Emeritus Pope Benedict

Are we "the faithless Jews" again?

Benedict XVI insists on the priority of Christianity as a path to salvation. He puts the Jewish-Christian dialogue on the line.

by David Bollag

[Published in Neue Zurcher Zeitung. Unofficial translation]


Since Benedict XVI is no longer Pope, the Jewish-Christian dialogue has noticeably improved again. During his tenure, it was repeatedly burdened by a series of decisions, if not put at risk. There was, for example, the reintroduction of the – the long abolished – Tridentine rite of the Good Friday intercession. This rite calls on Christians to "pray for the faithless Jews (per perfidis Iudaeis) … that they too know our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The Jewish-Christian dialogue can only work if the participants are willing to accept completely the existence of the other religion. If one partner has to worry that the conversation is just a deception for the other, it will fail. If, on the Jewish side, we have to consider whether the representatives of Christianity may use the dialogue only to convince us to give up our Judaism and become Christians, we are not interested in dialogue. We reject it decisively and stay away from it.


Since the inauguration of Pope Francis in 2013, the dialogue between Judaism and Christianity has calmed down again. The obstacles and stumbling blocks on the way to further mutual rapprochement have been removed. We can return to the central question of dialogue: how can we – despite the fundamental differences between the two religions – create a situation and atmosphere in which we can represent and achieve together the ethical and societal goals common to both religions?

In the last three years important documents have been published from a Christian as well as a Jewish point of view, which are an expression of great progress in this direction. The Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews of the Vatican has – under its President Cardinal Koch – written a document entitled "For the Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable," while on the Jewish side statements have been published by two notable and representative groups of Orthodox rabbis. On the one hand "To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven" and on the other hand "Between Jerusalem and Rome."

The Vatican document contains statements that are of central importance to us Jews. First, it states that Nostra Aetate, the groundbreaking document of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), "denies the foundation of the theology of supersessionism." This theology, which characterized the church for centuries, which formed the basis for its anti-Judaism and led to the persecution of the Jews, claims that the Jewish people were superseded, had been replaced by Christianity. The church is now the true new Israel, the new chosen people of God. "Gifts and Calling…” writes clearly and unequivocally: “The Church does not replace the people of Israel.”

Secondly, and no less important in our eyes, the Vatican document, in a direct connection with the clear rejection of substitution theology, declares that "consequently, Israel is the people beloved and chosen by the God of the covenant, which has never been revoked and renounced." The divine covenant with Israel is not terminated!

In addition, and as a direct result of the never-revoked covenant with Israel, the Vatican statement commented on the mission to the Jews, stating that "the Catholic Church does not support or engage in missionary work directed at Jews.” For us Jewish participants in the dialogue, this is a long-awaited and hoped-for and necessary statement.

Since the Jewish-Christian dialogue – like any genuine dialogue – is part of a mutual relationship, it is not surprising that at the same time as the Catholic document and shortly thereafter two – independent – statements have been published by the Jewish side. Both are publications by Orthodox rabbis, who for the first time express themselves publicly about the Jewish-Christian dialogue.

Despite significant theological and political differences between the two documents, they have in common that they present a well-founded and comprehensive Jewish theology into which Christianity is also integrated. It sketches a Jewish religious world view, develops a Jewish religious world view in which Christianity has a special position. This is something new. And it is the direct result of the fruitful dialogue between Judaism and Christianity, which has continued for some years now.

It may and must be mentioned: All three documents emphasize that the two religions want to see themselves as partners. The new relationship between them should lead them to fully recognize each other and to be able to defend and fight for common goals, despite the highly conflicted past and their considerable differences.


And now the emeritus Pope Benedict XVI speaks again. Better, and more accurately, he is given the floor by the President of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. This is highly problematic and incomprehensible from the Jewish point of view. Yes, it must be described as inappropriate and wrong. And it threatens to endanger interfaith dialogue again. As emeritus Pope, Benedict will follow the progress of the Jewish-Christian dialogue. He will study the opinions of recent years. He sits down and makes critical comments. After the three documents mentioned above have been published, he writes a comprehensive article and calls it "Notes to the treatise De Iudaeis."

