Emeritus Pope Benedict

Christians Remain Christians

[Unofficial translation from the Herder Korrespondenz, May 2019, pp. 49-51.]

On the debate over an essay by Benedict XVI on Christian-Jewish dialogue

Orthodox Judaism does not expect in dialogue with Christians that they throw their theological convictions overboard. It is important to present your own views sensitively and respectfully.

By Jehoschua Ahrens 


When his essay, “Grace and Vocation without Remorse: Notes on the Treatise ‘De Iudaeis’” in the theological journal Communio (Vol. 47 [2018] 387-406) was published by emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, a controversy arose not only among Catholic theologians but also among rabbis. On the Jewish side, the first volley was made by the rector of the Abraham Geiger College and chairman of the Union progressive Jews in Germany, Walter Homolka. Even before the publication of the article, he accused the emeritus pope in a commemorative speech on the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of the Society for Christian-Jewish Cooperation of providing a “new Christian basis for antisemitism.” A little later, he spoke in a contribution to Die Zeit (July 19, 2018) of a “horrible storeroom of Christian arrogance.” Joseph Ratzinger was “perhaps not an antisemite,” but his pontificate “brought with it a series of interfaith missteps” and his most recent essay was “ultimately a correction of the conciliar declaration Nostra Aetate of 1965.” Others went so far as to privately predict the end of the dialogue with the Catholic Church.

On the [Jewish] Orthodox side there was also confusion over the essay of the emeritus Pope, especially since Benedict XVI does not speak at all about the two most recent Orthodox statements on Jewish-Christian relations, “To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven: Towards a Partnership between Jews and Christians” (2015) and “Between Jerusalem and Rome: 50 Years of Nostra Aetate” (2017), although he was aware of these Orthodox texts. After his resignation, Joseph Ratzinger is not the reigning Pope and his essay does not have official authority. But the introductory remarks made by the President of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, Cardinal Kurt Koch, that “the present contribution would enrich Catholic teaching,” raised the question of what theological significance the Catholic Church attached to the essay of the emeritus pope.

The Pope’s Correspondence

After an intensive study of the essay of the emeritus pope, the Conference of Orthodox Rabbis of Germany (ORD) decided to express its position and its critical questions about the text in a letter to Cardinal Koch in order to give the Catholic side the opportunity to answer. At the initiative of the emeritus pope, an exchange of letters emerged at the same time with Viennese Rabbi Arie Folger, who had taken a similar position in his publications to that of his German colleagues.

In their letter of August 2, 2018, the Orthodox rabbis began by pointing out the achievements of the Catholic-Jewish dialogue and situated Benedict XVI in the “continuity of this positive development.” Nevertheless, with the publication of his essay, the Orthodox rabbis were faced with “more questions and doubts than positive, forward-thinking ideas.” The central question of the Orthodox rabbis was “whether the Catholic Church values contemporary Judaism and how this appreciation is theologically expressed.”

In particular, three topics were discussed in more detail. First, the rejection by the pope of the so-called theology of substitution. Although it may never have been an official doctrine of the Church, the rabbis’ conference pointed out that Christian teaching “has so often been understood in church history as that the people of Israel were rejected for the benefit of the church” and served again and again “as a religious basis for the discrimination, persecution, and murder of our ancestors.” Second, the questioning [by Benedict] of the “unrevoked covenant.” The rabbis noted that in recent church documents, an esteem for Judaism is expressed not least in the teaching about the unrevoked Old Covenant. What, then, should take its place and what exactly does the “reestablishment of the Sinai covenant in the new covenant in the blood of Jesus” mean? The rabbis come to the critical conclusion “that Pope Benedict XVI leaves little space in his theological considerations for a religious appreciation of present-day Judaism and a dialogue based upon that appreciation.”

