Emeritus Pope Benedict

In the storm center

Damage to the Jewish-Christian dialogue? An article by Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity is making waves.

By Thomas Söding

[From Herder Korrespondenz. Unofficial translation.] 


The renewal of the Jewish-Christian relationship is the great task of a whole generation. In Germany of all places, Jewish theologians such as Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and Leo Baeck had taken the initiative long before 1933[!] to search for Jewish-Christian commonalities. They also found well-known interlocutors in the academy and the church. But it was only after Auschwitz that a theology of Judaism began to develop in Christianity, something that should have always existed before Auschwitz.

Of course, the question is whether the word "renewal" is not a euphemism. Unfortunately, [the idea of] fierce anti-Judaism on God's part is lamentably found already among some Church Fathers. Church history has left a trail of devastation upon Jewish culture. Arnold Angenendt (Tolerance and Violence, 5th edition, 2012) has indeed shown that there has always been Christian criticism of the attacks against Jews, that the popes have seen themselves as "patrons" of the Jews, and that theology has been judged as far more nuanced than as mere foreshadowings of the pogroms. National Socialism was only able to unleash such an excessive rage of extermination against the Jews because at its core it was anti-Christian, despite the efforts of the so-called "German Christians" to unite the cross and the swastika. But this nuance is no comfort — not for the persecuted Jews, but also for committed Christians. It only intensifies the need for repentance, the request for forgiveness and the search for a new beginning.

In the biblical sense, renewal involves the confession of one's own guilt, the healing of the wounds inflicted on the victims, the will to make amends, and the intention not to repeat the offense. Renewal also includes a memory of the past, a vocation, and a promise that is not corrupted by sin and guilt, but combines the love of God and the work of building peace. In the case of Judaism it includes the confession of one God and a brotherly love that withstands quarrels without breaking the family ties, and that again and again considers the chance of reconciliation to be more important than arguments over the common heritage, considers the right path in the present, and considers the prospect of a future in the perfected kingdom of God. 

Dispute over Emeritus
If the intent of the "renewal" from the Christian point of view is to appear meaningful and credible to Jews, it must be proven again and again through thoughts, words and deeds. But it must also be clear that the orientation towards Jesus, the Christian reading of the "Old Testament" (the Bible of Israel), the belief in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and the debate in the young church over the mission to the nations are not the seeds of a war with Jews, but make differences in the spreading of belief in God and in the love of neighbor. At the heart of the matter is the question of whether discord or peace lies at the heart of Christology.

The question of whether the Christian-Jewish relationship can be renewed from the Christian side through a christological disarmament or through a christological deepening is in the background of the dispute, triggered by a programmatic article by Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI in the July issue of the International Catholic Journal Communio. Joseph Ratzinger is the subject. He was the Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith and presided over the Pontifical Biblical Commission, which published in 2001 the important document "The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible" (2001). Cardinal Kurt Koch, the Pope's Ecumenical Minister, also responsible for the Catholic Church's relationship to Judaism, spoke to him about the theme and read his essay, which dates back to October 2017. He came to the conclusion that it should be published, and has offered it with the consent of the author to the journal, which was co-founded by Ratzinger.

The publication has produced a strong response. Criticism predominates. Two problems are in focus: Can, and should, the emeritus Pope publicly promote theology? And is his statement really a deepening of the Jewish-Christian dialogue or an obstacle?

The first problem is relatively benign. The resignation of Benedict on Rose Monday 2013 was a political sensation in the church. He also spoke of the demythologization of the Petrine ministry. The Pope is the bishop of Rome; every bishop can resign, including the pope. He has to serve the church. If he cannot do that anymore, it is better to leave someone behind the wheel than to paralyze the church through long-term infirmity and leave the leadership to second and third level colleagues. Already with his books on Jesus, the author was wise to mention in the foreword that he does not make a magisterial claim (2007); much less, then, can this apply to a personal reflection after his resignation.

Of course, the Catholic Church is not well prepared for such a modern, theologically deep-rooted understanding of the office. The bias is also reflected in the lively debate about the clothing of the emeritus pope, his title, and above all the role he plays. Anyone who has ever visited him in his "monastery" in the Vatican knows that this is not the epicenter of an antipope, who attacks Francis undercover. Unfortunately, one gets the unavoidable impression that there are forces that want to instrumentalize Benedict.

