Emeritus Pope Benedict

Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI on Judaism: Notes on a Recent Controversy

[Unofficial translation from the German edition of Communio 47 (2018): 618-631.]

The article published in this journal entitled “‘Grace and Calling without Repentance’: Notes on the Treatise De Iudaeis” by Benedict XVI [July 2018] are the subject of controversial public debate.1 The criticism extends to the charges of antisemitism or anti-Judaism. Rabbi Walter Homolka, Rector of the Abraham Geiger College, says Benedict XVI. "May not be antisemitic"2 but his article "builds the foundation of a new antisemitism based on Christianity.”3 The Wuppertal theologian Michael Bohnke speaks of an updating and strengthening of Christian anti-Judaism and the myth of Ratzinger the great theologian.4

Unlike Homolka or Bohnke, Arie Folger engages the article. Folger, the chief rabbi of Vienna, chaired the international commission that composed the statement "Between Jerusalem and Rome.”5 In his contribution to the Jüdische Allgemeine,6 Folger describes the evaluation of the theory of substitution by Benedict XVI as "ahistorical revisionism."7 Yet he does not raise the charge of anti-Judaism or antisemitism. An important theologian has written "Grace and Calling without Repentance," one who is concerned with deepening the Christian-Jewish dialogue through theological differentiations, which does not exclude factual criticism of his individual positions and formulations. The contribution of Rabbi Folger led to a substantive correspondence with Benedict XVI.8

The essay of the emeritus Pope on Judaism is neither anti-Jewish nor does it lay the foundations for a new antisemitism.9 Nor does it call into question the consensus in the Christian-Jewish dialogue according to which Israel stands in the unrevoked covenant with God – a criticism raised by Christian Rutishauser, SJ and Gregor Maria Hoff.10 There are nevertheless some critical questions to poste to the Communio article “Grace and Calling without Repentance.” They concern: 1. the historical weight of the substitution theory (supersessionism or replacement theology); 2. the understanding of the state of Israel; and 3. the covenantal-theological basis for the permanent election and mission of Israel.

1. Israel and the Church

Even while prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger had repeatedly expressed his views on questions about a theology of Israel. His initiatives also included the important document, “The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible” (2001). In a Jewish-Christian encounter (1994) hosted by Rabbi David Rosen in Jerusalem, Ratzinger raised the question, "Can Christian faith, in its intrinsic seriousness and dignity, not only tolerate Judaism, but accept it in its historical mission or can it not?"11 The answer is a loud: Yes, because the New Covenant in Jesus Christ does not lead to a "repeal of the special mission of Israel."12 In contrast to the negative image of the law (Torah), the scribes and the Pharisees, which has worked its way into liberal Protestant theology, Ratzinger stressed that Jesus did not abolish the law but “fulfilled” it.13 But while the faith of Israel in the one God, as expressed in the Sh'ma Israel, is universal, the people who came to faith did not adopt the law as a whole, but especially  the decalogue and the commandments of love of God and charity.14

However, the special mission of Israel, which is not canceled by Jesus Christ, remains quite vague in Ratzinger. It cannot be the only reason why Jews and Christians are called to bear witness to the one God, the Creator of heaven and earth15 and "to become a force of peace in the world."16

Joseph Ratzinger speaks more clearly about the mission of Israel in the Communio article "The Dialogue of Religions and the Jewish-Christian Relationship" (1997).17 The article goes back to a session of the "Academie sciences morales et politiques" in Paris. The session topic was suggested by Rabbi Leonard Sztejnberg. Ratzinger emphasizes that there are commonalities and dividing lines between Jews and Christians: the Bible of Israel "unites Jews and Christians, the faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Redeemer separates them.”18  But one must also see “that through Christ the Bible of Israel came also to the Gentiles and has become their Bible, too."19 The God of Israel has become the “God of the people of the world,"20 but the church has at the same time to acknowledge "the will of God," which has “apparently given Israel its own mission during the time of the Gentiles.”21  The Jews, “had to remain confronting us as the first owners of Scripture in order to establish just such a testimony to the world,”22 “by their faith, their hope, and their love of God,”23 even if “Christians desire that one day Israel will come to know Christ as the Son of God, and thus close the gap that separates both."24 But the overcoming of the separation between Jews and Christians is not in our power.25