Benedict is well aware that he is no longer Pope, that he has resigned and has a successor who is at the head of the Catholic Church – and thus responsible for relations with Judaism. That is why he does not publish his comments. But he presents them to Cardinal Koch.

Cardinal Koch studies the notes, reads the text written by Benedict and comes to the conviction that "the theological reflections contained in it should be brought into the future discussion between the Church and Israel." He asks Benedict to publish the text. The emeritus Pope agrees, and the text is published.

The text published under the title "Grace and Vocation without Repentance" is, as the title reveals, a direct reaction to "For the Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable." In his usual academic manner, Benedict addresses the Vatican document. It may and must be said that his comments question or even contradict the main statements of the official document of the Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews.

He notes, "That the new view of Judaism developed after the Council can be summarized in two statements."

  1. The rejection of supersessionism
  2. Rather, it is correct to speak of the covenant never revoked.

Although he describes the two "theses" as "fundamentally correct," in his opinion they are "in many respects inaccurate and must be given further critical consideration." Benedict means that the statements should not be adopted in such a way that their correctness not be questioned and that consequently they could not be considered as binding for the Catholic Church.

That's a clear regression. A surprising step backwards, which we on the Jewish side did not expect and which will again put great obstacles in the way of the Jewish-Christian dialogue.

But the emeritus Pope does not confine himself to expressing his views on issues that affect the Church's relationship to Judaism. He also speaks out on a point that hits us Jews at the core of our own Jewish existence and identity.


As part of his study of supersessionism, Benedict also goes on to speak of the "land promise,” the biblical promise of God of the land of Israel to the Jewish people.

From a Jewish point of view, for almost 2000 years, during the long years of bitter exile outside the land of Israel, we Jews have never lost the hope of returning to this promised land. An important part of Jewish prayer for centuries has included a desire and a plea to be led back by God to this land, to rebuild it and make it the old-new home of the Jewish people.

Even if a large part of the leading figures in the Zionist movement – such as Theodor Herzl himself – were not practicing Jews, even if in today's Israel a considerable proportion of the population calls themselves secular, the modern Jewish state of Israel sees and defines itself as a fulfillment of the biblical promise of God to bring his people back to their land. Today's Israel is the promised land of the Jewish people in the Bible and is an integral and essential part of their Jewish identity for almost all Jews worldwide.

Benedict XVI is very aware of all this. He saw, heard and experienced it during his official visit to Israel. Nevertheless, he thinks it is right to contradict all this. In his article he asserts, " that [in this Jewish state] the promises of Scripture as such cannot be considered fulfilled.” And while the former Pope admitted: "In this [secular] sense, the Vatican has recognized the state of Israel as a modern constitutional state,” but nevertheless declares that its "justification cannot, of course, be derived directly from Scripture."

For us Jews, it is extremely surprising, if not incomprehensible, that a pope who has retired has to comment on the religious significance of the state of Israel. Now that we finally have our own land that we have hoped and waited so long for, that is so important to us and that we are proud of, we now must let the former pope tell us, “that a strictly theologically understood state … is unthinkable … and contrary to the Christian understanding of the promises.”

Why? What does this contribute to the relationship of the Catholic Church to Judaism?


Therefore, we ask questions: Why is the President of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, as he writes in the preface to the article by Benedict, "convinced that the present contribution will enrich the Jewish-Catholic conv ersation"? Does he regret the statements of his commission, does he want to contradict them?

What is really the position of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews on substitution theology? On the "never revoked Covenant"? And especially on the mission to the Jews?

Will the Vatican endanger the Jewish-Christian dialogue again?

Are we again the "Iudaei perfidy," the faithless, perfidious Jews? Questions are part of the dialogue. We are waiting for answers.


David Bollag is a rabbi and lecturer in Judaism at the Universities of Zurich and Lucerne.