Emeritus Pope Benedict

Danger for the dialogue?

[Published in Jüdische Allgemeine, July 19, 2018. Unofficial translation.]  

The latest essay by Benedict XVI. The Catholic understanding of Judaism is heavily criticized. An analysis from a rabbinic point of view.

by  Rabbi Arie Folger


At the same time as Jewish and Catholic representatives gathered in Vienna on October 26 last year to celebrate the festive presentation of the German version of the rabbinic declaration "Between Jerusalem and Rome," the ink of the last lines of a text by Pope Benedict XVI was drying. It has now appeared in the theological journal Communio – and it makes headlines. 

In the public debate it is said that the text acts against the spirit of the more than 50-year-old statement Nostra Aetate, may represent a danger to the Catholic-Jewish dialogue, and even build the foundation for a new Christian antisemitism. Is that correct? 


For the Jesuit theologian Christian Rutishauser, the text is in many ways disappointing. It goes beyond its goal if it intends "to defend Christ's universal claim to salvation in the face of relativism," writes Rutishauser in the Neue Züricher Zeitung. Only with a much more positive attitude towards living Judaism “can Jews and Christians live in appreciative relationship and listen to one another out of faith,” says Rutishauser. 

I have read the controversial text; I feel very differently: I see a text that was written by a major, conservative Catholic theologian for the internal use of the Vatican. Therefore, it should not be measured by the standards of public and interreligious discourse. 


And although Benedict does not mention our declaration [“Between Jerusalem and Rome”], it goes without saying that it has played a significant role in his reflections. He completed his writing just eight weeks after our visit to the Vatican and the delivery of the official text to his successor Francis.

What is in the papal text? Benedict grapples with the two great theses of the statement "For the Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable," published in 2015 by the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. Benedict takes a position on the two theses: first, that the church now no longer sees itself as the new Israel, which is chosen in the place of the now rejected Israel (thus a now obsolete thesis in the Vatican), i.e., the so-called supersessionism theory; second, that the Church now acknowledges that G-d's covenant with the people of Israel is eternal and irrevocable. 


For Benedict, the two theses must be deepened and clarified in order to make sense from a Christian perspective. As for supersessionism, Benedict suggests that it never existed. He sees in various New Testament sources a confirmation that Jews will endure as a separate community until the end of time. They hold a special position in Christian theology, especially as the possessors of the Hebrew Bible, which Christians continue to see as the word of God and to which they are committed.

Insofar as Jews and Christians interpret the Torah differently and live their laws differently, this is due to other readings and theologies, but both are committed to the text. Since the Church of Benedict has never accepted a theory of substitution, one can only speak of supersessionism in specific areas: for example, that Christians believe that after the destruction of the temple and the crucifixion of Jesus, the sacrificial laws would have a new, higher sense for Christians and would accordingly be spiritually lived. This reinterpretation is neither acceptable nor meaningful to Jews nor does it correspond to Halacha. 


Benedict's thesis that substitution theory was never part of the doctrine of the church is an ahistorical revisionism that ignores the real suffering that has been done to the Jews for centuries because of the doctrine of "Verus Israel" ["True Israel"]. Despite Benedict's philosophical efforts, the sculpture of Synagoga on the façade of the Strasbourg Cathedral is still that of a poor, blind woman, while Ecclesia shines across from it. Even the "Judensäue" ["Jews' sow"] on German cathedrals have not suddenly disappeared.

The second thesis that Benedict is able to specify says that the church confesses that G-d's covenant with the people of Israel is eternal and irrevocable, and is particularly important for the Christian-Jewish dialogue. The Vatican Commission referred to this in its statement that "the Catholic Church does not know and support specific, Jewish-directed, institutional missionary work." 

For Benedict, this second thesis is “to be considered correct, but in detail still needs many clarifications and specifications.” It can be supposed that in his opinion Jews can only reach salvation thanks to Jesus. 


Various commentators are very annoyed by this, which is incomprehensible to me. What do we expect from a pope? Do we actually expect Christians to accept Judaism as a legitimate detour around church doctrine?