In a small contribution to the Freiburg Rundbrief (2001), Ratzinger writes that it is Israel's mission "to give its faith in the only true God to all people, and in fact we Christians are heirs of their faith in the only God."26 Ratzinger does not subscribe to a disinheritance theory. Rather, he speaks of a "new vision of the relationship between the Church and Israel"27 and the overcoming of any kind of anti-Judaism. Finally, he calls on Christians to recognize God's love for his first-chosen people, the Jews.28 For to them, according to the apostle Paul, are the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the law, the worship, and the promises (Rom 9:4) ), "Not only in the past, but also in the present day"29 because the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable" (Rom. 11:29).

In the Communio article "Grace and Calling without Repentance," the hope "that all Israel will be saved" is qualified by Benedict XVI as "eschatological," a hope that at the same time determines the present: it does not lead to a mission to the Jews of today.30 The ongoing election and mission of Israel is that the Jews are witnesses of the one God and guardians of the Bible of Israel in which Christians still hear the word of God today, even though they read the Bible of Israel in the unity of the two testaments to Christ.31 Especially criticized in the article "Grace and Calling without Repentance" were Benedict XVI's statements on "substitution theory." It is true that theology did not have a consistent understanding of the place of Israel in the history of salvation after Christ.32 But can one therefore really say that the theory of substitution "did not exist as such,”33 and justify this with the absence of a corresponding entry in definitive encyclopedias?

The concept of substitution (supersessionism) may not do justice to all the theological and historical evidence in their entire complexity. But the notion that the Church has taken the place of Israel in the plan of salvation did become fatally effective in Christianity. The reason for this was set forth by Justin the Martyr (around 100-165) and Melito of Sardis (died around 180). Justin speaks of the Church as the true Israel,34 and Melito was the first to accuse the Jews of the murder of God; as punishment for their cosmic crime they were scattered. In his Easter sermon (c. 160), he says, "What terrible injustice, Israel, have you done? You have repudiated the one who honored you; He who has glorified you have dishonored; He who acknowledged you, you denied; He who preached to you, you rejected; you have killed him who brought you to life. What have you done, O Israel? [...] But you were not considered to be Israel, for you did not recognize God; Thou hast not known the Lord, O Israel, thou didst not know that this is the firstborn of God [...] And thou hast killed the Lord in the midst of Jerusalem! Hear it, all the families of the peoples, and see: Unholy murder took place in the midst of Jerusalem."35 For Tertullian (around 150-220), the Jews are rejected for their guilt: "The blood of the prophets and the Lord Himself clings to them [the Jews] for all eternity.”36 The Jews have fallen out of the grace of God. Since then they have had to endure the dispersion.37

The document of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews for the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate No. 4 states: "Many church fathers favored the so-called substitution theory (supersessionism), which eventually became the standard medieval theological basis for the relationship to Judaism."38 Even if the judgment of Benedict XVI on the historical weight of the theory of substitution is not shared, it is necessary to ask a theologian of his stature sine ira et studio [without anger or ill-will] what exactly he is criticizing in terms of an "undifferentiated 'no' to substitution theory." For, naturally, Benedict XVI does not believe that the Church has taken Israel's place in the plan of salvation.40 Of course, he also rejects with Nostra Aetate 4 the accusation of the murder of God. Finally, Benedict XVI warns against relativizing the meaning of the Old Testament for Christians.41 The timeliness of this warning against the “Marcionite temptation”42 is seen in the demand of the evangelical theologian Notger Slenczka to remove the writings of the Bible of Israel from the Christian canon.43 Without the anti-Marcionite orientation, says Benedict XVI, Christians would have rejected the Old Testament as the religious-historical precursor of the Christian canon.44

