The question of the present status of God's covenant with Israel has been extensively discussed in Jewish-Christian dialogues since the Shoah. Catholics look for an approach that fits in the framework of Catholic doctrine, much of which has been summarized by the Second Vatican Council. According to post-conciliar documents, in interpreting the council, priority should be given to the four great constitutions, then to the decrees, and finally to the declarations. The Declaration on Non-Christian Religions, though excellent, is not exhaustive or sufficient. It needs to be understood in the broader context of the full teaching of the council.
The Second Vatican Council taught with great emphasis that there is one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ. All salvation comes through Christ, and there is no salvation in any other name. In Christ, the incarnate Son of God, revelation reaches its unsurpassable fullness. Everyone is in principle required to believe in Christ as the way, the truth, and the life, and in the Church he has established as an instrument for the salvation of all. Anyone who, being aware of this, refuses to enter the Church or remain in her cannot be saved. On the other hand, persons who "through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God, and moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them" may attain to everlasting salvation in some manner known to God.
Christ gave the apostles, and through them the Church, the solemn commission to preach the saving truth of the gospel even to the ends of the earth: "The obligation of spreading the faith is imposed on every disciple of Christ, according to his ability," as Lumen Gentium puts it. The Church "prays and labors in order that the entire world may become the People of God, the Body of the Lord, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and that in Christ, the Head of all, there may be rendered to the Creator and Author of the Universe all honor and glory."
In seeking to spread the faith, Christians should remember that faith is by its very nature a free response to the word of God. Moral or physical coercion must therefore be avoided. While teaching this, the council regretfully admits that at certain times and places the faith has been propagated in ways that were not in accord with--or were even opposed to--the spirit of the gospel.
Christian revelation did not come into the world without a long preparation, beginning with our first parents, Adam and Eve. Through Abraham, Moses, and the prophets, God taught Israel "to acknowledge him as the one living and true God, provident Father and just judge, and to wait for the Savior promised by him," as the council's dogmatic constitution on divine revelation, Dei Verbum, declares. God "entered into a covenant with Abraham (cf. Gen 15:18) and, through Moses, with the people of Israel." "The principal purpose to which the plan of the Old Covenant was directed was to prepare for the coming both of Christ, the universal Redeemer, and of the messianic kingdom." One and the same God is the inspirer and author of both the Old and the New Testaments. He "wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and that the Old be made manifest by the New."
The people of the new covenant have a special spiritual bond with Abraham's stock, the council's Nostra Aetate insists. The Church gratefully recalls that she received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people of Israel. She is aware that, even though Jerusalem did not recognize the time of her visitation, and the Jews in large numbers have failed to accept the gospel, still, according to Paul, the Jews still remain most dear to God because of their fathers.
The Second Vatican Council, while providing a solid and traditional framework for discussing Jewish-Christian relations, did not attempt to settle all questions. In particular, it left open the question whether the Old Covenant remains in force today. Are there two covenants, one for Jews and one for Christians ? If so, are the two related as phases of a single developing covenant, a single saving plan of God? May Jews who embrace Christianity continue to adhere to Jewish covenantal practices?
In the half-century since Vatican II major contributions to Catholic covenant theology have been made by Pope John Paul II, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), Walter Cardinal Kasper, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the Pontifical Biblical Commission. With these contributions, together with some less authoritative writings, we may find a path through the thickets of controversy.
A place to start is the term "Old Covenant," which is sometimes criticized on the ground that the adjective "old" suggests the idea of being antiquated, even obsolete. Perhaps because I am no longer young, I find it difficult to share this criticism. When people speak of the "old country," for example, they do not imply that the old no longer exists or is close to dissolution. In any case the term "Old Covenant" is solidly in place. It appears in writings of Paul and in much official teaching, including the documents of Vatican II. Some writers, following the Letter to the Hebrews, may prefer to speak of the "first" or "prior" covenant. All of these terms, considered in themselves, leave open the question whether or not the earlier covenant is still in force.
To judge from the Scriptures, the Old Covenant itself is multiple. In the Hebrew Bible we read of a whole series of covenants being established before the coming of Christ, notably those made with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. In Romans, Paul speaks of the Jews having been given "covenants" in the plural. The Fourth Eucharistic Prayer in the Roman Missal praises God for having offered covenants to his people "many times" (foedera pluries hominibus obtulisti). The term "Old Covenant" could be used to refer to the whole series, but when Paul uses the term in 2 Corinthians 3:14 (compare Galatians 4:24-25), he is evidently referring to the Mosaic Law. And this, I believe, is the normal practice of Christians. The Old Covenant par excellence is that of Sinai.
The term "covenant" is the usual translation of the Hebrew b'rith and the Greek diatheke. Scholars commonly distinguish between two types of covenant, the covenant grant and the covenant treaty. The covenant grant, modeled on the free royal decree, is an unconditional divine gift and is usually understood to be irrevocable. An example would be the covenant of God with Noah and his descendants in Genesis 9:8-17. God makes an everlasting promise not...