Third, and linked to the second theme, is Benedict’s apodictic statement is that “a theological interpretation of the State of Israel, which sees the founding of the State in relation to the biblical holy land is impossible according to Christian understanding.” Although the State of Israel’s right to exist is not called into question, it seems that it is only coincidental that the State exists in its current geographic location. On the other hand, Benedict sees in the Jewish state a sign of God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel. Therefore, the Orthodox Rabbinical Conference asks if this is not an idea that could be further developed, possibly also with the help of Jewish sources, such as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

The very different reaction of the Liberal and Orthodox rabbis to the [Ratzinger] publication is the result of a different appraisal of the essay. Although the Orthodox rabbis were troubled by the theses of the emeritus Pope, they did not see any departure from the path of dialogue that the Catholic Church had taken with the Second Vatican Council, but they needed clarification. The Orthodox rabbis, with due respect to the emeritus Pope, paid special attention to Cardinal Koch and the Pontifical Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews. For they were interested to know whether there had been any change in the official position of the Commission as found in its “‘The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable’ (Rom. 11:29),” reflections for the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, which, according to the rabbis, had made “a very impressive and much appreciated contribution to the improvement of our relations.” The Rabbinical Conference did not want to address the conflict through further public statements. It first asked questions instead of making censures, thus opening the way for the Catholic side to answer and clarify.

What religious significance does the modern state of Israel have?

Generally speaking, the controversy reveals a different understanding of Jewish-Christian dialogue between Orthodox and Liberal Judaism. Orthodox Judaism is obligated by a binding tradition in which oral Torah possesses the same theological authority as written Torah and which together form the normative basis for contemporary Jewish life. This also includes a certain hermeneutics and rules of textual interpretation. Accordingly, in the two statements already mentioned, “To Do the Will of Our Father” and “Between Jerusalem and Rome,” there are detailed references to relevant rabbinic authorities. It is true that Orthodoxy occasionally argues about the correct understanding of the sources, but without fundamentally questioning the normativity of the tradition. Although the reading of scriptural and oral Torah is not simply the same as the relationship between scripture and tradition in the Catholic Church, Orthodox rabbis understand that the Catholic Church also feels bound to its tradition and its religious convictions, such as christology, which one cannot just throw overboard.

The Orthodox rabbis basically assume that Christians will continue to be Christians. Therefore, there will of course be theological points about which there can be no agreement. The two [Orthodox] statements already mentioned are in complete agreement in dissenting [with Christians] about the theological significance of the person of Jesus of Nazareth and its consequences for the understanding of the law, of the covenant, and not least for the understanding of God (Christology, Trinity). Despite these differences, Jewish Orthodoxy is very interested in a dialogue with Christians (although of course there are also rabbis who are more skeptical of the dialogue), because “Jews and Christians have much more in common” than what divides them, including “working together as partners to meet the moral challenges of our time” (“To Do the Will of our Father in Heaven”). The dialogue must not, however, lead to the relativization of one’s own truth.

Cardinal Koch asked the Orthodox rabbis in his letter of reply of August 15, 2018 to have a clarifying conversation in Rome. Already in his letter the cardinal commented in detail on the questions of the Orthodox Rabbinical Conference, assuring that he “saw the article of the emeritus pope and his own reasoning as being along the same line,” as well as praising the Orthodox rabbis and their statement, “Between Jerusalem and Rome.” The discussion between Cardinal Koch and a delegation from the Rabbinical Conference occurred in the Vatican on January 15, 2019. The atmosphere of this official meeting of the rabbinical delegation with the Vatican Commission was very cordial and the conversation was constructive. Cardinal Koch first explained that the contribution of the emeritus Pope was in service to the inner-Catholic discussion and he had decided to publish it so that “the positions within the church would be transparent for the dialogue with the Jews.” The rabbis appreciated that this issue is an inner-church debate and that it is trying to find a position that is based on its own theological self-understanding.

However, the rabbis sought further explanations, asked other questions, and made critical remarks about Benedict’s contribution. A very important point was the question of the religious significance of the modern state of Israel. “It cannot be that the exile and misery of the Jewish people has religious significance, but their happiness – especially in the return to and rebuilding of the Holy Land – is called a purely secular affair,” Rabbi Folger stressed. Cardinal Koch admitted that the character of the land promises had so far been neglected on the Catholic side as a topic.

