the Jewish people are to be favored over any other ethnic group or race of people, it is not only wrong, it is sinful, for God is no respecter of persons (Romans 2:9-10). Moreover, the only Jews who are our “elder brothers in the faith” are those like Abraham who waited and believed in the future Messiah, Jesus Christ (John 8:56: “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it, and was glad”). All other Jews are neither “brothers” nor “in the faith.”

CFI: Sungenis is refuted by Pope John Paul II, who does not use the designation "elder brothers" on condition that Jews believe in Christ, but rather speaking in the synagogue of Rome and referring to Jews in general:

You are our dearly beloved brothers and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.... (Pope John Paul II, Speech at the Synagogue of Rome, 13 April 1986, 4)

17. CFI: we oppose anti-Semitism in all its forms, including under its currently common disguise of anti- Zionism.

R. Sungenis: We notice here that the author does not give a definition of “anti-semitism,” but the implication of his words is that if one does not agree with his Zionistic stance that the Jews are to have the land of Palestine by divine right (which is the essence of Zionism), then one is to be regarded as an “anti-semite.” This is about as close to a mortal sin and apostasy as one could be, for it not only rejects the Catholic Church’s teaching that the OT prophecies of a restoration of Israel refer to the Catholic Church herself (cf. Lumen Gentium 2, 9; Ad Gentes 1, 5; Acts 15:16-18), it reintroduces the very ethnic and nationalistic distinctions that St. Paul and the other New Testament writer says are “anathema” (Gal. 1:8-9; 5:1-4; Col 2:15-16). The proper understanding of “anti-semitism” is an irrational hatred of the Jews simply because they are Jews. It is a mortal sin. “Anti-Zionism” is a rejection of the political belief that the land of Palestine belongs to the Jews alone.

CFI: It is remarkable how quickly Sungenis judges what is "mortal sin and apostasy" considered that he is the one who was forbidden by his bishop to write about the Jews, and nonetheless has publicly defied, calumniated, and accused of heresy a successor of the apostles. Actually, Zionism is the belief that Jews have the right to live in the land of their forefathers, but not necessarily that the land belongs to them "alone". Perhaps Sungenis will also have to accuse Cardinal Schönborn, the editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Pope John Paul II of mortal sin and apostasy?

Schoenborn said it was doctrinally important for Christians to recognize Jews' connection to the "Holy Land" and Christians should rejoice in Jews' return to Palestine as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. He also said Pope John Paul II had himself declared the biblical commandment for Jews to live in Israel an everlasting covenant that remained valid today. (Roman Catholic Cardinal Endorses Zionism)
It must be understood that Jews, who for 2,000 years were dispersed among the nations of the world, had decided to return to the land of their ancestors. This is their right. (Pope John Paul II, April 3, 1994)
We [Jews and Catholics] draw encouragement from the fruits of our collective strivings which include the recognition of the unique and unbroken covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish People and the total rejection of anti-Semitism in all its forms, including anti-Zionism as a more recent manifestation of anti-Semitism. (The 18th International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee Meeting)

Sungenis' quotation of Galatians and Colossians is again completely out of context. While we are speaking here about anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, he is referring to passages where Paul is opposing the circumcision of Gentiles. The fact that the New Covenant has brought unity between Jews and Gentiles does not mean that this has abolished all distinction and particular callings between them. If this were true then the New Covenant has also obliterated all distinction between male and female (cf. Gal 3:28). This is obviously nonsense. Christ has come to restore unity in charity between Jews and Gentiles (and equality regarding salvation), but just as there remains specific and diverse callings between men and women, so there remains distinct callings between Jews and Gentiles.

18. CFI: we call Christians to repent from past and present anti-Semitic acts, words, and attitudes.

R. Sungenis: Granted. If any Christian espouses anti-semitism, he is to repent. At the same time, any Christian who espouses philosemitism is to repent as well. Philosemitism is the favoring of Jews simply because they are Jews. Once again, God is no respecter of persons. Jews and Gentiles are alike in His eyes. Only those who accept God and his son Jesus Christ are favored by God.