But the text that has now seen the light of day is the least likely to fuel such rumors. In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis declared in 2013, "As Christians, we can not regard Judaism as a foreign religion (...) Dialogue and friendship with the children of Israel are part of the life of the disciples of Jesus. The affection that has developed allows us to sincerely and bitterly regret the terrible persecutions to which the Jews were and are subjected, especially when Christians were and are involved in it. (...) God continues to work among the people of the Old Covenant" (EC 247-249). Although it is clear that Jews do not share all Christian beliefs and Christianity cannot renounce the proclamation of Jesus, "there is a rich complementarity that allows us to read together the texts of the Hebrew Bible" (EC 250). Each of these sentences is treated in the document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, which Joseph Ratzinger himself programmatically initiated. 

Among Catholics, a relaxed approach to the Ratzinger texts is advised. Even those whose church politics are different than Benedict XVI's should be able to recognize their quality; and those who fraternize with Francis should not hide behind Joseph Ratzinger. His words, even those he additionally signs with "Benedict," are only as good as they actually are and must be criticized just as clearly when they deserve criticism. The traditional arguments from authority no longer work anyway. However, those who hold the episcopal teaching office in the Catholic Church must live up to the responsibility of their spokesperson's role and then hope for a response that does not need to negate their official incumbency in order to make its own voice the louder. 

Every emeritus bishop is free to speak as he pleases and as befits his role, as does the Bishop of Rome. The one who would harp against his successor in a diocese is usually proved to have a bad style and a bad hand. Even moreso on the Roman level of the universal church. But Benedict is careful not to play such games. Vatican tea-leaf readers may let their conspiracy theories steam, those who perfectly well know that professional respect does not mean one hundred percent agreement and wise restraint is not hypocritical friendship.

Christological Focus

More serious than the debate over its form is the discussion about the content of the essay. Even if his title "Grace and Vocation without Remorse," which is taken from Paul in Romans, sets the direction, the discussion has taken a different turn. In the Neue Zürcher Zeitung of July 8, Christian Rutishauser, Provincial of the Swiss Jesuits, set the tone: "Benedict XVI calls to the Jews: There is no getting around Christ." The reviewer does not ignore the strong features of the Ratzinger article; but he criticizes Benedict for embodying in his history only the "judgment of God"  and that the Sinai covenant is "replaced" by the Christ covenant, as is the temple cult through the Eucharist. What Benedict describes is traditionally referred to by the word "fulfill." It was not a further contribution to the Jewish-Christian dialogue, but rather a relapse into the position of Augustine (who in fact did not want to indulge in anti-Judaism), who only saw Judaism's enduring importance to Christianity as a reflection of an unredeemed existence, so that the [Christian] faithful would rejoice in their grace. Walter Homolka, Managing Director of the prestigious School of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam, on the occasion of a festive speech on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Society for Christian-Jewish Cooperation in Munich on July 9th, referred, according to media reports, to the thesis that the Sinai covenant is replaced by the Christ covenant as a source of antisemitism. In the Frankfurter Rundschau of July 13, the journalist Simon Berninger entitled [an article]: "Antisemitism on a Christian foundation." In addition to Homolka, he also quotes Dagmar Mensink and Rabbi Andreas Nachama (from the Discussion Group on Jews and Christians at the Central Committee of German Catholics) who see the core message of the [Ratzinger] article as: "Salvation is exclusively through Jesus Christ," thus rendering the Jewish-Christian dialogue a disservice. 

The Presidium of the German Coordination Council of the Societies for Christian-Jewish Cooperation expressed in a statement its distress that Cardinal Koch referred to the current state of the dialogue without clearly engaging Jewish theology and reproached him with unnecessarily starting a controversy with the publication [of the Ratzinger article].  

The criticism has resurfaced a controversy triggered by Benedict's decision to formulate for the Tridentine rite a distinctive Good Friday invocation "for the Jews," which would be granted to the Society of St. Pius X. As is well-known, the old rite speaks of the "unfaithful (perfidious) Jews." In the debate at the time (Homolka and Erich Zenger [ed.], "... so that they recognize Christ...", 2008), it was not stressed that Benedict, in this single passage, imposed on the traditionalists the requirement of a change in the Tridentine liturgy in order to take the edge off their extreme anti-Judaism. But rather than insisting they accept the wording of the Vatican invocation, that God preserve them "in faithfulness to his covenant and in love in his name," "so that they reach the goal to which his counsel will lead them," instead used the pre-existing formula, "that they recognize Jesus Christ as the savior of all men" — which amounts to an invitation to a Christian mission to [convert] Jews. 