In a single passage of his Communio article on Judaism, Benedict XVI himself speaks of substitution, namely, the question of the relationship between the cult of the temple and the Eucharist. It is true that in the Eucharist, which is based on the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples, the sacrificial cult of the Temple has, from the Christian point of view, been fulfilled and that the animal sacrifices no longer have any meaning. But can one really call that “substitution”45 or is it rather not "abrogation"? In this sense, the penultimate stanza of the Eucharistic hymn Pange lingua is to be understood: "Tantum ergo sacramentum veneremur cernui: et antiquum documentum novo cedat ritui: praestet fides supplementum sensuum defectui [...]."

[Literally: “Hence so great a Sacrament, Let us venerate with heads bowed [cernui] / And let the old practice [documentum] Give way to the new rite; /Let faith provide a supplement / For the failure of the senses."

Or in a traditional English liturgical translation: "Down in adoration falling, Lo! the sacred Host we hail / Lo! o'er ancient forms departing, Newer rites of grace prevail / Faith for all defects supplying, Where the feeble senses fail."]

The sacrament of the Eucharist razes the Temple cult, the "old practice" (antiquum documentum) and makes way to the new rite (novus ritus).46 Deadly were the translations of Heinrich Bohne (1848) ("this covenant will last forever and the old one has an end") and Marie Luise Thurmair ("the law of fear must give way as the new covenant began").47 It is not the Old Covenant that ends, but the temple cult. Therefore, an explanation is required when Benedict XVI says that in the Eucharist "the Sinai people have received their definitive form.”48

In his article on Judaism, Benedict XVI confines himself to the relationship between the temple and the Eucharist; the worship of the synagogue, which, according to Jewish self-understanding, took on the function of the sacrificial cult after the destruction of the temple, is not recognized. The synagogue is the place where, in a new ritual form, the worshiping assembly (minyan) celebrates the great feasts of Israel, such as Yom Kippur and Passover. If [as in Rom 9:4] the worship is in addition to the promises, the covenants, and the spoken law of Israelitica dignitas ["the integrity/dighity of Israel"], then there must be no doubt that the worship of the synagogue is an authentic form of worship of the one and only God. Benedict XVI expressly acknowledges that there are two answers to the destruction of the temple: rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. But what that means for the relationship between the synagogue and the church is not fully understood in the article "Grace and Calling without Repentance."

That, in addition to the Sermon on the Mount the Decalogue is obligatory for Christians, and thus the commitment to the one and only God as expressed in the Sh'ma Israel, is undisputed and not the subject of debate. Morality is neither about abrogation nor substitution, but about summation. The Sermon on the Mount does not simply dissolve the morality of what Christians call the Old Testament.49 Benedict XVI sees the question of the Messiahship of Jesus as the real issue between Jews and Christians. Jesus was reserved about being venerated as  Messiah. This is because the expectation of a Messiah-King was associated with the title of Messiah. When Benedict XVI writes that Jesus in his proclamation is not so much attached to the Davidic tradition, but rather to the idea of hope in the Son of Man and the figure of the suffering servant of God, he is in line with a broad exegetical consensus.

Christians and Jews might allow that the Messianic hopes of John 2:2-5 and Micah 4: 1-3 were not met with Christ, "but they remain the expectation of the future."50 Jesus did not see himself proclaiming the dawning kingdom of God as the one who would bring the perfected world of peace that appears in Isaiah 2 and Micah 4. With the Messiah Jesus, the messianic hopes of Israel are not rewarded. The historical theological schema umbra - imago - veritas [shadow – image – truth] means that the Messiah Jesus and with him the world into which he came, still have a future before them with his eschatological parousia: the completion of the kingdom of God is yet to come. The theological tradition therefore calls his adventus medius [middle coming] the presence of Christ in the time of the Church.