CFI: This is the first time that I hear that one must repent for the "sin" of philosemitism. So if a person is called to mission in Japan and feels a particular calling and love for the Japanese, must he/she also repent for this "discriminating" love? Why is it so hard for Sungenis to understand that a calling and love for a particular people does not mean a denigration of others? All the more so if the Scriptures themselves declare concerning the chosen people that "as regards election they [Israel] are beloved for the sake of their forefathers" (Rom 11:28).

With this absurd comment Sungenis should be consistent and call upon a number of people to repent for their philosemitism. First, he should call upon popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI to repent, since both have commented on the privileged relationship between the Church and Judaism, in contrast to all other religions (see point 11 above). Then, Sungenis should criticize the philosemitic Roman centurion of Luke 7 (see especially verse 5, "for he loves our nation and it was he who built us our synagogue"), even though Jesus had nothing but words of praise for him. Finally, Sungenis should tell God to repent, since the entire Scriptures bear witness to His great and surpassing love for Israel. See for example the entire book of Hosea, which is specifically about how God will never cast off Israel despite grievous sins because He loves her so much. Cf. also Deut. 4:37, 7:6-9, 14:2, 23:5, 26:18; 2 Sam. 7:23; 1Kgs. 10:9; Isa. 43:1-7, 66:10-11; Jer. 31:3-4; Hos. [esp.] 11:1, 14:4; Mic. 7:18-20; Mal. 1:1-3; Ps. 87:2, 122:6, 135:4; Prov. 3:12; Song 8:6-7; 2Chron. 2:11-12, 9:8; Rom. 11:28.

19. CFI: we affirm the irrevocable and permanent nature of God’s covenant with the Jewish people and oppose the false teaching of replacement theology (supersessionism), which claims that the Church has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people.

R. Sungenis: The author has now made his most blatant rejection of the clear and consistent teaching of the Catholic Church, which has taught for nearly 2000 years that the Jewish covenant has been revoked and superseded by the New Covenant and the Catholic Church. Here are those teachings in brief: [there follows a long list of quotes from some Scriptures already quoted above and a number of Church Fathers. We retain only one here for the sake of brevity:] Cardinal Ratzinger: “Thus the Sinai [Mosaic] Covenant is indeed superseded” (Many Religions – One Covenant, p. 70).

CFI: Of course, Sungenis has taken Ratzinger's statement out of context. The quote continues:

So the expectation of the New Covenant... does not conflict with the Sinai covenant; rather, it fulfills the dynamic expectation found in that very covenant.
For the Apostle [Paul], the Mosaic Law, as an irrevocable gift of God to Israel, is not abrogated but relativized, since it is only by faith in God’s promises to Abraham, now fulfilled in Christ, that we receive the grace of justification and new life. The Law finds its end in Christ (cf. Rom 10:4) and its fulfillment in the new commandment of love. (Pope Benedict XVI, Homily on St. Paul and Justification, Nov. 19, 2008; emphasis added)

Yes, in one sense we may say that the Sinai Covenant is "superseded" in the sense that in of itself it was insufficient for salvation, and it was fulfilled into the New and greater covenant (cf. Mt 5:17). But fulfillment and completion does not mean the same thing as abrogation and rejection. The fact that the spiritual promises are indeed fulfilled in the Church does not mean that the original promises to Israel (sealed by divine covenant and solemn oaths) have been snatched away from its original recipients. Moreover, even the New Covenant is also promised first and foremost to the Jews ("the house of Israel and the house of Judah," Jer. 31:31-37). There is no other 'new covenant' for Gentiles, who participate in the New Covenant, in a certain sense, 'via' Israel - as Jesus said: "Salvation is from the Jews." (John 4:22).

20. CFI: we affirm the Church’s faith that Israel’s calling, destiny and salvation can only be accomplished in union with Jesus, Messiah of Israel and King of the Jews, who was sent first and foremost to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mat 15:24) and wept over Jerusalem’s rejection of Him (Luke 19:41), and that union with Jesus is most fully attained in the Catholic Church.

