Emeritus Pope Benedict

Flawed writing

Two Popes on Judaism 

Joseph Ratzinger, emeritus Pope, attacks a formula from his predecessor on the relationship between Christians and Jews. He complains about linguistic niceties — and, oddly enough, was not even edited.

Frankfurter Allgemeine [unofficial translation] 


By Christian Geyer (July 18, 2018) 


“Shalom," said the Pope, "Gentlemen, dear Brothers!" In his address to the representatives of Judaism at the Mainz Cathedral Museum on November 17, 1980, John Paul II described what should be “the dialogue between the two religions, which — with Islam — gave the world faith in the one, ineffable God who speaks to us, and which desire to serve him on behalf of the whole world.” The "first dimension" of this dialogue between Christianity and Judaism is "the meeting between the people of God of the Old Covenant never revoked by God (Rom 11:29) and that of the New Covenant." Here was coined the formula of the never revoked Old Covenant, which found its way into the Catechism as well (though in paragraph 121 in German it is called never terminated instead of never revoked), in the context of the holy scriptures of Judaism, called by Christian theology the “Old Testament.” “The Old Testament is an indispensable part of Scripture. Its books are inspired by God and have lasting value because the Old Covenant has never been revoked."

Back in Mainz, the Slav pope presented his succinct turn-of-phrase of the never-revoked Old Covenant as a hermeneutical key to the Catholic-Jewish dialogue. According to Karol Wojtyla – born in 1920 in Wadowice, Poland, where he also went to school, only thirty kilometers from Auschwitz – it was a "dialogue within our church, as it were between the first and second parts the Bible.” This was the point of the phrase never-revoked Old Covenant, according to which Judaism should no longer be regarded only as a precursor in salvation history to Christianity, but “leads to mutual knowledge and interpretation,” as in the post-conciliar guidelines specifically cited by Wojtyla in Mainz for the implementation of the relevant conciliar declaration Nostra Aetate. This is actually more than just another appeal for tolerance towards non-Christian religions. It is a reminder of the standard for the greatest possible theological empathy.

The salvation-history "failure" of Judaism

Can the Catholic thesis of the conversation with Judaism be understood as a "dialogue within our church" in such a way that Jewishness is more internal to the Christian than the Christian is with himself? In this very sense, aiming at a "mystery" in the theological sense, Wojtyla spoke during his visit to the Roman synagogue in 1986 of the Jews as "our older brothers," as follows from the later much-cited description: "The Jewish religion is for us not something 'extrinsic,' but in a sense is 'intrinsic' to our religion. We therefore have a relationship with Judaism unlike any other religion. You are our beloved brothers and, so to speak, our older brothers."

It is only when one considers this background that one can be astonished by the current edition of the theological journal Communio (No. 4/2018). It contains a new text by Joseph Ratzinger, emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, under the title "Grace and Vocation without Repentance." The prominent author discusses a recent document of the Vatican Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews. Ratzinger explicitly attacks Wojtyla’s formula of the never-revoked Old Covenant, first with two linguistic objections: The word "terminate" does not belong to the vocabulary of divine action (even the Catechism does not depend on this term, but, as I said, "revoked" wording is unmentioned). And the "covenant" between God and man is not biblically singular but occurs in stages.

These are the fine points measured by Ratzinger's substantive criticism. The Polish pope's formula, at least one so understands the author in summary, "is not good in the long run," because it does not adequately depict the salvation-historical "failure" of Judaism. Literally, the Communio text says, "Yes, God's love is eternal. But the covenant history between God and man also includes human error, the breaking of the covenant and its internal consequences: destruction of the temple, the dispersion of Israel, the call to repentance, which makes man new in the covenant." Of course, the New makes one capable, not the Old Covenant: "The reinterpretation of the Sinai covenant in the new covenant in the blood of Jesus, that is, in his love overcoming death, gives the covenant a new and eternally valid form.” Here the New Covenant de facto takes the place of the Old, even if it continues "in its heart" (Ratzinger). Is not the charm of the censured Wojtyla formula found exactly in its uncertainty? It does not claim to know how exactly the tension between the old and the new covenant ultimately dissolves (biblically: at the end of time).

In a thorough analysis, Christian Rutishauser, Provincial of the Swiss Jesuits, criticizes Ratzinger's text as undermining the Wojtyla formula (Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 9 July). What is left allows hardly any conciliation. That the Berlin Rabbi Walter Homolka fears that Ratzinger's text can also be read in this way as a basis for Christian antisemitism, especially in times of hasty research using digital technology, cannot in fact be ruled out. In his Munich speech on the seventieth anniversary of the Society for Christian-Jewish Cooperation, Homolka described the current Communio text as "formulating Christian identity at the expense of the Jewish."

More on the Subject 

But why was the text published at all? Ratzinger's commentary, which conceptually is generally historical in nature, was written as an expert’s assessment for a Vatican authority. This is revealed in the foreword by Kurt Koch, the curial cardinal who heads the aforementioned commission. Ratzinger's text, dated October 26, 2017, was initially "of course not intended for the public," writes the Cardinal, but only for his, Koch’s, "personal use." Only at his request (urging?) had Ratzinger agreed to publish the text in Communio. And, worryingly, without further ado, that is to say, without making the text ready for publication in the new forum, for example by contextualizing it within the most recent results of the work of Christian-Jewish dialogue.

One can hardly believe it: why willfully unsettle a formula that became a symbol of Jewish-Christian understanding, a formula that, as Ratzinger rightly notes, "belongs in a certain sense to today's teaching of the Catholic Church"? Karol Wojtyla is likely to turn in his grave because of this gross negligence, which also is due to the lack of editorial prudence by the magazine.