The heated discussion of the Communio article reflects the explosiveness of the topic. There can be no doubt that it would be anti-Jewish to see the Sinai Covenant replaced by the Christ Covenant or to undertake or prepare for a mission to [convert] the Jews. There can be no doubt that any Christology that is exclusivist would take away the life-breath of Judaism. The only thing in doubt is that Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI argues in this direction.

A problem in ecclesiology

The expertise presented by the emeritus pontiff is in service to internal Catholic understanding. This focus by no means excludes other observers and comments. But it can explain that Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI reflects exclusively on positions within his own church and does not engage — even if only literarily — in any conversation with Jews throughout. He has done otherwise in his book on Jesus with the famous New York scholar of Judaism, Jacob Neusner, who denies that there are theological reasons for the existence of Jesus himself, not only to reject ecclesiastical belief in Christ, but also to reject the proclamation of Jesus in the Gospels because it dissolves the unity of people, family, land and law and makes a human person speak as only God can speak. In the book on Jesus, the author [Pope Benedict] made it clear that it is a question of faith to see and hear in Jesus the Word of God, which he not only proclaims, but actually embodies. 

In the Communio article he now refrains from criticizing liberal Protestant theology, which he has often criticized, such as Adolf von Harnack with his plea to abolish the Old Testament in the Protestant church and his thoughts on the Christian liberation from the "legalism" of Judaism (The Essence of Christianity, 1900). In contrast, he [Benedict] focuses on two cornerstones of Catholic re-thinking. One is the rejection of a substitutionary ecclesiology, according to which the church was the "true Israel" or something similar, taken for granted in Christian theology well into the twentieth century, while Israel was no longer the chosen people because of the rejection of Jesus. The other is the talk of the "unbroken covenant," which John Paul II has made a feature of the renewed Christian theology of Israel. 

The argument of Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI is delicate: he expressly agrees with the intention of both formulas. But he criticizes their mode of expression. He wants to clarify, objectify and deepen. He wants to do justice to the tradition, which was more sophisticated than it is often portrayed, and he wants to do justice to the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, whose language is more precise than that of contemporary theology. 

The intention of this differentiation is clear: it is not intended to run counter to the Jewish-Christian dialogue, but to show how profoundly the renewal of scripture and tradition is grounded without blurring Jewish-Christian differences. This intention is very important at a time when antisemitism is growing and inter-cultural understanding seems to be more inspiring in the inter-generational development of theology than is the culture of the Jewish-Christian dialogue. 

Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI emphasizes that for the ancient and medieval Church as well, Judaism was never a religion like any other, but because of Scripture and because of the certainty of faith expressed by Paul that all Israel will be saved (Rom. 26), occupied a special position. The factual correctness of this reference is undeniable. Admittedly, it should be added that this did not warrant a positive theology of Judaism, but merely limited anti-Judaism. For this reason Nostra Aetate, the great document of the Council that has initiated a reevaluation of Judaism, did not cite a single traditional authority in its chapter on Israel but quoted only the New Testament, especially Paul.

Thus, if the renewal of the Christian theology of Israel is to prove to be a "hermeneutics of reform," which Benedict XVI has asserted against a hermeneutic of "rupture," the path of repentance must go back to the roots: to the New Testament witnesses themselves, who were Jewish and never considered their faith in Christ to be a departure from their Judaism.

The author does not content himself with stating that the tradition is more sophisticated than is often portrayed. He discusses the themes of cult, Torah, Messiah, and land, which in fact become questions when a presupposed supersessionist ecclesiology is criticized. His answer is nuanced: it is the Torah's ethics that are valid for Christianity, as the Sermon on the Mount teaches; the land promise is spiritualized, which is reflected in Hebrews, and therefore the founding of the State of Israel is a political, but not a salvific, historical necessity. The purity and dietary rules, the commandment to circumcize, and the practice of the Sabbath would have served [to maintain] the identity of Israel among the diversity of peoples, while Christian missionary success among the Gentiles can only be explained by the "abolition" of these commandments. The Messiah-faith remains distinguishing — being essential for Christianity to illuminate the Messianic promises of the Old Testament as the horizon of understanding, without overlooking that Jesus was by no means simply presented as a Messiah, but was always critical of the defining Messiah images of his day without rejecting them.

