Emeritus Pope Benedict

God's faithfulness also applies to Israel

But Benedict's theological arguments can be used for religious anti-Judaism, says Papal Adviser GREGOR MARIA HOFF


The following essay was published together with two others in the July 19, 2018 edition of Die Zeit (The Times) from Hamburg, Germany, p. 30. The page title reads: “The Former Pope and the Jews: Joseph Ratzinger once again hints that God only loves Christians. Is that antisemitic? A Jewish, a Catholic and an evangelical theologian on the latest faux pas of Benedict XVI.” Unofficial translation.


Does the Catholic Church have an antisemitism problem? The question is current once again. When Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of Bishop Williamson from the arch-conservative Society of Pope Pius X in 2009, he brought a notorious Holocaust denier into the church. The outrage was huge and principled. Already a year earlier, the Pope had reformulated by his own hand the Good Friday intercession for the extraordinary former [Tridentine] rite. Since then, one can pray again in the Catholic Church for the enlightenment of the Jews.

Along the same theological line, the emeritus pope has now published a text that again causes serious consternation. For he relativizes the Second Vatican Council, which fifty years ago created trust between the Catholic Church and Jewish authorities. It not only condemned antisemitism, but also abandoned all theological anti-Judaism. The conciliar declaration Nostra Aetate wrote that no one should "place the blame for the responsibility for the death of Jesus on either the Jews living at that time without distinction or on the Jews of today." At the same time, it forbids regarding the Jews as "rejected by God or cursed." Instead, the church is always been linked to Israel through the common scriptures of the Old Testament and the Jewish identity of Jesus and his disciples.

According to his own record, Benedict XVI does not want regress back before that. "An anti-Semite is also an antichrist," he has said as Pope. But now he repeats the old theory of supersessionism, that Christianity has replaced Judaism. Given the persecution of Jews by Christians, such a theology can never be free of guilt. The transition from anti-Judaism to antisemitism is fluid. That is why Benedict's essay is perilous. He claims that there was no theory of supersession before the Council because it is not referenced in relevant encyclopedias—as if the attitude itself had not impacted history. For him, the Christian Eucharist takes the place of the Jewish temple cult, the prophetic traditions of Israel fulfill Christianity. Is it so simple? What is left for Judaism today? Catholic theology has been committed to its Jewish roots since the Council: historically in terms of origins, theologically in the covenant with the Jews, which God does not abolish when revealed in Christ. God is faithful—to Israel as well.

This concept has become a principle since Pope John Paul II, and expresses "in a sense," as his successor states, "the present-day doctrine of the Catholic Church." But Benedict continues: The "drama of history between God and man" also includes "human error, the breaking of the covenant." This means the Jews. They experience the consequences: "the destruction of the temple, the dispersion of Israel." Does that apply to all further suffering of the Jews up to the Shoah? Anyone who writes about Israel as a Christian theologian must not loosely speak of the "full severity of the punishments" of God. Benedict does. He even speaks of Israel's "faithlessness." So he proves to be blind to the ideological history of his church and makes it fit for religious anti-Judaism.

The current Pope speaks differently. For Francis it is clear that "God continues to work among the people of the old covenant." Benedict, on the other hand, always wanted to combat the "relativism" of various ways of salvation. He sees Judaism as a religion of promise. Only in Christianity does the love of God accept its "eternally valid form." Benedict wants to preserve its ecclesiastical tradition. Can this [essay] also be understood as a warning against the change in the church that Francis implements? Was this also why the text was published?


Gregor Maria Hoff teaches fundamental theology in Salzburg and is a papal consultant for relations with Judaism. His Religious Phantoms (Schöningh) has recently been published.