Emeritus Pope Benedict

Radio interview: Benedict's XVI's essay "compatible with anti-Judaism"

[From Deutschlandfunk. Unofficial translation.]

Theologian on the controversial Ratzinger article

The former Pope raises the question of the theological right of Judaism to exist – and he wonders about it, said theologian Gregor Maria Hoff to DLF. The text would be “suitable,” for example, for evangelical groups, who proclaim a mission to the Jews.

Gregor Maria Hoff in conversation with Christiane Florin.



Christiane Florin: The debate goes on. The ecumenical leader in the Vatican, Cardinal Kurt Koch, considers Benedict's text a deepening of the Christian-Jewish dialogue. The General Rabbinical Conference in turn criticizes Koch and the former pope. According to their statment, Judaism is represented as deficient.

Before this broadcast, I talked to theologian Gregor Maria Hoff. He is a fundamental theologian at the University of Salzburg and a papal advisor on relations with Judaism. My first question to him: what does the author want to clarify at this time?

Gregor Maria Hoff: The former pope tries to sharpen a fundamental theological question about the meaning of the Christ event and the confession of Jesus Christ. Is it also constitutive for the relationship to Judaism and for the Jews themselves? Is there, to put it harshly, something like a theological right of Judaism to exist even after Jesus Christ? That's the crucial question that is ultimately behind it [the essay].

Florin: Does he ask the question or does he question that theological right to exist?

Hoff: The occasion for this text by Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, is a document from the Vatican itself, in which, among other things, it was said very clearly that there is no ecclesiastical mission to the Jews. Benedict XVI wants to clarify the theological basis for this, to have it put more precisely, so to speak. He does not speak at any point about a [conversionary] mission to the Jews, that is, he does not want to retract the status achieved in the dialogue and he does not want to fundamentally question the fact that Judaism has significance for Christianity. But as a consequence of his reasoning, I fear that it almost amounts to questioning it.


Compatibility with theological anti-Judaism

Florin: The word "mission to the Jews" does not appear at any point in this essay, nor does it say anything about the conversion of the Jews. Why then the accusation of anti-Judaism, which you have raised as well?

Hoff: I am not implying that Benedict XVI in any way thinks anti-Jewishly. I do not suppose that he would like to go in that direction. But I do think that the text lends itself to theological anti-Judaism.

Florin: At which points?

Hoff: Especially at the point where he very, very sharply addresses the theme of faithfulness. And that happens at the end of the essay. And it is on the basis of its conclusion that I think you have to understand and read this entire essay. There is discussion of the fact that in the history of the covenant between humanity and God – and then it only concerns Israel and God but also affects Christianity and God as well – that to this covenantal history also belongs the history of failure. He calls this the breaking of covenant, and that is the theme of unfaithfulness.

And this is where it gets touchy; here it becomes really dangerous: the breaking of the covenant, he says next, has very concrete consequences, intrinsic consequences. And that is the destruction of the temple and it is called the destruction of Israel. And at this moment, the breaking of the covenant from the side of the general relationship of humanity to God is placed entirely on the side of Israel. That means, Israel itself is responsible for this breaking of covenant and so responsible also for its consequences. And that is something that is compatible with religious, theological anti-Judaism.

It is also capable of this compatibility where, on the one hand, there is indeed no mention of the mission to the Jews, but, on the other hand, it is very, very clear that with the restructuring of the Sinai covenant, Joseph Ratzinger says at this point, that the covenant only at that time reaches a new and final form, namely exclusively in Christianity. That would then mean, as the final consequence, precisely that Jews today would have to join [Christianity] in order to grasp the intrinsic significance, so to speak, of covenantal faith. This becomes compatible, for example, with evangelical groups proclaiming the mission to the Jews. And that has already happened.


"The paper becomes an anti-Jewish narrative"

Florin: But is not that the problem with these groups? Or is it really the problem of Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI?

Hoff: With both. Such a tradition-conscious theologian as Joseph Ratzinger, who above all else always argues from the traditions of his own church, must know the traditions this church has worked with, what impact they have had, where they were productive, but where they absolutely also have quite a role, a responsibility, a historical guilt upon itself with regard to Judaism. If, without further refinement, I continue to use the schema of promise and fulfillment as a grammar to determine the Jewish-Christian relationship without any further refinement, I must expect that this text will then be so used and understood, how it is also used in fact.

Florin: So anti-Judaism has been raised, even the charge of antisemitism. However, can it not be that the former pope does not write against anything but rather to promote his Christology?

Hoff: Absolutely. I think that's actually its impetus. Incidentally, this is a rather difficult story because there is actually a very specific form of a Christology operating here, not least with regard to internal church matters, internal theological issues are being addressed again, and this has something to do with it. The theological life of Benedict XVI, and previously also Joseph Ratzinger, has been against what he calls relativism. And this is a very, very important component for that Christology.

