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Vatican Reaffirms That Jews Can Go to Heaven, Though It’s Not Sure Why That’s True

By Ben Mathis-Lilley


The Vatican released a document Thursday addressing relations between Catholics and Jews. Some outlets have reported that the statement includes an “unprecedented” finding that Jews can achieve “salvation” without being converted to belief in Jesus. Is this really a groundbreaking doctrinal change for the church? And can Jews (according to Catholics) really go to heaven?

Not quite and yes, says James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large of Americamagazine. The new statement, Martin says, is a “refinement of Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s great document on relations with non-Christian religions, which revolutionized the Vatican’s relationship with the Jewish people.” Nostra Aetate, released in 1965, was a landmark statement of reconciliation. An excerpt:

Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.

Even apart from the 1965 statement, the idea that salvation—eternal life in heaven—can be available to those who did not declare a belief in Jesus’ divinity during their lifetimes is one that Catholics are open to. How exactly does that work, given that the belief that Jesus is the Messiah has been the defining characteristic of the Catholic Church’s idea of salvation for millennia? Well, the new Vatican document says: That’s a mystery. It literally says that:

That the Jews are participants in God’s salvation is theologically unquestionable, but how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery.

Martin spoke in similar terms. “My Jewish friends who live good and holy lives, I believe, will achieve salvation,” he told me. “How that can happen without professing faith in Jesus Christ is a mystery.” Per Martin, the 2015 document makes explicit a belief in potential Jewish salvation that was


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