Emeritus Pope Benedict

Benedict XVI’s article on church and the Jews "will create reaction"

The problem is to understand whether it is Joseph Ratzinger the theologian who is speaking or the emeritus pope.

[From LaCroix International.]

by Anne-Bénédicte Hoffner


Father Luc Forestier, director of the Institute of Advanced Ecumenical Studies at the Theologicum of the Catholic Institute of Paris, explains the theological issues raised in an article published by Benedict XVI in the German edition of the journal Communio. Anne-Bénédicte Hoffner for La Croix discusses that recent article with Father Forestier.


La Croix: In your view, what issues does the publication of an article written by Joseph Ratzinger – Benedict XVI — in the German edition of the journal Communion raise?

Father Luc Forestier: The first issue is to identity whether he was speaking as a theologian or as pope? The signature does not make this clear.

As pope emeritus, Benedict XVI had previously adopted an extremely reserved position and taken care never to create any difficulty for his successor.

Why did he finally agree to publish an article and why on this particular issue? Moreover, we do not know whether Pope Francis is aware of it.

Some people believe that Joseph Ratzinger has said things here that he was unable to say as pope.

What is the theological significance of the article?

Essentially, the emeritus pope has taken up two themes from the document published in 2015 for the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate [the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions] by the [Vatican] Commission for Religious Relations with Judaism.

The document itself offered a re-reading of 50 years of reception of the Vatican II declaration, namely a denial of the theology of substitution and the non-revocation of the first covenant.

He states that these two affirmations are “fundamentally correct” but that they are “imprecise” and require “an in depth critical evaluation [müssen kritisch weiter bedacht werden].

He does not challenge the commission’s work. However, I would say that he takes a kind of critical distance — in the intellectual sense of the term — with respect to it.

In a sense, he is continuing his reflection as a theologian. And, as in his Regensburg lecture on faith and reason, his arguments are highly nuanced.

However, as was the case at Regensburg where, in passing, he mentioned a link between Islam and violence, the subject is so highly controversial that it will not fail to cause a reaction.

What is his position regarding the theology of substitution?

The theology of substitution consists in affirming that the church has replaced Israel. From the pope’s point of view, this does not exist as a structured theological position.

As evidence of this, he particularly draws on the writings of St. Augustine recognizing Israel’s contribution to Revelation through the Scriptures or what we call the Old Testament.

I find this statement debatable because I think that he has not looked at all the items involved in the record. Because Augustine also believed that the existence in diaspora of the Jewish people proved that they were wrong and that we, Christians, are right!
In my view, this theology of substitution, which is symbolized by the two statues at the Strasbourg cathedral representing the Catholic Church as a beautiful young person and the Jewish people as a blindfolded old woman, has structured our imagination for centuries.

How does Joseph Ratzinger — Benedict XVI — take up the delicate theme of the old and new covenant?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church’s formulation on this issue, which is taken from John Paul II at Mainz in Germany in 1980, describes the dialogue between Jews and Catholics as “a meeting between the People of God of the Old Covenant, never revoked by God, and the People of God of the New Covenant.”

Moreover, Pope Francis also adopted this formula in his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium §247.

In the view of Joseph Ratzinger — Benedict XVI, this formulation was useful at that time and corresponded to a particular stage in dialogue. However, it cannot by itself characterize the fullness of the reality, which requires “clarification” (Präzisierungen) and “deepening” (Vertiefungen).

In fact, this theological debate does exist and any deepening is useful and necessary. The problem once again is to understand whether it is (Joseph Ratzinger) the theologian who is speaking or the emeritus pope.\

Will this intervention enrich the dialogue between Jews and Catholics or complicate it further?