For Benedict XVI, the guiding pattern is not substitution, but the schema of promise and fulfillment, with the exception of the relationship between the Temple-cult and Eucharist. However, in the article "Grace and Calling without Repentance," the Israelitica dignitas appears neglected. Gregor Maria Hoff has shown that in Catholic theology, apart from a few exceptions, it remains largely neglected to this day.51 On the other hand, his judgment that Benedict XVI relativizes the statements of the Second Vatican Council on Judaism and in his own words reiterates supersessionism, according to which Christianity has replaced Judaism, is quite outlandish.52

Despite all the necessary criticism of Benedict's assessments of the historical weight of substitution theory, he does not regard Israel as rejected. For him there can be no going back before Nostra Aetate. An update of replacement theology is thus excluded. But if Israel is not at fault, if Jews have the promises, then the question arises as to what this means for the [biblical] decrees about the land [of Israel].

2. The Land of Israel – The State of Israel

In the document "Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church" (1985) of the Pontifical Commission for the Religious Relations with the Jews, the following statement on the State of Israel can be found: “Christians are invited to understand this religious attachment which finds its roots in Biblical tradition, without however making their own any particular religious interpretation of this relationship […] As far as the existence of the State of Israel and its political options are concerned, they should be envisaged not in a perspective which is in itself religious, but in their reference to the common principles of international law,” but the permanence of Israel is to be perceived as “a historic fact and a sign to be interpreted within God's design.”53

Along this line, Benedict XVI in his Communio article "Grace and Calling without Repentance" also commented on the State of Israel. The emeritus Pope turns against the derivation of the State of Israel from the Holy Scriptures, instead bringing into play a natural-law reasoning for its existence: Every nation has a right to its own state. On the other hand, Benedict XVI admits that in the establishment of the State “the fidelity of God to the people in a broader sense"54 is shown. In his letter to Arie Folger, he says that "in the creation of the State of Israel, in a mysterious way, the faithfulness of God to Israel is revealed."55 For Rabbi Folger, the differences between these positions have thus diminished.56

But if one assumes that the promise of the land belongs to the promises made to Abraham and Moses, and that this is inseparable from the people’s promise in spite of the events of 70 and 135 AD, as well as the dispersion of the Jews,57 then a natural law reasoning for the State of Israel is insufficient for a theology of [the people of, traditions of] Israel.

It is true that in Christianity there has been a deterritorialization of the idea of [God’s] election.58 Already the apostle Paul speaks in Galatians (54/55 AD) of the "Jerusalem above," the "mother of the free" (Gal 3:24), which he distinguishes from the earthly Jerusalem, which for him stands for the Sinai covenant. Jerusalem is not devalued as a city, Jerusalem stands as a symbol of the law in Paul.59 Of course, the sharp antithesis of law and gospel raises questions in the Galatian epistle. But Paul, as his theology of Israel in Romans 9-11 shows, did not stop there. For the apostle, however, Jerusalem loses importance as the city and place of the central sanctuary. Even if the Jews who came to faith in Jesus the Christ continued to go to the temple in Jerusalem to pray there until 70 AD, Christian worship is no longer bound to a central sanctuary.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews calls Jerusalem the "city of the living God" (Heb. 12:22), which goes beyond Zion. "For we have no permanent city here, but we seek the future" (Hebrews 13:14). In the "Revelation of John" the seer beholds the "new Jerusalem" that comes from heaven and shines like a jewel of precious stones (Rev 21-22). It does not have a temple, because now God himself and his Messiah, the sacrificed Lamb, are the temple (Rev 21:22). In the first verse of the hymn "Urbs Jerusalem beata" (7-8th c.) of the festival it is said: "Urbs Jerusalem beata, dicta pacis visio, quae construitur in coelo vivis lapidibus, et angelis coronata ut sponsata comite." "Blessed City of Jerusalem, called the vision of peace, built in the heavens of living stones, and crowned by angels as in the company of a bride."

