Emeritus Pope Benedict

Information about Self-Understanding: Not calling into question but deepening the dialogue with Jews

 [From Katholische Nachrichten-Agentur, Ökumenische Information 33 (August 14, 2018): I-IV. Unofficial Translation.] 


by Kurt Cardinal Koch


The essay which emeritus Pope Benedict XVI published in July in the theological journal Communio, under the title “Grace and Calling without Remorse: Notes on the treatise ‘De Iudaeis’” has caused great public debate. It has in part found approval, but also massive accusations, grounded especially in the charge of antisemitism and anti-Judaism. The criticism has three foci: the emeritus Pope, who wrote the article; the editor of the journal Communio, which has published the article; and myself as president of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, who advised the emeritus pope to publish the essay. In this capacity I hereby comment on these developments and on some inquiries. It is important to me that especially on the Jewish side no uncertainty arise, but that the clarity of the Catholic position makes it plain that on the Christian side no one can get the idea that antisemitism and anti-Judaism are in any way justified and that a Christian mission must or should be undertaken.

Towards an inner-Christian understanding

The starting point of the Communio article is the text: “‘For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable’ (Rom. 11:29),” which the Commission published on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the promulgation by the [Second Vatican] Council of the declaration Nostra Aetate. Since the Commission is specifically responsible for “religious relations with Judaism,” its intention, as stated in the foreword, was to enrich and deepen through the scriptures "the theological dimension of Jewish-Catholic dialogue,” in the conviction that that Judaism and Christianity are two religions that are intimately bound together and therefore should also enter into a theological exchange. One of the most fundamental theological questions to be considered is: how can the basic Jewish conviction of the eternal validity of the covenant of God with Israel, which is shared by us Christians, be related to the Christian conviction that in Jesus Christ something new has entered into history, so that together both partners can feel they are understood? The Commission has highlighted key points on this difficult and sensitive question, but has also expected new responses from the Jewish as well as the Catholic side.

With his essay, Joseph Ratzinger - Benedict XVI has given an answer from a Christian perspective. It is not a magisterial act, but his personal theological opinion, which is why the essay has been published in a theological journal. In addition, the essay has the humble subtitle: "Notes on the treatise ‘De Judaeis.’” Thus, the narrow focus of his reflections is clearly signaled. The emeritus pope comments on the two basic convictions of the Jewish-Christian dialogue, which are also in the forefront of the document of the Vatican Commission, namely the rejection of a supersessionist ecclesiology — in the sense that the Jews, who have not accepted faith in Christ, could no longer be the chosen people and that the church has taken the place of Israel — and the positive conviction of the unrevoked covenant of God with Israel. These two basic convictions are discussed by Benedict, certainly not to problematize or relativize them, or even to “hollow them out,” but to specify and make them more discriminating and in this way to deepen their theology. In this respect, Benedict's reflections are an intra-Christian understanding that promotes the Jewish-Christian dialogue but are not themselves a document from the Jewish-Christian dialogue. The Jewish-Christian dialogue is important; it will go on to produce new documents at an international level.

Deepening the theological dialogue

The theological considerations that Joseph Ratzinger - Benedict XVI has written are important for the dialogue. I am convinced that in the Jewish-Christian dialogue, specifically with regard to its theological dimension, that we can only progress if we both give witness and rediscover what we have in common, as well as talk to each other about what makes us different. Orthodox rabbis have demonstrated how natural this principle is in their 2017 document "Between Jerusalem and Rome" by stating openly and honestly which Christian convictions they cannot share, without questioning whether the Jewish-Christian dialogue should cease or even if they wanted it to cease. In the same way, Christians should and can state their deepest beliefs and how they differ from the Jews, but also, as is the case with their faith, a deepened relationship with Jewish brothers and sisters can be built up and cultivated. Precisely because we Christians are convinced that we hold the Old Testament in common with the Jews, we are also obliged to disclose with all openness how we read the Old Testament in the light of Christian faith, without neglecting the Jewish reading of the same writings. Such a distinction also corresponds to the Jewish understanding of revelation, as Rabbi Walter Homolka has stated in detail in a recent essay, namely that Judaism advances through a progressive process of revelation: "It is our idea that the will of God unfolds continually and that at any particular time can be interpreted anew in ways that depart from the interpretations of the past." And as a consequence of this understanding of revelation, Homolka sees a “respect for a diversity of opinions” within Judaism (in M. Graulich and R. Weimann, eds., Eternal Order in a Changing Society, Freiburg, 2018, p. 32).

We Christians also see the New Testament revelation as part of this process. When we as Christians talk openly and honestly to Jews about our deepest beliefs, we carry out what is written in the document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission of 2001 "The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible.” On the one hand, this document emphasizes that "Christians can learn much from Jewish exegesis practiced for 2,000 years.” On the other hand, it also emphasizes that, conversely, we Christians can hope "that the Jews can benefit from the study of Christian exegesis." Bringing the two ways of reading into conversation with each other can lead to mutual enrichment. In such a Jewish-Catholic dialogue, similarities are emphasized, but differences are not denied; they are named and fruitfully deepen relationships without impositions or devaluations. This is exactly the process supported through the statements of Joseph Ratzinger - Benedict XVI. I am convinced that they can help to deepen the theological dialogue.