We [Jews] do not need the confirmation of the church to believe in the truth of Judaism. Therefore, we can trust in our ancestors, who have given us the Torah and their valid interpretation of it in an uninterrupted chain from the Sinai to the present day. We are neither dependent on the church to award us salvation, nor interested in legitimizing the church's path or granting it salvation. We are two different, independent denominations. And yet we profess our brotherhood together. Our interreligious work does not obscure our differences, but we want to work together despite fundamental differences.

An important principle of interreligious dialogue is that we recognize each other's autonomy and respect our respective boundaries. 


While there are Christian theologians, both Catholic and Protestant, who want to see a dual covenant after G-d has established two separate communities. The one with the Jewish people, who — without faith in Jesus and no New Testament — with the complete observance of Halacha attain salvation. The other covenant was then made with Christians mediated by the person and teaching of Jesus. But this view is not mainstream.

Note that even in the sentences from the Vatican that are the most favorable to Jews, there is always talk of the covenant of Abraham and never of the covenant of Moses or of the covenant on Sinai. Many Christians understand the fact that G-d has not replaced the Abrahamic covenant up to the present day, many Christians understand that a covenant can be explained despite the [Jewish] rejection of faith in Jesus, that we [Jews] are related to Him, and that blood is thicker than water. However, with an alternative covenant to Sinai many Jews would have significant theological problems, not least because core doctrines of Christianity are halachically unacceptable. 


The Vatican Commission is also struggling to understand the unending Abrahamic covenant, calling it in 2015 "an unfathomable mystery of God." Benedict only tries to clarify this mystery in Vatican thought. 

However, Benedict's proposal that Christians should teach Jews how to understand the relevant passages in the Hebrew Bible is very problematic. Does he reject the commitment of the Pontifical Commission to stop conducting a mission to the Jews? For centuries, Jews were forcibly proselytized. After so much Jewish blood was spilled by Christian anti-Jewishness, Benedict should be clear that there can be no positive attitude to a mission to the Jews.

A third theme in Benedict's text deserves our attention: the Church's position on Zionism. Benedict acknowledges that a Jewish return to Zion was theologically untenable. Therefore, for decades the church tried to ignore any religious interpretation of the origin of the state of Israel. Israel was a country like any other for the church, and the recognition of that state was based on the Vatican's claim that Jews were also entitled to a home. Indirectly, Benedict now recognizes that this position is hard to sustain.

From his words that "the promises of Scripture as such could not be considered fulfilled" by the Jewish state, we see that he is aware of how such a theological devaluation of Zionism seems dishonest and not serious. Yes, it is time for the church to realize that the return to Zion is religiously significant. Although we Jews internally argue with other Jews about the religious significance of Zionism, the fact that it has meaning is even clear for the anti-Zionist Satmar Hasidim. 


Benedict's writing was, as already mentioned, intended as an internal Vatican document. Therefore, the following final point is not a criticism, but nevertheless an important response: Benedict understands the recent and longest Jewish exile exclusively from a Christian perspective — unlike all his other main points in which he also considered the Jewish perspective. The long exile has shown that the hope for the coming of the Messiah according to Jewish understanding and the rebuilding of Israel and of the temple were unrealistic; the land promise is outdated as well. No, Pope Emeritus Benedict, we do not so perceive the reality at all!

In "Between Jerusalem and Rome," we put it this way: "When G-d chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, He entrusted them with a twofold mission to found the nation of Israel that would inherit, settle and establish a model society in the holy, promised land of Israel, all while serving as a source of light for all mankind. ... After the darkest hour since the destruction of our holy Temple in Jerusalem, when six million of our brethren were viciously murdered and the embers of their bones were smoldering in the shadows of the Nazi crematoria, God's eternal covenant was once again manifest, as the remnants of the people of Israel miraculously brought Jewish consciousness back to life. Communities were reestablished throughout the Diaspora, and many Jews responded to the clarion call to return to Eretz Yisrael, where a sovereign Jewish state arose.” We understand this according to the promise of being a Mamlechet Kohanim weGoj kadosch, a kingdom of priests and a holy people (2 Book of Moses [Exodus] 19:6).


The author chaired the International Commission, which wrote the statement "Between Jerusalem and Rome."