Emeritus Pope Benedict

An Audacious Thesis

[Unofficial Translation from Süddeutsche Zeitung.]

Actually, he had wanted to retire to silent prayer. The former Pope Benedict, 91, is bothered by his remarks about Jews.

By Matthias Drobinski

What is Benedict XVI, who retired almost six years ago from the Papacy, and promised to retire in silence and prayer for the rest of his life, to do? Well, the man is now 91 years old and physically frail. His mind, however, is alert, and it does not always observe the promise of silence – especially when it comes to correcting his public image. Now it's time again. In the latest edition of the journal Herder-Korrespondenz this Monday there is a text from him. Here's what it shows: The emeritus pope has been greatly annoyed by the Catholic theology professor Michael Böhnke from Wuppertal. He had accused Benedict of a problematic understanding of Judaism. And now the ex-pope does not want to let that stand.

The dispute goes back to an essay that Benedict wrote in July for the theological journal Communio – but ultimately to the year 2007. At that time Pope Benedict XVI allowed traditionalist groups to celebrate the Mass in the Tridentine rite once more, as it had been before the Second Vatican Council. But there was a problem: before the Council, until the liturgy was reformed, worshipers prayed every Good Friday for the conversion of the "perfidious Jews." Should this again be prayed for now? Latin-speaking as Benedict is, he wrote his own Good Friday prayer for the Jews, "that Our Lord God may enlighten their hearts so that they may recognize Jesus Christ."

The Jews should convert to Christ? A storm of indignation rose. The vast majority of Catholic bishops and theologians consider a mission to Jews after the Holocaust to be unacceptable. Did Benedict want to call that into question? With some difficulty the Pope explained at the time that this was not the case; but the controversy added some dents to his reputation. With his Communio contribution last July, he has alarmed many once again. Benedict took the position that the Catholic Church had never taught that the Old Covenant of God with the Jews had been replaced by Christ. Considering the long tradition of Christian denigration of Judaism, that is an audacious thesis. The Berlin rabbi Walter Homolka accused Benedict of having "formulated Christian identity at the expense of the Jewish one." And Professor Böhnke wrote in the Herder-Korrespondenz that Benedict concealed "the suffering that Christians inflicted on Jews."

This in turn must have annoyed Benedict so much that he once again broke his silence – to wash out the mouth of the professor from Wuppertal. "What Michael Böhnke wrote is absurd nonsense and has nothing to do with what I said.” He rejects "this article as a very false allegation." More important than the polemic, however, is that Benedict clarifies his attitude to the mission to the Jews in the text: "For Israel, there was and is, therefore, not a mission, but the dialogue." 

This is a signal to all advocates of a mission to the Jews who believed that the former pope was on their side.