Reuters recently reported that some Israeli rabbis had written the Vatican to express their “distress” about one line from Pope Francis’s recent addresses on Galatians: “The Law, however, does not give life.” According to Reuters, the rabbis worry that this expresses a belief even worse than supersessionism: “In his homily, the pope presents the Christian faith as not just superseding the Torah; but asserts that the latter no longer gives life, implying that Jewish religious practice in the present era is rendered obsolete.” They fear the pope’s words reflect a pre-conciliar and very negative Catholic attitude toward the Jews: “This is in effect part and parcel of the ‘teaching of contempt’ towards Jews and Judaism that we had thought had been fully repudiated by the Church.”

Some Catholics expressed surprise at this news—Isn’t the pope simply summarizing St. Paul? Isn’t this what Christianity has always taught? Why is this a big deal? I would like to provide some context for understanding this controversy and why the pope’s remark may have struck a nerve. It would help to know the contents of the full letter from the rabbis, but as that has not been made public I will do the best I can.

Supersessionism and the Law

First, Catholics must understand that since the Holocaust and Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has recognized the pain and suffering that bad Christian theology has inflicted on the Jews. This includes false, negative caricatures of Jews, ancient Israel, the Old Testament, and the Law. It also includes what is called supersessionism or “replacement theology.” This is the belief that the New Covenant has uprooted and replaced the Old Covenant. It says not just that Christianity is right and Judaism wrong, but that Christianity exists validly and Judaism does not. This is a dangerous theology that has propped up much antisemitic oppression.

Although certain passages of Scripture have been used to justify it, supersessionism is wrong both morally and theologically. It is explicitly contradicted by Romans 11. In this crucial passage, Paul likens Israel to an olive tree. Far from being uprooted, this tree remains as the foundation into which Jesus’ non-Jewish followers have been grafted:

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place and have come to share in the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. If you do boast, consider that you do not support the root; the root supports you. (Rom 11:17-18)

On the firm basis of Paul’s doctrine, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Church’s Relation to Non-Christian Religions put to rest the long-held but mistaken idea that God’s covenant with the Jews had come to an end: “God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues—such is the witness of the Apostle” (Nostra Aetate 4). Because bad Christian theology directly contributed to and enabled the oppression and suffering of the Jews, it is morally imperative that we Christians listen to Jews and examine our language carefully. If our partners in Jewish-Christian dialogue say that something we have said causes them distress, we must, as believers in Christ, take that seriously. This is what the Vatican is doing, according to Reuters.

It is not uncommon to hear ill-informed Christians speak negatively about the Torah, even though it is just as much God’s Word as the New Testament. Also, because of its central place in Judaism, it is important that we Christians speak about it fairly, truthfully, and with great sensitivity when being critical. In his address, the pope speaks positively about the Torah multiple times, but he also said that “the Law … does not give life.” Since the term “Law” can be vague, some questioned whether he was even referring to the Torah. But just a few sentences earlier he clearly indicated that he was indeed speaking of the Mosaic Law and, even more specifically, the Ten Commandments: “When Paul speaks about the Law, he is normally referring to the Mosaic Law, the law given by Moses, the Ten Commandments.” He even notes that Jews call it the Torah, a term he then also uses. It is somewhat surprising that he specifically mentioned the Ten Commandments before saying that the Law does not give life when one of them is the prohibition against murder.

Jews generally believe that the Torah requires them to protect human life. In Deuteronomy, after giving the Law, Moses says:

I call heaven and earth today to witness against you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the LORD, your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him. For that will mean life for you, a long life for you to live on the land which the LORD swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them. (Deut 30:19-20)

To follow the Law is to choose life—not just for yourself, but for your children. “Choose life” summarizes the idea that following the Torah means that saving human life comes first. It is the meaning of the Law and the purpose of the Law. Is it any surprise that the pope saying “the Law does not give life” led to distress?

Justification by faith

As I said, some Catholics were confused at the rabbis’ reaction—isn’t this what Christianity has always taught about the Law, almost a paraphrase of Paul’s own words? After all, Paul says in Galatians, “Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Of course not! For if a law had been given that could bring life, then righteousness would in reality come from the law” (3:21) and “by works of the law no one will be justified” (2:16). Like everything in the Bible, these words can only be rightly understood in context.