R. Sungenis: If the author is implying by his grammar that Israel has a special calling and destiny over and above the Gentiles or any other race or ethnic group on earth, and that this special calling and destiny is to be accomplished as a solitary blessing for Israel, he is not teaching Catholic truth. In the New Testament, Israel’s calling and destiny does not begin anew, making Israel the pinnacle of God’s work, when the Jews accept Christ as Messiah. Rather, the Jews are assimilated into the Catholic Church and become its ordinary members just as everyone else in the world who joins the Catholic Church. There is no special place or extra divine blessing in being Jewish or being a convert who is Jewish. If anything, the Jews should more fittingly assume a posture of humility when they join the Catholic Church considering that their ancestors killed the Messiah and disbelieved and ridiculed his Church for the past 20 centuries.

CFI: Ironically Sungenis speaks of humily with incredible arrogance, not only by resorting to the old anti-Semitic cliché that the Jews "killed the Messiah," not only by denying the right of Jewish-Christians to preserve their rich religious and cultural heritage, but also by completely disregarding the shameful way in which Christians have treated Jews throughout the centuries and by blaming the Jews instead. It is such Christian anti-Semites who thereby "crucify Christ anew" by their ongoing persecution of God's elected people and by denying that such deeds have taken place (see above, point 12). And then they have the nerve to blame the Jews for rejecting Christ and the Church when their anti-Semitic attitudes, words and deeds are precisely the chief stumbling block that have been keeping the Jews away from the Church for centuries.

21. CFI: we reject, therefore, the false teaching of dual-covenant theology, which would have the Jews attain salvation through the Old Covenant and observance of the Torah, while Gentiles attain salvation through Jesus the Messiah. Although "the Torah is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good" (Rom 7:12), it remains nonetheless that “a man is not justified by the works of the Torah [law] but by faith in Jesus Christ… for by the works of the Torah no flesh shall be justified… for if righteousness comes through the Torah, then Christ died in vain” (Gal 2:16, 21).

R. Sungenis: Here the author shows his utter confusion in theology. Earlier he taught that we are to “affirm the irrevocable and permanent nature of God’s covenant with the Jewish people and oppose the false teaching of replacement theology (supersessionism).” If so, then this would allow for the existence of two covenants, one for the Jewish people that was established in the Old Testament, and one for the Church which was established in the New Testament. But if there are two covenants existing at the same time, then it is a “dual-covenant theology,” the very teaching that the author says he repudiates. The author tries to escape the contradictory nature of his formulation by claiming that “dual-covenant theology” refers to saying that the Jews can attain salvation through the Old Covenant; while he earlier defined “supersessionism” as “the false teaching of replacement theology (supersessionism) [sic] which claims that the Church has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people.” The truth is, there is no difference between “dual-covenant theology” and the denial of supersessionism. Any establishment of a continuing covenant exclusively for the Jews is both a denial of supersessionism and an advocacy of dual-covenant theology. The reason is simple. All covenants from the Old Testament have found their fulfillment in Christ, and Christ established only one covenant, the New Covenant. All other covenants have either been revoked or have been coalesced into the New Covenant.

CFI: There is no confusion in theology at all in our position. The Scriptures testifies to several covenants, with one building on the other. God established covenants through Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. The covenant with Moses did not abolish the covenant with Abraham (and promises to him) but built upon it and fulfilled it. The New Covenant established by Christ did not abrogate the Mosaic covenant (and promises to Israel) but built upon it and fulfilled it. Most of Israel have still not accepted the New Covenant, but this does not mean that the Mosaic Covenant has been rendered meaningless. The covenant is still valid, but it is not salvific. It becomes fulfilled and completed in the New Covenant. There is in fact a great difference between "dual-covenant theology" and the denial of supersessionism. Dual-covenant theology proposes that there are two ways to salvation: Judaism for Jews, and Christ for Gentiles. This is obviously an error. The rejection of supersessionism means that although Christ is the only way to salvation, God has not revoked the covenant and promises that he made to the Jewish people. The New, spiritual covenant and promises does not abolish the Old Covenant, with its particular calling and earthly promises to Israel. (See What is Replacement Theology and What is Dual-Covenant Theology?)