There was intense discussion about “substitution theory.” Cardinal Koch explained that the exposition of the emeritus pope on “substitutionary ecclesiology,” which claimed that the church had allegedly taken the place of Israel, “shows that the tradition of the church itself can never be used as a justification for this idea of supersession by the church as somehow being legitimate.” However, it is true that church believers had in the past presented this “false” theology. Rabbi Folger thought that it was an interest of the Jewish side “that this deplorable historical fact, which has caused much suffering and worse for Jews, be increasingly publicly acknowledged.” With regard to the rabbis’ question about the understanding of covenant, Cardinal Koch said that the covenant between God and Israel was not only unrevoked by God – whose grace is irrevocable and without repentance, as Benedict clarified in his article – but it was also irrevocable by humans. Nevertheless, there is still no clear answer to the question of the “unrevoked covenant;” even the emeritus pope stated that this requires further and deeper research. However, this does not amount to a replacement or an undermining [of the concept].

After the meeting of the rabbinical delegation with the Vatican Commission, Rabbi Arie Folger, Rabbi Zsolt Balla and myself visited emeritus Pope Benedict for a personal conversation in which Cardinal Koch also took part. Among other things, Rabbi Folger asked the church for its help to combat “the dark shadows of the former substitution theory.” “The Church has indeed rejected the theory of substitution,” he added. “But the former delegitimization of Jews and Jewish customs and practices continues to shape discourse in the West. How else to explain the double standard, which is commonly used with regard to Israel, the questioning of the legitimacy of the Jewish state, and the ever-recurring debates and legislative proposals in various European countries over ritual male circumcision, the battles about kosher regulations and the transmission of Jewish contents and values in Jewish schools, trying to ban or severely curtail it?”

The emeritus Pope Benedict and Cardinal Koch then responded that the Church would help the Jewish community even more in defending its religious freedom, and that it would be interesting to continue the discussion on the biblical land promise.

Do not compromise your own theology

On the whole, it has become clear that the opinions of the Vatican Commission and the Pope emeritus are in accord with those of the rabbinic side as expressed in the rabbinic statements. All agreed that constructive cooperation needed to be further intensified. Regional Rabbi Balla summarized it as follows: “A true dialogue can only take place between two sides who do not compromise their own theology for a false tolerance, but present their positions unchangingly and authentically, while sensitive and respectful of the other side, which allows us to achieve a real acceptance. Our meetings at the Vatican and in Rome were huge steps in this direction.” The cooperation between the Orthodox Rabbinical Conference and the German Bishops’ Conference was also praised.

In conclusion, one can state that the Catholic-Jewish dialogue has emerged strengthened from the controversy. First, the Catholic-Jewish dialogue is so solid that it can handle controversy and misunderstandings. Second, Catholic representatives have repeatedly and clearly rejected the so-called mission to the Jews. Benedict writes in this magazine, “That’s why the mission is universal – with one exception. A mission to the Jews was simply not foreseen and was unnecessary because they alone among all peoples could know the ‘unknown God.’ For Israel, therefore, there is no mission but dialogue” (see HK, December 2018, 14).

Third, the discussion opens up the possibility for a Catholic engagement with the question of a theology of the land of Israel and the modern state of Israel. Cardinal Koch writes in his reply letter to the rabbinical conference: “I am grateful to note that in your letter you also consider the reference to the ‘faithfulness of God to the people of Israel’ as a thought that could be developed. And, in my opinion, this is because the relationship between the biblical promises and the concrete reality of the state of Israel is an issue that needs to be discussed intensively in the Jewish-Catholic dialogue.”

Fourth, the foundations have been laid for a theological dialogue. Theological dialogue can only mean a better understanding of the theological position of the other, not of trying to persuade one another or to create a common theology. Orthodoxy is more reluctant to engage in theological dialogue, but Rabbi Folger, who has made clear his skepticism about theological dialogue and rejects conversations on the christological interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, shows a willingness to discuss new topics in a theological way.


Jehoschua Ahrens, born in 1978, has been a community rabbi in Darmstadt since the beginning of 2017 and is the representative for interreligious dialogue of the State Association of Jewish Communities in Hesse. He studied international management in Germany and England, and worked as a Marketing Manager for various corporations. He then began training as a rabbi in Israel, where he was also ordained. He studied for his BA at Bar-Ilan University, graduated with a masters degree at Cambridge University and did his doctorate at the University of Lucerne.