Paul is irate in this letter. There are a number of clues indicating his emotional state. First, instead of a section of thanksgiving after the greeting, which is standard in his other letters (e.g., Rom 1:8-15; 1 Cor 1:4-9), he launches in with an accusation against the Christians of Galatia: “I am amazed that you are so quickly forsaking the one who called you by the grace of Christ for a different gospel” (1:6). In chapter 3 he calls them “stupid” multiple times (vv. 1, 3) and later uses sarcasm (5:12). He’s angry over a theological dispute that cuts to the crux of his divine message as Apostle to the Gentiles.

The Gentile converts to Christianity in Galatia were being told they needed to be circumcised. This had been the status quo for Gentiles who wished to convert to Judaism and become part of the People of God. To use an analogy, this would have been no more surprising than someone today telling a convert to Catholicism they must get baptized. But Paul explains in his letter that things have changed in light of Christ: God’s covenant with Israel is now open to Gentiles—not by becoming Jews, but just by becoming followers of Jesus Christ. As the pope also notes in his address, Paul bases his argument especially on the fact that God’s covenant with Abraham, the father of nations (nations is what the word Gentiles literally means), pre-dated the giving of the Law by hundreds of years. So he says it would be unfair for God to require Gentiles to uphold every part of the Law in order to become followers of Jesus. It would be like adding a new requirement to a contract after both parties had agreed to it. Circumcision was given to the Jews, not to the whole human race. Circumcision was obviously a particularly difficult problem, but dietary restrictions and observance of the Sabbath are also “works of the Law” that should not be required of Gentiles.

Paul’s negative statements about the Law arise when he is arguing that the Law does not “justify.” In this context, “justify” means to pass from a state of sin to a state of righteousness. Justification is a Christian category. Paul says that observing the Law cannot justify a person; only faith in the Messiah can do that. Paul developed this understanding from the revelation God gave him about including the Gentiles (see Gal 1:15-16). He did not develop it in contradiction to his fellow Jews, as if they had been preaching that the Law justified. Rather, Jews (then and now) follow the Law because God commanded it, not because they’re trying to earn a reward. In explaining justification by faith, Paul, knowing that he is liable to be misunderstood, is careful to stipulate that he is not saying the Law is bad in the slightest: “So then the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom 7:12).

What did Pope Francis mean?

I think two things are especially important for understanding the rabbis’ letter. The first is that the pope’s statement, as it stands, sounds very alarming to them. Thus they asked Cardinal Kurt Koch, the president of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, to “convey our distress to Pope Francis.” His words sounded to them as if he was stating the Jewish way of life to be invalid!

The second is that no one—not even the rabbis, I think—believes that that is what the pope really meant. The Reuters article states, “Francis has had a very good relationship with Jews. While still archbishop in native Buenos Aires, he co-wrote a book with one of the city’s rabbis, Abraham Skorka, and has maintained a lasting friendship with him.” An article for Religion News Service quotes theologian Massimo Faggioli saying, “I’m sure it’s not that Pope Francis is going back to pre-Vatican II theology… But it’s important because in this environment any minor signal that could suggest that the teaching of Vatican II should not be taken seriously is alarming.” The real issue is how his words could be taken out of context. Thus the rabbis ask him to clarify for Catholics what he means to “ensure that any derogatory conclusions drawn from this homily are clearly repudiated.” Otherwise, antisemitic Catholics could take his words out of context to justify their antisemitic beliefs. I don’t think the rabbis want a clarification for themselves; they want a clarification for Catholics.