The hotspot is the theology of cult. In the Communio essay, the author follows a similar typological thinking as in his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy (2000). There, the temple offering is not replaced by the Eucharist. Rather, a liturgical transformation is taking place that captures the sacrificial character of the Eucharist and brings to mind once and for all the sacrifice of Jesus' cross. "For Christians," he explains, "in fact, there is no substitution, but a journey that eventually becomes one reality." Of course, he then adds that the animal sacrifices disappeared "necessarily" and that "in their place ('substitution') the Eucharist" would come. This formulation almost invites misunderstandings, but it cannot be denied that the author thinks eschatologically and so does not recapture what is celebrated in Judaism as a "sacrifice of praise" (Ps 50: 23, Hebrews 13:15) up to today.

Constructing Covenant 

The Communio essay also follows a similar dialectic on the subject of covenant as in the case of the cult. At no point is a substitution of the Sinai-covenant by the Christ-covenant spoken of. The phrase "Christ Covenant" does not even appear. Rather, his point is that, on the one hand, the Sinai Covenant "has always been essentially a promise," and on the other hand, that the" new covenant" is firmly anchored in prophetic theology.

In the new commentary on the book of Exodus by Christoph Dohmen (two volumes, 2004 and 2015) and the book of Jeremiah by Georg Fischer (two volumes, 2005), one reads it no differently. Into this tension he inscribes the New Covenant, which, according to the New Testament and especially the Lord's Supper tradition, Jesus has endowed with the passion of his life. There is never any talk of "substitution" throughout the text except in the case of a traditional misinterpretation of the winegrower's parable, which allegedly teaches the "rejection" of Israel.

However, Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI questions the precision of the phrase about the "unbroken covenant" that John Paul II coined and made famous in Mainz in 1980. In fact, the wording does not correspond to the biblical source language. However, in the language of reflection its intention and effect are unequivocal. Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI admits this too. He asserts, however, that firstly there is no unified covenantal theology in the Old Testament but many covenants (cf Rom 9: 4), and secondly that every covenant was broken by people while God remained faithful. Without citing him, he attacks what Walter Groß asserted early on (Future for Israel, 1998).

Thus, the crucial question is whether the way in which Jesus relates to Israel's covenant is inclusive or liberating, for Jews as well as for his disciples and later Christians. In his article, Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI speaks of a "reestablishment of the Sinai covenant in the new covenant in the blood of Jesus." This formulation (which is not biblical) may have provoked criticism. But the sentence goes on to state that he thereby "gave the covenant a new and perpetually valid form." This raises the question of how Israel and the Church go their way in this covenant. In other words, if Christians adhere to the belief that Jesus is the founder of the promised New Covenant, how do they regard the Jews who do not believe in Jesus?

In Christian theology of Israel there are three firm points: the confession of a common past, the hope for a common future and the recognition of disagreement in the present. The first point has hardly ever been questioned in Christian theology since Marcion was rejected. The third point has been darkened over and over again by fantasies of eventually successfully missionizing [Jews]; but Paul speaks of the salvation of "all" Israel and can therefore only be looking to an eschatological action of God. The Communio article is very clear on both points. The Old Testament is the common text that is read differently. The Kingdom of God is the common hope whose fulfillment is entrusted to God. And a mission to the Jews is not even a topic in the Ratzinger-Benedict contribution.

From the very beginning, Christian theology has had the greatest recognition that it is out of "zeal for God" that Jews, as Paul writes (Rom 10: 2), say no to Jesus. The Communio article is also measured here. In an earlier contribution Joseph Ratzinger had granted the Jews their own "mission" in time ("Church - Sign among the Nations," Collected Works, 2010, II, 1130). He takes up the catchphrase in his new contribution, but only refers to the existence of Israel among the peoples of the Diaspora. This is a theological topos that needs to be developed in order to speak of a true Jewish-Christian dialogue.

At the end of his contribution, the author considers which language should be chosen by the Christian side to describe the relationship to the Jews. He comes back to the Pauline tradition. "Reuelos (irrevocable) are the grace and vocation granted by God" (Romans 11:29). The entire article has been written toward this conclusion; it should be read accordingly and therefore not serve as a cause for concern, but as an inspiration for the Jewish-Christian conversation. According to Cardinal Koch and the editor of Communio, Jan-Heiner Tück, the publication aims precisely at this consequence. Hopefully, the goal will not be missed in its reception. 


Thomas Söding is Professor of New Testament Exegesis at the Theological Faculty of the University of Bochum. He is Advisor to the Faith Commission of the German Bishops' Conference, Chairman of the German Ecumenical Study Committee, Member of the Lutheran / Roman Catholic Commission for Unity, and Permanent Guest of the Chamber of Theology of the Evangelical Church in Germany. He is co-editor of the International Catholic Journal Communio.