Emeritus Pope Benedict

No way around Christ

Benedict XVI reaffirms his stance: The Jews are God's people, but the truth lies in Christianity.

[Neue Zürcher Zeitung [The New Zurich Times], Saturday, July 7, 2018, p. 43.]

by Christian Rutishauser


[unofficial translation]

Since the resignation of Pope Benedict, the Catholic Church is in a historically unique situation. Pope Francis, visible symbol of the unity of the Church, has at his side an emeritus predecessor. Although his position may legally resemble that of a retired bishop, public activity on his part would be extremely delicate. What does it mean for the visible image of unity if Francis and Benedict contradict each other? Is there not unleashed in the Church a dynamic like the time when there were several popes?

Pope Benedict must have been aware of this combination of factors upon his retirement when he gave assurances that he would withdraw from public life into the contemplative life. Even if he is called upon in the Vatican from time to time to represent Pope Francis and the public finds out about his theological engagement with former students, he has until now basically maintained his decision to withdraw from public life.

Now the theological journal Communio, co-founded by Joseph Ratzinger, has published an almost twenty-page essay by the emeritus pope in its October 26, 2017 edition. Entitled “Grace and Calling are Without Repentance,” the text, written in a classical brilliant style, refers to the sensitive topic of the Jewish-Catholic relationship. It is preceded by a preface written by Cardinal Kurt Koch, who heads not only the [Vatican’s] ecumenical office but also the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.

Koch explains that Benedict did not intend to publish the text. It was [Koch’s] decision, though published with the consent of the author. The essay is a contribution to the further reflection invited by the Vatican document on the 50th anniversary of the Council's text Nostra Aetate. That document from 2015 bears the title "For the Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable" (Romans 11:29). It presents the current state of Catholic relations with Judaism. Koch characterizes Benedict's essay as a theologian’s voice in the discussion and officially designates it as "important.”

Benedict wants to write the "treatise on the Jews” after Nostra Aetate, whose main task was to characterize the relationship between Israel and the Church. He begins with a historical overview and addresses the current discussion on the parting of the ways of Judaism and Christianity in antiquity.

The never-revoked Covenant

However, he wants to critically question the dual theological consensus used to describe the Jewish-Christian relationship since the Council: on the one hand, the rejection of the "theory of substitution," that is, the Church no longer sees itself as the community (or entity) in salvation history that has taken the place of Israel but gives Judaism beyond Christ a positive meaning in the history of salvation.

On the other hand, this new view is justified by the fact that God "never revoked" the covenant with Israel. Although Benedict emphasizes that this reorientation is fundamentally correct, he undermines it so much in this essay that in the end he states that the doctrine of the "never-revoked covenant" was only a supporting formulation, "and not permanent." "The re-establishment of the Sinai covenant" of God with Israel is for him replaced, that is, substituted by the covenant of Christ.

This bottom line is astonishing because it relativizes a core belief of the since-canonized Pope John Paul II – and a statement in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It also reflects a different spirit than Pope Francis' Evangelii Gaudium, which refers to the treasury of wisdom of Judaism and speaks of Jewish-Christian complementarity.

Benedict argues that even if the Church has not taken the place of Israel as a whole, "essential elements" of Old Testament Israel have been "definitively" replaced by Christ: the temple cult by the Eucharist, the expectation of the Messiah by Christ, the Promised Land by citizenship in heaven. The cultic laws have been abolished, now only the moral imperatives have enduring importance.  What Benedict describes here is traditionally indicated by the word “fulfillment.”

Of course, "fulfillment" is a concept that the New Testament as well as the Church’s identity cannot do without since it binds the Church to the Hebrew Bible and to Judaism. The Vatican document of 2015 commented on this in detail. This thinking becomes problematic only when fulfillment is exclusively set in Christ. Then Christian identity is formulated at the expense of the Jewish one. In its 2002 document, “The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible,” the Pontifical Biblical Commission warns us against this by wisely maintaining a broad meaning of the word "fulfillment." The new choice of words of Benedict seems to me unfortunate.