It seems very likely, given the context of Galatians, that the pope means the Law does not give eternal life. I don’t think the rabbis would want to dispute this, since Jews do not follow the Law to receive a reward of the afterlife or “earn salvation,” as Judaism is sometimes falsely caricatured in Christian polemics. As I explained, Paul’s theology of justification is about how a person can be righteous before the all-holy God. His answer is that “Jews and Greeks alike [. . .] are all under the domination of sin” (Rom 3:9), that “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God” (3:23), but that salvation is attainable through faith in Christ: “They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus” (3:24). Paul is talking about “eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23). In the Bible, the word life can be used in this way: when a Jewish scholar asked Jesus how to “inherit eternal life,” Jesus tells him to follow the Torah (Luke 10:26). When the scholar correctly summarizes the Law as the twin law of love of God and neighbor (10:27), Jesus responds by saying, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” He does not need to add the word eternally because its meaning is clear in context.[1]

That the pope meant eternal life and was not invalidating the Jewish way of life or resurrecting supersessionism is indicated by how he says that “we Christians, we journey through life looking toward a promise.” The pope distinguishes between the journey and the promise, stating that “the Law is a journey.” While the pope does not give an exact definition of promise here, it seems clear it must be the promise of eternal life at the center of Christianity: “And this is the promise that he made us: eternal life” (1 John 2:25).

Philip Cunningham, director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at St. Joseph’s University, points out in a helpful backgrounder piece that it is unclear whether in some of his general statements, such as when he asked whether “we” need the Law, the pope meant only Christians or all people, Jews included: “it is unclear whether he means that the ‘us’ should include Jews, thus opening the possibility of an implicit criticism of Jewish traditions of biblical interpretation.” Perhaps the rabbis took the pope’s words in an absolute sense, as though he meant to tell Jews to give up the Torah. But in several instances, such as the quotation above that begins “we Christians,” the pope explicitly specifies that he’s talking to and about Christians. Papal Wednesday addresses are catechetical in nature, giving Christian instruction to a Christian audience. Therefore, we can safely conclude that Pope Francis’s disputed sentence means that observance of the Torah does not give Christians eternal life. It does not seem that he was commenting on Judaism.

Indeed, Pope Francis has spoken positively about the Torah in Judaism on several occasions without supersessionism. Cunningham, in the above-linked piece, quotes four different papal statements from Francis on the subject, such as, “For Jews, the Word of God is present above all in the Torah.”[2] Perhaps most importantly, he taught in Evangelii Gaudium: “We hold the Jewish people in special regard because their covenant with God has never been revoked” (247). This is an absolute rejection of supersessionism.

Lastly, in the same Wednesday address, Pope Francis says that the Law is “a tremendous gift that God gave his people.” He says that Paul “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.” He also says that “The Law is the way a person, a people express that they are in covenant with God.” Finally, he says that for Christians, “The Law leads us to Jesus,” and it is “the pedagogue toward faith in Christ, that is, the teacher that leads you by the hand toward the encounter.” So it is clear that the pope was not encouraging negativity toward the Law or Judaism. Likewise, we Christians should not denigrate the Law. Rather, we should reflect upon how it leads us to Christ as a pedagogue.

Adam Rasmussen contributed to this essay.

Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/zedzap/4561319961 (Creative Commons)

  1. At this point someone might observe that Jesus could be interpreted as saying something at odds with Paul’s teaching of justification by faith. By pointing to the Ten Commandments, which are in essence love, Jesus seems to be saying that our salvation is conditioned upon our righteous behavior rather than faith. This is a serious issue in biblical interpretation about which countless theologians and scholars have written. Unfortunately, it cannot be sufficiently addressed within the scope of this post, which is about the pope’s reflections on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Suffice it to say that Christians believe that Jesus and Paul are not opposed to each other and that salvation is indeed God’s free gift that we cannot earn, even by righteous behavior and obedience. This, indeed, has been a central point of Pope Francis’s entire pontificate and one that continues to evoke controversy from confused Catholics (whom the pope likens to Pelagian heretics) who have a rules-based mentality.
  2. Pope Francis, Address to Members of the International Council of Christians and Jews (6/30/15).


Discuss this article!

Keep the conversation going in our SmartCatholics Group! You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.

Liked this post? Take a second to support Where Peter Is on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Angela Rasmussen has a Ph.D. in biblical studies. She teaches at Georgetown University and The Catholic University of America. She is married with three daughters.

Share via
Copy link