Trust me, I know that it is hard to write accurate, easy-to-read articles about complicated Vatican theological documents. This is especially true when dealing with materials focusing on very nuanced issues that continue to cause behind-the-scenes debates among Catholics.
It's even harder to write informative, catchy and, yes, accurate headlines for these kinds of stories.
This brings me to a recent New York Times report that ran with this headline: "Vatican Says Catholics Should Not Try to Convert Jews."
The problem with that headline is that it is simplistic to the point of being inaccurate -- that is, if the goal is for readers to understand the document ("The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable") addressed in this story.
Now here is the ironic part. You can tell that the headline is inaccurate by carefully reading the actual Times story, which means reading past the flawed lede on which the headline is based. Let us attend.
ROME -- Catholics should not try to convert Jews, but should work together with them to fight anti-Semitism, the Vatican said on Thursday in a far-reaching document meant to solidify its increasingly positive relations with Jews.
Then, in the third paragraph, there is this:
Addressing an issue that has been a sore point between the two faiths for centuries, the commission wrote that the church was “obliged to view evangelization to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views.” It specified that “the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.”
Did you catch the subtle, but very important, difference between the lede and the actual quote from the document?
The lede says that it is wrong for Catholics -- which would mean priests, laypeople and other Catholic individuals -- to try to win Jewish individuals to Christian faith. But what does the document say? It says that the Catholic Church, as an institution, "neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews (italics added)."
So evangelism by individual Catholics talking with individual Jews is acceptable, while organized efforts targeting Jews alone -- perhaps a Catholic version of Jews for Jesus -- are considered out of bounds.
Thus, the headline and the lede need to be corrected to reflect the actual content of the story and the document on which it is based.
If you want to know more about this complicated issue, let me point you toward a Q&A piece by the conservative apologist Jimmy Akin, writing in The National Catholic Register. It contains lots of detailed quotes drawn from the Vatican document, which is precisely what the Times piece is lacking.
Akin explains that, beginning with the title, this document was clearly crafted to reject a concept called "supersessionism," which argues that the "Church has completely taken over the promises of God regarding Israel, so that today the Jewish people have no special status whatsoever."
The document also addresses another theological issue linked to this -- the "two paths to salvation" concept that says that Christians find salvation through Jesus Christ and Jews through their own covenant. "Two paths" theory is, of course, an open door to full-out Universalism, which argues that all religious and nonreligious paths lead to the top of the same eternal mountain (so to speak).
The problem: What to do with the statement (John 14:6) in which Jesus -- a Jew -- states, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me."
Akin notes that this Vatican document addresses this issue head on, in material that really needed to be in the Times report:
... There are not two paths to salvation according to the expression "Jews hold to the Torah, Christians hold to Christ." Christian faith proclaims that Christ’s work of salvation is universal and involves all mankind. God’s word is one single and undivided reality which takes concrete form in each respective historical context. ...
Since God has never revoked his covenant with his people Israel, there cannot be different paths or approaches to God’s salvation. The theory that there may be two different paths to salvation, the Jewish path without Christ and the path with the Christ, whom Christians believe is Jesus of Nazareth, would in fact endanger the foundations of Christian faith. Confessing the universal and therefore also exclusive mediation of salvation through Jesus Christ belongs to the core of Christian faith. . . . [T]he Church and Judaism cannot be represented as "two parallel ways to salvation."
There are other complicated subjects attached to that issue, but for the purpose of this story the Times team -- in order to cover the material accurately -- really needed to address the "two paths" section of "The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable" and another section that focuses on PERSONAL, as opposed to INSTITUTIONAL, evangelism.
Akin underlines this crucial passage:
Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews, although they should do so in a humble and sensitive manner, acknowledging that Jews are bearers of God’s Word, and particularly in view of the great tragedy of the Shoah [i.e., the Holocaust] (GCGI 40).
And the logical implication of this is seen in two other statements:
Jesus ... calls his Church from both Jews and Gentiles (cf. Eph 2:11-22) on the basis of faith in Christ and by means of baptism, through which there is incorporation into his Body which is the Church (GCGI 41).
It is and remains a qualitative definition of the Church of the New Covenant that it consists of Jews and Gentiles, even if the quantitative proportions of Jewish and Gentile Christians may initially give a different impression [GCGI 43]
So what is the point, journalistically speaking?
Clearly, at this point, the Times urgently needs a reporter or two willing to listen carefully to the views of doctrinally traditional Catholics, as well as to progressive Catholics. Once again, the goal is not to AGREE with the Catholic doctrines being discussed, but to understand them well enough to cover them accurately and clearly (which is, as I said up top, often very hard to do in a daily newspaper).
If the Times is not willing to hire such reporters, then it would really help the newspaper's coverage if there were conservative Catholics who were willing to seek out Times people and offer insights (with people on both sides recording the exchanges).
Would the Times people listen?
If the goal is journalism, the answer has to be "yes." Liberal Catholics and conservative Catholics have different takes on these kinds of documents and their debates would be illuminating for readers (including legions of journalists elsewhere who read and heed what is printed in the Times).
Talking to worthy, respected voices on both sides would also help the Times avoid the kinds of errors found in this headline which, as I noted, actually conflicts with information quoted in the story.
IMAGE: A Catholics vs. Jews chess set.