For Jews, the visible Holy City in connection with the promises of the land has a different weight. None of the monotheistic religions has such a close religious connection with the city of Jerusalem as Judaism.60 Does not the Catholic Church have to recognize the Jews' claim to their state and the city of Jerusalem because of the common biblical heritage?61 In his letter to Benedict XVI Rabbi Folger writes: "Yes, it is time for the Church to realize that the return to Zion is religiously important."62 In the statement "Between Jerusalem and Rome," it is said that "God's eternal covenant" with Israel was not only reflected in the revival of Jewish life in the Diaspora after the Shoah, but also in the fact that many Jews followed the call “to return to Eretz Yisrael, where a sovereign Jewish state emerged."63

Although many representatives of the Zionist movement were not practicing Jews, and many Israeli citizens today call themselves secular, the modern Jewish state sees itself as fulfilling God's biblical promise to bring its people back to their land.64 So far, the Vatican has rejected a religious justification for the State of Israel. In his article on Judaism and the letter to Rabbi Folger, Benedict XVI struggles with the official position of the Vatican. And you get the feeling that [the Vatican] will not be able to continue to hold it. Rather, the hour should have come to correct the Vatican's position on the statehood of Israel, as well as the claims of the Jews in Jerusalem: the promises to Israel that are not revoked also include the promise of the land that is part of God's faithfulness to his people.

3. God's covenantal loyalty

At a meeting with representatives of the Jewish community in Mainz on November 17, 1980, John Paul II (1978-2005) spoke of the "people of God of the Old Covenant never revoked by God (cf Rom 11:29),"65 with which he took up Martin Buber’s oft-quoted saying, "But I am not rejected [...] we have not been rejected."66 With papal authority John Paul II stated that the church had not replaced by Israel in the plan of salvation, but Israel continues to stand in the unrevoked covenant with God. This is also what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1993)67 teaches and was confirmed in 2005 by the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews in its document for the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate (1965).68

The dialogue between Christians and Jews must be adversely affected if there are any doubts that the Jews are in God’s unbroken covenant. For Benedict XVI, there is no question that Israel is part of the faithfulness of the covenant, and that this belongs to "the contemporary teaching of the Catholic Church."69 The language of the "unbroken covenant of God" is basically correct. The "precision and consolidation"70 that Benedict XVI desires are needed to address difficult questions of the theology of the covenant. What is the covenant faith of God, how do Christian perspectives change the Old and the New Covenants? What is their unity, what is their difference?

Already in his Communio article "The New Covenant: The Theology of the Covenant in the New Testament" (1995),71 Joseph Ratzinger had pointed out that for the covenant (b'rith) in the Septuagint diatheke and not sponde or syntheke because the covenant of God with the people is not a mutual agreement, but a kind of decree.72  There is also a plurality of covenants. There is a covenant with Noah, Abraham, Jacob-Israel, Moses, David, and the covenant in Christ Jesus. In fact, the "covenant" in biblical perspective is a "dynamic reality, concretized in an unfolding series of concretizations."73 Hence the strict antithesis of the Old and New Covenants, as we see in 2 Cor. 18 and Gal. 4:21-31, do not do justice to the theology of the covenant. In Rom. 9:4 Paul speaks not of the covenant in the singular (diatheke), but of covenants (diathekai), whereby for the apostle it is not the Sinai covenant but the covenant with Abraham, the father of the faith, that is decisive, since he connects Christians from the nations with the Jews, the children of Abraham according to the flesh.