He says he's really not primarily against something, that's not his intention, but the thrust of his reasoning can be accurately described in this way. And one must also say: It is now inscribed within the horizon of the Jewish-Christian dialogue. This paper ultimately responds to a presentation from the Vatican itself. That is, the essence of the church is rooted in the Jewish-Christian relationship. And that is why it becomes partially receptive to anti-Judaism in this way.


The two aspects of Ratzinger

Florin: The style of the text is very didactic, indicated by this “we” pattern that appears very often: thus, “we hold fast," "we have taken a position.” Honestly, he would have to write, "I have taken a position.” There is also something a bit confused in our conversation. Who is actually talking? The emeritus Pope, Benedict XVI, the emeritus professor Ratzinger, the Catholic Church?

Hoff: Definitely not the Catholic Church. Cardinal Koch has made this clear once again in his latest statement, which is very explicit. This is not a position of the Magisterium. Joseph Ratzinger cannot make claims as emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, and he does not. In fact, this constant name change is something that is not only bewildering but is also a serious difficulty. The passage from his former [papal] roles, one could almost say, and the actual present person has repeatedly become palpable since he resigned. Simply because he is used over and over, again and again, not least in the service of [unchanging] continuity, but sometimes simply in conservative circles. Not only because his positions are then just his own, but sometimes are even used, for example, in opposition to Pope Francis.

This is really Joseph Ratzinger, nobody else. But the ascription [of pope] remains one that he, in turn, does not simply dispose of, but which is unleashed when appropriate in the interest of how such texts are to be used. That's difficult, that's difficult, a problem that when he resigned, he did not just become Cardinal Ratzinger again. Instead, a new position, you might say, has led to a new title in the history of the church [i.e., emeritus pope]. That's funny: someone who is so anti-relativist offers a presentation that has a relativistic basis.

Florin: And he also wears the white robe. So not just back to the black of the cardinal.

Hoff: No, that's the duality. But I still have to answer about the didactic “we.”  Well, that's easy. Of course, this is a very specific style – that also displays exactly this authority. The interface of research and the teachable moment that has characterized his writings throughout his life does not make it any easier. And for one simple reason: obviously this is not itself a dialogical text. Instead this text makes it clear that it did not emerge directly from dialogue, from current, actually experienced dialogue with a Jewish interlocutor, who also counters with a clear no. The hurts that are now very clearly felt in Jewish reactions had not previously been considered in the composition of the text. Once again, that is certainly not only a stylistic, but a theological lack in this essay.


"A mutual willingness to learn would be desirable"

Florin: The rector of the Abraham Geiger College, Rabbi Walter Homolka has sharply criticized this essay in the weekly newspaper Die ZEIT. Among other things, he writes: "Nowhere does Benedict try to understand the Jews as a community of faith or even to learn from the Jewish tradition, for example that a hopelessly broken marriage should be divorced, that women can exercise the ministry, that no one should be alone even if he is a priest." There is also the accusation that Benedict is really concerned with the course of the Catholic Church, with these inner Catholic issues, and perhaps also sees his legacy in danger, that he tries to speak out now using Judaism as the example.

Hoff: In fact, I would also say that this essay is also a text of the legacy in which Joseph Ratzinger once again clearly adopts the christological direction seen ever since his time as Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith and tries to solve a very important problem, namely to clarify the Jewish-Christian dialogue once again. That fits in with his what he is trying to do with his anti-relativism agenda.

Only I believe that anti-relativism overlooks – and thus Walter Homolka is right – that real learning in the common and shared faith, in common but also different beliefs, in the common hope of the ability of Jews and Christians to learn also implies a relativization: the readiness to let oneself be relativized and not to know everything beforehand. The consciousness that one not only shares the belief in the mysteriousness of God with Jews, but also learned from Judaism, has been made very clear by the Council, the Second Vatican Council, with Nostra Aetate. And a little more of this style, of this spirit, of this – as with Walter Homolka - willingness to learn something also from the other side again. That would certainly be something that would be desirable.

Florin: Joseph Ratzinger has repeatedly accused the German media of a "ready-to-pounce hostility” to him. What do you expect when his text "Grace and Calling without Repentance" appears in English: More clemency for Joseph Ratzinger?

Hoff: It's not about mercy, at this point it's about justice. Namely, the philological and analytical debate of the justice of the positions that Joseph Ratzinger advocates, how he develops them. It is not about mercy for the person facing this moment, but about what he himself would like to contribute to the debate. And it must be analytically debated in all seriousness and sharpness, nothing else is to be expected. And that's the way you take Joseph Ratzinger seriously as an outstanding theologian.