Emeritus Pope Benedict

Reply to Emeritus Pope Benedict

In July, the German edition of Communio: The International Catholic Journal published an essay by Joseph Ratzinger - Emeritus Pope Benedict presenting his thoughts about the 2015 Vatican document, "'The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable' (Rom 1:29)." Rabbi Arie Folger, the Cheif Rabbi emeritus of Vienna wrote an article about it entitled "Danger for the Dialogue?" to which Benedict replied. In mid-September, Communio published this correspondence together with the further reply from Rabbi Folger that appears below, in unofficial translation from the German. The editor, Jan-Heiner Tück, writes in an introduction that "The correspondence between the emeritus Pope and the Orthodox rabbi shows that a Christian treatment De Iudaeis can only succeed if it is open to the dialogue with Jews. We thank both interlocutors for agreeing to publish their correspondence. The editors hope that the documentation of the correspondence will be a constructive continuation of the exchange." 


September 4, 2018

High Eminence,

Thank you for your letter of August 23, 2018 which reached me by email through Monsignor Georg Ganswein and Prof. Jan-Heiner Tück on the 30th of the month. I have read your letter and its ideas with great interest. More important to me than your article in Communio, which, as you and I both agreeing in emphasizing, is an inner-Christian document, your letter contains propositions that can actually guide the Jewish-Christian dialogue.

First of all, I am in full agreement with your third point. Yes, Jews and Catholics are especially called to work together for the preservation of moral standards in the West. The West is becoming more and more secular – while a growing minority is taking its religion and religious duties seriously again – and the majority is increasingly becoming intolerant of religion, religious people, and religious practice. We can and should often meet together. Together we can be much stronger than if isolated.

We share common values, ​​and both respect the Hebrew Bible. Even if we interpret several passages differently, we have a common foundation here.

In addition, we both represent Confessions that politically demonstrate great tolerance and advocacy. Of course, there are extremists in every denomination, but as a member of the Conference of European Rabbis, the Orthodox Rabbinical Conference of Germany, and the Rabbinic Council of America, all well-known Orthodox Jewish organizations, I can affirm that it is important for us to work for a tolerant society, and that we are always appalled when a fanatic from within our own ranks acts or behaves differently. I believe the same applies to the Catholic Church. And that is why there are just such religious representatives as our colleagues and us, who must stand up for a diverse, tolerant society, in which religious people and their concerns are also respected, and in which religious ideas can continue to influence the public discourse.

I regard your second point as an important basis for the Jewish-Christian dialogue. As we wrote between the lines in our statement “Between Jerusalem and Rome,” we understand that it was much easier for the Church to establish diplomatic relations with Israel as a secular state. And yes, it seems easier to make compromises in favor of the Palestinians if the state understands itself secularly. But you yourself write that even a secular state is not excluded from the blessing of G-d, and that it confirms the eternal covenant with the Jewish people. Thus, the distance between our respective positions has surely diminished.

Here I might stress that the structure of the democratic state of Israel is indeed a thoroughly secular entity, as you write, but that at the very least the massive return of Jews from all over the world to Zion cannot be religiously insignificant. Incidentally, Cardinal Koch has proposed to us in a letter (five rabbis who sent an open letter to him) that we meet together to discuss this subject. We have just edited a letter that will reach him in this regard. If the opportunity arises I would be very grateful to talk, and especially with you, Your Eminence.

And now to your first point. Although, as a student of several of Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik's students, I have much greater affinity for your third point (to engage the moral sensitivities of society and to better protect religious people and their religious freedom) than for theological dialogue, which Rav Soloveitchik rejected, I find your invitation to pursue a more modest goal potentially more appealing, since you do not advocate a dialogue in which we try to convince each other but a dialogue to understand each other. In particular, I find that your statement that "within human history this dialogue will never lead to an agreement between the two interpretations: this is God’s business at the end of history" is important because it signifies that the dialogue is for understanding and friendship but should not be thought of as missionary or to negotiate theological points.

Please allow me to return to a topic in your article in Communio, namely the unbroken Covenant. As I wrote in my article in the Jüdische Allgemeine, I fully understand that Christians want to live up to the pillars of their faith. That is why the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews called this unbroken Covenant a Mystery. In your essay, you try to deal with the tension of this Mystery. Here, I would like to emphasize – unsurprisingly – how important the concept of the unbroken Covenant is for the fight against antisemitism. In past centuries, many Christians have justified much of the suffering that was done to the Jews, justified it with the idea of the Covenant that was broken. I do not want to request another religious community to interpret their doctrines one way or another. But because of the real suffering that for this reason was done in the past to Jews by Christians, I have to make an exception here and ask that the opposing thesis, which is now upheld in the Church, namely that of the unbroken Covenant – a thesis that yes from your point of view could never have been otherwise – be strongly upheld.

In Communio, you argue that the church never believed in supersessionism. You argue as the emeritus highest representative of the Catholic Church. It actually has great significance to historically anchor partially new agendas deep in the past and in the oldest teachings. However, the crimes of the past, even if they are now considered to be unfaithful to Christianity, but which were committed by Christians in the name of Christianity, should not be forgotten. Today the Judensau on German churches and the statues of Ecclesia and Synagoga on the facade of the cathedral of Strasbourg (and many other places) recall both a dark past and also today's peaceful and friendly conditions, which stand in contrast with it, and may that be so. What cannot be is to forget the history and to assert that everything was actually always good because the perpetrators were allegedly theologically wrong. I do not mean to suggest that you would want to cover up that history, no, G-d forbid! but it would be very important to us Jews, if along with your thesis that the Church can never claim to supersede the Jewish people, to read also, as you emphasize, that at certain times many Christians nonetheless adhered to a theory of substitution – that is, against the pure teaching of the church – and thereby justified countless sorrows.

In the hope that our correspondence – and with “our” I also include our respective colleagues – will help to strengthen and deepen the dialogue, and will produce actions for the growth of a better society.

In a few days, we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, which we understand as the anniversary of the creation of Adam, thus it is a universal human feast. I wish you Shanah tovah umetukah, a good and sweet year for Jews, Christians and all people.

With kind regards,

Arie Folger, Chief Rabbi of Vienna