The Sinai covenant is the covenant of God for Israel, not for the nations. One does not do justice to the plurality of covenants, and the dynamic reality of God's covenant faith in it, if one exalts the covenants in the One Covenant of God, in which Jews and Christians are connected, or if one accepts two separate covenants with two parallel paths of salvation, for the Jews the Torah and for the Christians the Messiah Jesus.74 Arie Folger rightly says that such theories are not mainstream in Christian theology.75 However, there are a growing number of Christian authors who believe that Jesus Messiah is only for the nations.76

In his article on Judaism, Benedict XVI states that it is wrong to see "covenant" in theology "only in the singular, or even in the strict opposition of the Old and the New Covenant."77 Here he undoubtedly is focusing on the theory of a single covenant or the parallel paths of salvation, which also reject the 2015 document of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.78 Benedict XVI himself speaks of a "reconfiguration of the Sinai covenant in the new covenant in the blood of Jesus."79 He says of the Sinai people that it has an "intermediate function"80 in relation to the universal nature of the Abrahamic covenant, and that "in its essence it has always been a promise, an approach to the ultimate faith."81  In the Communio article "The New Covenant" (1995), Joseph Ratzinger contrasts the Sinai covenant and the Abrahamic Covenant as a legal statute and a promise to each other that Sinai was not abolished but renewed "by the covenant of God in the flesh and blood of the resurrected crucified one.83 It is correct that the legal and cultic order of Sinai was not extended to the nations (goyim) by the new covenant in the Messiah Jesus. But this does not make the Sinai covenant a temporary covenant, even though the temple cult of Jerusalem may have come to an end. If the covenants belong to Israel [as in Rom. 9:4], then the Church can only do justice to the Israelitica dignitas by distinguishing between the Sinai covenant and the Torah, which remains valid for Israel, and the transformation of the form of public worship.

Benedict XVI's Communio article on Judaism may not adequately acknowledge the salvation-historical dignity of Israel, but it does appear in other texts, as in the speech at the Auschwitz concentration camp given by Benedict XVI as reigning Pope (May 28, 2006). In it he speaks of the people of the Jews as witnesses of the covenant with Abraham, of the covenant on Sinai and as witnesses of the One God.84 In the genocide of the Jews, Benedict XVI recognizes an attack on the God of the covenant. Enmity towards the chosen people of the Jews is therefore enmity against God.85 He who touches the people of the Jews touches "the apple of God's eye" (Zech. 2:12) [sic. Zech 2:8].86

With regard to the salvation-historical dignity of Israel after the birth of Christ, the talk of the unbroken covenant of God is not merely an auxiliary formula, but much more importantly forms the basis for the Christian-Jewish dialogue, for an ecumenical unity between Israel and the Church, Jerusalem and Rome. It assumes that one respects the respective self-understanding of the other. Israel is and remains the people God has chosen as a special possession. Israel is and remains the people of the messianic hopes that are not satisfied at the first coming of Christ. For when Christians pray for the parousia of Christ, this shows that the Messiah, whom John's Revelation calls "the first and the last," is yet to come, as the "second coming" for Christians, with his parousia but also with the completion of the Kingdom.87

The election of Israel as God’s special possession and the associated mission of Israel are therefore not an attained "perfection." Franz Mussner (1916-2016) writes in his Treatise on the Jews: "The Jew is the permanent witness of God in the world [...] He is the lasting witness to the concreteness of 'salvation story' and to the hidden God, ‘whose ways are not transparent.’" "The Jew does not abandon the Messianic idea in the world." He keeps "looking for a better world.” The Jew is the "cosmic historical witness" for the "not yet of God’s will." "He resists the Christian pathos of the final time, truth and judgments.” "Through Judaism, the history of humanity has become a sacred history." "The Christian needs the Jew [...]. The Jew helps the Christian not to lose his identity because Israel remains the root of the church.”88

In the words of Shalom Ben-Chorin (1913-1999), the Christian-Jewish dialogue is about the "unity of the children of Abraham." The unity and reconciliation of the Messianic People of God, consisting of Israel and the Church, are not purely futuristic. In the mystery of the divine election and the messianic time, Israel and the Church are already united. Until the return of the Messiah Jesus, the Church must live in solidarity with Israel, in respect of Israel's self-understanding as God's people in the unrevoked covenant  of God.



HELMUT HOPING, born in 1956, is Professor of dogmatic theology and liturgical studies at the Theological Faculty of the Albert-Ludwigs-Universitat in Freiburg in the Breisgau region.