Discriminating discussion where differences exist

Of course, explanations can only produce the intended effect when they are understood as they are written and meant. They are “Notes to the treatise ‘De Judaeis,’” which in former times often served as a differentiation from Judaism, but today should promote fraternal relations. With this focus, it is justifiable that in the essay one does not find many of the topics that might be expected from a contribution to the Jewish-Christian dialogue. Thus, there are hardly any statements about the importance of post-biblical and contemporary Judaism. Other themes, such as the history of the suffering of the Jewish people, are clearly in the background, but are not specifically discussed because [the essay] is about the clarification of Christian terms. However, anyone who reads Benedict's "Notes" in the light of his many previous statements of appreciation of Judaism, is certain that the author is quite clear in his decision [about this]. Even the Communio article cannot give any reason for doubt. This is already proved by the title of the essay "Grace and Calling without Remorse" and also in the final passage in which the formula of the "never-revoked covenant" is interpreted with Paul: "Reuelos (irrevocable) are the grace and calling granted by God (Rom. 29)." From this beginning and from this conclusion the article of Benedict is to be read and understood. For this reason, I am grateful to theologians Thomas Söding and Jan-Heiner Tück, who are also involved in the Jewish-Christian dialogue, for showing in the meantime that the essay of the emeritus pope is to be read and interpreted in a positive direction.

Among the topics about which Benedict does not explicitly write is the mission to the Jews. From this fact it may by no means be concluded that the statements of the emeritus pope are a call for a mission to the Jews. It is necessary to distinguish in principle a mission to the Jews from the everyday proclamation of the church. In this respect, too, there is no opposition between emeritus Pope Benedict and Pope Francis when he emphasizes in Evangelii gaudium (§249) that there is "rich complementarity" between Jews and Christians, and "although some Christian beliefs are unacceptable to Judaism, the church cannot refrain from announcing Jesus as Lord and Messiah."

The dialogue succeeds when criticism not only emphasizes what is missing in the text, but also states what is said positively. I select just one of the points discussed. True, according to Joseph Ratzinger - Benedict XVI a "theologically understood land promise in the sense of a new political messianism" is not possible. He does, however, reflect the Christian view of the relationship between land and people, without denying Judaism a different view. On the contrary, he expressly points out that because of a different understanding, Judaism "has somehow necessarily to search for a concrete this-world meaning for the land promise" and found it in the State of Israel. And he explicitly notes that the events of the Shoah have "made their own state even more urgent for the Jews." Seeing in the State of Israel a sign of the “faithfulness of God to the people of Israel,” Joseph Ratzinger - Benedict XVI offers a bridge of understanding about a very complex question, that, of course, has to be considered different by Jews and Christians, and which must and can be further pursued.

Sensitive handling of sensitive questions

It hurts me when the emeritus pope is criticized for antisemitism and anti-Judaism because he has always fought antisemitism and condemned it as a deceitful form of antitheism. I can only attest that there is no reason for this allegation in the article that I referred to Communio. Especially in today's society, where antisemitism is on the verge of growing again, the Catholic Church wants to be and remain a reliable partner with Jews in the fight against antisemitism. I also recommended the article for publication because for me it shows how deeply the fight against anti-Judaism and antisemitism is rooted in the Christian gospel itself.

The publication of the essay by Joseph Ratzinger - Benedict XVI has once again shown that the most sensitive point in the Jewish-Christian conversation is Christology or the understanding of the Messiah. But it would not be right to keep silent about this topic because it keeps coming up. Rather, the crucial question is whether Christians give witness to a Christology that provokes conflict between religions or a Christology that makes peace possible. Anyone who has read the books about Jesus by Joseph Ratzinger - Benedict XVI and has noted the many positive reactions to these books from the Jewish world can only be convinced of the second option. I hope that my clarification also promotes an understanding of the new contribution [of Benedict] in this sense.

Community of the hopeful

With regard to eschatology, the important question for the Christian is whether he can hope that the Messiah whom the Jews expect, and the Messiah whom we Christians believe to have already come in Jesus, will be the same. I myself have this hope; I confess to it. I hope not to be accused therefore of anti-Judaism. For me, believing in God's living Word, which Jesus faithfully proclaims and himself epitomizes, is the strongest motivation for the fight against antisemitism and anti-Judaism, but even more is an impulse to seek and cultivate friendship. For Christians, faith in Jesus Christ is an essential part of an eschatological hope common to Jews and Christians and the community awaiting the completion of the world in the Kingdom of God.

I consider it worthwhile to continue to discuss this theological core issue in the Jewish-Christian dialogue. In addition, the essay by Benedict gives it a good push. I campaigned for it to be published. because it contains many perspectives that are to be worked on and deepened in the Jewish-Christian dialogue. With the publication of the essay nothing is taken back in the Jewish-Catholic dialogue. But in my opinion, it is part of a genuine dialogue in which the two partners give clear information about their theological self-understanding and responsibility, and the beliefs with which they engage in dialogue without wanting to proselytize each other. For this reason I am unable to see any danger or even questioning of the Jewish-Christian dialogue in the essay of the emeritus pope, but on the contrary an inspiration for the theological deepening of this dialogue. I hope that this reading will prevail, which corresponds to the intention of the author and the text of his contribution.