Above all, his remarks, which contain many valuable individual observations, only give Judaism after Christ "in the age of history" the function of embodying the judgment of God. The destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and the "final dispersion" of the Jews among the peoples reflects this. Accordingly, the State of Israel can only be recognized under natural and international law. That it is in the land of the Bible seems to be due only to a combination of historical factors.

Only in a subordinate clause does Benedict mention that in it one could also see the faithfulness of God. But above all, he interprets the dispersion with a theology of suffering and a theology of the cross to see it as a positive vocation. It turns out that “in the giving away of the land, the divinity of this God” shines forth. Is such a view helpful in a situation in which many dialogue participants expect a Catholic theology of the Land to be an alternative to Evangelical Christian Zionism?

New interpretations and reinterpretations belong to the lives of believers who let themselves be taught by God. But to interpret the suffering of other people positively is questionable. In the present case, seeing the exile of the Jews positively is problematic in the face of the Shoah. Why does Benedict interpret the dispersion of the Jewish people theologically, but the Zionist return as profane history?
It also seems to me to be problematic that he divides negative and positive characteristics between Jews and Christians and does not always place both faiths under such a dialectic.   Moreover, he employs the internal Jewish criticism of the Old Testament prophets as a Christian critique against Judaism as a whole.

By and large, Benedict takes on a Patristic theological position such as we find, for example, in Augustine or early Karl Barth. Already in 1997, in a similar way he expressed himself on the question of the truth of the one covenant in the face of the diversity of religions. The essay discussed here also appears as a justification for his 2009 reinterpreted Good Friday intercession for the extraordinary Tridentine rite. In the text, Benedict calls on Christians to present Jews with the Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, just as the Risen One taught the disciples on the way to Emmaus.

The Suffering of Other People

Since Nostra Aetate, the dialogue texts of the Church have always also spoken of the relationship between Jews and Christians and the quality of the relationship.  Benedict lacks this dimension. Nowhere does he try to understand Judaism as a community of faith after Christ, to appreciate or to learn from the Jewish tradition. Of course, an article cannot say everything, but references in this direction would have been necessary, if only to do justice to the Vatican documents since the Council, which explicitly demand this.

This essay is hardly a contribution for dialogue with Judaism. He does not even mention the two important 2015 documents from Orthodox Jewish circles that have been engaged in dialogue. The [text of the] Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel, the Conference of European Rabbis, as well as the Rabbinical Council of America is based precisely on the teaching of the "never-revoked covenant" and the renunciation by the Church of an active mission to the Jews so as to enter into dialogue. But Benedict poses his own reflections to systematically explain the Christian faith. He writes a tract.

Cardinal Koch must probably also be understood from this perspective since he wanted to have this essay published. He may have been concerned to defend the claim of Christ's universal salvation in the face of relativism. The text, however, exceeds this goal. It would also not be necessary since the Vatican document of 2015 already rejects Judaism and Christianity as parallel paths of salvation. On the other hand, in view of this question, the document opens the door wider to further think about what it would mean if Jesus of Nazareth – beyond ecclesiastical-institutionalized mission – would be favorably recognized within Judaism, in which it emphasizes that the "Church of the Gentiles" also is a Church in and from Judaism.

However, this highly sensitive question can only be asked if it is acknowledged that Judaism in history neither has to embody the judgment of God and suffering nor that in it only “seeds of truth” are to be revealed, and that it is connected to Christianity in a unique manner. [God’s] “grace and calling" must be more positively assessed. Only in this way can Jews and Christians live in an appreciative relationship and listen to one another from faith. Both faiths want to bear witness to divine unity. Since the Patristic era, the Church knows that this unity is revealed in loving relationship.


Christian Rutishauser, S.J. is the Provincial of the Swiss Jesuits.