22. CFI: we affirm the need for establishing a Jewish-Catholic community where Catholic Jews will be able to live a genuinely Catholic life, in accordance with the teachings of Jesus the Messiah and of His Catholic Church, while at the same time remaining entirely faithful to the Torah and to Israel's cultural and religious heritage. This is in accordance with the first community of Jewish Christians who were "all zealous for the Torah" (Acts 21:20) - for Jesus did not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them (Mat 5:17-20).

R. Sungenis: As noted earlier, the wish to be “entirely faithful to the Torah and to Israel's cultural and religious heritage” was condemned at the Council of Florence and has not been modified in any Catholic doctrinal teaching either before or after the Council of Florence. The passage in Acts 21:20 is taken out of context by the author. The context shows that St. Paul was teaching precisely the opposite of what the author is contending, that is, that the Jews should NOT be observing the laws of the Torah. Paul reiterated this prohibition throughout the book of Acts, and also in Colossian 2:15-16; Galatians 5:1-4 and many other places. The author also takes Matthew 5:17-18 out of context. Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets in the New Covenant, not by a continuation of the Old Covenant. If not, then Jesus would be contradicting the Holy Spirit who wrote in Hebrews 7:18 and 8:1-13 and 10:9 that the Old Covenant has been revoked and replaced by the New Covenant. Analogously, if I hire a worker under a contract to do a job for me, when he completes that job the contract is over, for it has been fulfilled. If I want him to do another job, I must make another contract with him.

CFI: Honestly we don't understand how Sungenis manages to twist Acts 21:20-24 to say exactly the contrary of its plain meaning - that even Paul still lived in observance of the Law. However with his worker/contract analogy Sungenis has revealed the fatal flaw in his thinking: for a divine covenant is precisely not the same as a worker's contract. A contract is an agreement for an exchange of goods or services. When the transaction has been accomplished, the contract is indeed ended. But a covenant is a permanent exchange of persons in a sacred kinship bond - like a marriage. Sungenis' idea of covenant sounds more like a divorce than a marriage: According to him, God was dissatisfied with Israel and so he changed His mind, divorced her, and remarried with the Church. By contrast, the Scriptures testify that God has made an eternal covenant with Israel, and He will remain faithful to His bride until the end - even as she has now been "enlarged" to include the Gentiles in the Church.

23. CFI: We do NOT: Pretend to love the Jewish people and support Israel as a cover-up for missionary activity.

R. Sungenis: My suggestion is that the author cultivate a love for all unsaved people, not just unsaved Jews. Preaching the Gospel primarily to Jews is showing favoritism based on race.

CFI: In fact we do cultivate a love for all unsaved people, though we feel a particular calling towards the Jewish people. Sungenis' obsession with "favoritism based on race" is difficult to comprehend. We wish he would also cultivate a greater love for all people rather than attacking other people's apostolates. See above, point 18.

24. CFI: Concerning the land and people of Israel: We DO: believe that God’s promise of the land of Israel to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was never revoked by Jesus and the New Covenant, and that this promise remains valid to this day.

R. Sungenis: As we noted earlier, a revocation of the Old Covenant means a revocation of the land that was under the Old Covenant. The two cannot be separated, since the latter is legally bound up with the former. Moreover, God already fulfilled his promise of land to the Jews in the Old Testament. In three separate places, Scripture says that God fulfilled all the promises of land for the Jews that he originally promised to Abraham, and that there is no more land promised by God for the Jews, since He has fulfilled his promise once and did not promise it a second time... (See Joshua 21:43-45; 1 King 8:56; Nehemiah 9:7-8).

CFI: In fact many Scriptures point to the fact that the promise of the land to the Jews in the OT and of their return from exile were not fulfilled. God promised:

  • A return from all the lands where Israe
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