Emeritus Pope Benedict

Benedict XVI’s article on Jews stirs debate

Benedict is categorically closing off dialogue and reflection, says Rabbi Rivon Krygier of the Adath Shalom community

Mélinée Le Priol
October 11, 2018

An article by Joseph Ratzinger – Benedict XVI dealing with the relationship between Christianity and Judaism has been published in French in the September-October edition of the journal, Communio. The article caused controversy following its publication in German during the summer. Here, La Croix discusses the issue with Rabbi Rivon Krygier of the Adath Shalom community and Father Olivier Artus, a former member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission during the pontificate of Benedict XVI.


Does Benedict XVI deny that the Catholic Church ever adopted a "theology of substitution" in which the Church replaces Israel?

Rivon Krygier: Benedict XVI certainly recognizes in his article (written in response to a document published in 2015 for the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate: Ed) that while it was not theorized by the Church as such, this theology did indeed exist and largely determined the historical representation of Jews.

However, I believe that his position is untenable when he says there was never a total exclusion of the Jewish people from the promise.

That exclusion did indeed take place, particularly during the Council of Florence (1442), which announced the condemnation of all Jews to hell!

It is clear that Benedict XVI's great concern in this article is to demonstrate the continuity that exists between Judaism and Christianity.

However, in doing so, he minimizes the deep anti-Judaism that has existed in Christian history and the major change wrought by Nostra Aetate in 1965.

Olivier Artus: What Benedict XVI is aiming to show is that the term "substitution" is not adequate to deal with the complexity of Holy Scripture. He also says that the term was never adopted by the magisterium.

There are two reasons for that in his view, namely the diversity of Judaism (to which the Judeo-Christian movement of the first century still belonged) and the dynamics of interpreting Scripture in Israel (that the Christian New Testament prolongs and deploys).

Nevertheless, it is two different things to say on one hand that, magisterially, there has never been a theology of substitution, and to affirm on the other hand that a Christian anti-Judaism existed during many periods and provided the seedbed for a series of historical tragedies.

However, it is true that Benedict XVI did not repeat this comment in his Aug. 23 response to the Great Rabbi of Vienna, Arie Folger.

Does Benedict XVI believe the Christian reading of the Old Testament is the only "valid" one?

Olivier Artus: The emeritus pope has simply restated the position of the Catholic Church, namely that the Christian reading of the Scriptures of Israel is a Christological reading, according to which Jesus Christ is the key to interpreting the hope of Israel.

However, this reading does not claim to be the only one! And to the extent that the First Covenant was never revoked, not only is the Jewish reading relevant but it is also necessary.

Moreover, Christians cannot claim to teach anything to Jews although Benedict XVI does not take the trouble to point this out in his article.

However, it is clearer in his correspondence with the Great Rabbi of Vienna, when he says that his methodological reference was the 2001 document issued by the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

Its conclusions are very clear that any form of proselytism with respect to the Jews is to be banned.

Rivon Krygier: I would be the last to contest the legitimacy of a Christological reading of the Old Testament since that is up to Christianity!

What I find wounding and reductive, on the other hand, is that Israel appears in Benedict XVI's article to be a simple link in a chain that leads ineluctably to Christ.

Judaism is not regarded as a spirituality with its own proper vocation, but simply as a launch ramp leading to Christianity.

To me, that destroys the dynamic of a genuine dialogue where the view of the other challenges us. Where is this emulation — that aspect of dialogue that is so beneficial of dialogue — in the document?

Does Benedict downplay the spiritual dimension of the present state of Israel?

Olivier Artus: The emeritus pope writes that "a state that claims itself to be the theological and political accomplishment of promises cannot be envisaged in our history, according to the Christian faith."

That is to say, in effect, that eschatology has irrupted into history.

But for Christians, God's promises will only be fulfilled at the end of time, inaugurating his Kingdom.

Nevertheless, I understand the concern that this statement could cause.

We Christians did not experience the Shoah nor the immense hope that the birth of Israel in 1948 represented.

We perhaps look at things in a clinical and cold manner. But I understand that for Jews this is still very much a "live" issue.

An absolutely well-founded theological remark may appear unacceptable because it touches on the most sensitive point for the interlocutor.

Rivon Krygier: Benedict XVI was right to be cautious with respect to Messianist currents taking biblical prophecies too literally.

However, to say that the state of Israel has no theological significance is definitely showing a lack of consideration!

He makes a minimal concession by admitting that the divine promise concerns the right of Jews to have a shelter state on the basis of the suffering they endured.

But he refuses to see it as any kind of theological accomplishment.

However, the hope of Jews is indeed that the state should eventually lead to a more ideal form of humanity and spirituality.

Until now, the Church has been careful not to clearly make any pronouncement concerning the theological vocation of the state of Israel.

Benedict is categorically closing off dialogue and reflection.

It is a unilateral affirmation that proclaims a Christian monopoly over our spiritual future.

Is the article a backwards step for Judeo-Christian dialogue?

Rivon Krygier: Pope Benedict's article is not catastrophic. But I find it disappointing compared to the major advances of the commission for religious relations with Judaism (2015).

It is a restrained response, which to some extent tends to break the dynamic of the invitation to deepen the dialogue between our two religions.

For me, it is worrying. If this article becomes the official position of the Church, then a chapter that promised much will have been closed.

Olivier Artus: I believe that Benedict's intention in the article was to condemn the extreme over-simplification of a theology of substitution to the extent that this had existed.

It is a precise and austere exegetical work, as is often the case with Benedict XVI, and it moves forward step by step.

It is true that this may give an impression that he is hesitating. However, we need to remember that it is a working document and it was not originally intended for publication. So it lacks a whole contextual apparatus.