Emeritus Pope Benedict

"Reactionary views" or "important text"?

[From Deustchlandfunk. Unofficial translation from German of a radio interview transcript.] 


The Controversial Ratzinger essay

A paper by Joseph Ratzinger on the relationship between Jews and Christians is making waves. Critics say: Benedict falls back into bygone times. His viewpoint is "backward-looking and scary." Supporters say: The emeritus Pope is misunderstood.

Daniel Krochmalnik and Thomas Söding in conversation with Andreas Main


Andreas Main: There have been three popes in church history at the same time, but that was due to a schism. Today, the Catholic Church has an emeritus pope and an incumbent pope, where the older, 91-year-old actually has nothing more to say. And yet Benedict and Francis wear the papal white, which can be perplexing. All this has been discussed a lot. Now the debate has gotten new material, because "Pope emeritus Benedict" actually wanted to remain silent. But this summer a text by him has appeared, which momentarily seems unspectacular if one reads only the title - "Grace and calling without remorse." But even the subtitle makes it clear that this is not an inoffensive text by a very old man, but a text that has or can have [offensiveness] in it. The subtitle reads "Remarks on the treatise De Iudaeis" - on the Jews. It's about the relationship between Jews and Christians.

The text has been published in a journal, in the "International Catholic Journal Communio." The theologian and rabbi Walter Homolka especially inveighed against the text. Several Catholic theologians criticized it, such as Gregor Maria Hoff, professor in Salzburg, here on this show a week ago. Before I introduce my interlocutors for today, I will ask them for an opening statement. Why is it important from the Jewish point of view to deal with this text, Daniel Krochmalnik?

Daniel Krochmalnik: Benedict XVI is not only a pope, but he is one of the most important protagonists of the conciliar and post-conciliar Church. His word carries weight. Of course, we pay attention; what he says could also be an indicator of the state of the Christian-Jewish conversation.

"His word carries weight"

Main: And Thomas Söding, who will give a contrary position, why is it worthwhile, from a Christian perspective, to deal with this "Ratzinger text"?

Thomas Söding: Yes, for Joseph Ratzinger, the relationship between Jesus and Judaism, the relationship between Israel and the Church, is simply a major biographical topic. It is the topic of his generation. He has always spoken about this topic in his various functions and has engaged it very much.  And that's why I do not now find it very surprising if he breaks his silence since this subject is the focus.

Main: So we want to bring both sides together: One who is partily responsible for the 'Ratzinger text' and who stands by it as a theological professor of theology, and one who can outline the effect of this text on Jews. Both will also discuss the main criticism, that Joseph Ratzinger could pave the way for new forms of antisemitism with his text.

A few more words about my interlocutors: Daniel Krochmalnik has been a professor of Jewish religion and philosophy at the School of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam since March.

Thomas Söding is Professor for the New Testament at the Ruhr University, Bochum. He is co-editor of the already-mentioned journal, Communio. Good morning in turn to Münster and Berlin. Good morning, Daniel Krochmalnik.

Krochmalnik: Good morning.

Main: Good morning, Thomas Söding.

Söding: Good morning.

Main: Mr Krochmalnik, what were your first reactions when you heard about the text and the allegations of antisemitism?

Krochmalnik: Yes, well, charges of antisemitism are raised often and easily today. I think a text does not have to be antisemitic to be problematic. So there are a lot of problems in this text which, in my opinion, Jews and Catholics have to discuss. It does not have to be a question of whether the text is antisemitic.

Main: Mr. Söding, how did you react when the accusation of antisemitism came out? Were you surprised or did you foresee that the words of the pope would make waves?

Söding: It was clear to me that the statements would make waves. I already knew the text beforehand because I was also involved in the decision to publish it in our journal, which by the way was co-founded by Joseph Ratzinger himself. I knew that it was a very hot topic, but that is precisely why I believe that this text also belongs in the public debate. 

"I did not perceive antisemitic tendencies."

I have never encountered antisemitic tendencies in Joseph Ratzinger. I also did not perceive it in the approach of this text. But then, of course, the task of the Christian theologian is to hear first of all exactly how such a text is perceived on the Jewish side.

Main: How is it perceived, Daniel Krochmalnik?

Krochmalnik: I might like to go back a bit. I mean, the text almost begins with the word Auschwitz. It says: "Since Auschwitz, it has become clear that the Church needs to reconsider the question of the nature of Judaism." This is a statement that is always explicit or at least implicit in the great confessions of the churches after the genocide of the Jews.

What I miss is the payoff from this first sentence. Because there is no more mention of Auschwitz from this point on. I mean, there are two points that the churches have emphasized in their confessions of guilt after the genocide.

The first point is that the teaching of contempt, as the Jewish historian Jules Isaac has called it, the teaching that the church has replaced the synagogue and that the synagogue has been rejected by God, that this doctrine is a sin, that antisemitism is a sin and that it was a source of destructive antisemitism in the last century.

And the second point that John Paul II stated in the synagogue in Cologne [sic], and which is also part of the doctrine of the Church today, is that the covenant with Israel actually was never revoked, so that in a sense the church has gotten this point wrong for two thousand years.

"Views that question the state of the dialogue"

This [Ratzinger] text questions these two points. First of all, it questions whether there was anything like a doctrine of rejection or supersession of the synagogue by the church, using the odd argument that Benedict XVI could not find a corresponding keyword in the three editions of the Encyclopedia of Theology and Church.

Secondly, it calls into question if there was such a thing as an unrevoked covenant from the perspective of biblical thought, because covenants are concluded, but also broken again and again, by humanity, by nations namely. This applies especially to Israel, but apparently it does not apply to the church according to his statements. Its covenant is final.

So these both are mitigating, one can say, the denunciations by the churches after the genocide. And I think that these are how can I put it? – retrograde, reactionary positions that call into question the state of dialogue.

Main: Reactionary Mitigating Positions Thomas Söding, how do you respond?

Söding: Well, Mr. Krochmalnik has just captured the two central points. I can only say how I read this text. Unfortunately, there are still a number of perspectives that say, "Read the New Testament carefully. Do not just try to make such a foolish friendship with Jews. Take your bearings from the great theologians, and then you will know what are you doing if you actually want to come to a new reflection on the relationship to Judaism because of the shock of the Shoah.

And as I have read the first part, this critique of supersessionist ecclesiology, it makes it clear that the tradition, which unfortunately invoked God to advance anti-Jewish views, is now, thank God, a little more nuanced. Even the tradition contaminated by anti-Judaism knows other voices. And that's why it's good that you also listen to the voice of the tradition.

"The article is a piece of linguistic criticism."

As for the other topic – "the unrevoked Covenant," to me this article is a piece of linguistic criticism. The talk of the "unbroken covenant" is not found in the Bible. But for us Christians, that is what the apostle Paul in the Letter to the Romans, thank God, clearly expressed at least in this passage. It is essential. And then there is actually a tension between two different poles. One is and Joseph Ratzinger emphasizes this very strongly: "God remains faithful." And the other is, "People are unfaithful." And that's how he refers to the church, as the final sentence of this article shows, "Even when people are unfaithful, God remains faithful." That's the only hope people can have. But in view of the relationship to Israel, one need not be content only with this general principle, for God does not regret his gifts. That's the final sentence. And this shows that precisely this phrase about the unrevoked covenant is much more theologically grounded than it might seem at first sight.

Main: Would it have been better if this "Ratzinger text" disappeared into the poison cupboard?

Krochmalnik: Yes, you know, it's true. The question is not only what Joseph Ratzinger says about Christian-Jewish dialogue. It's also about the reactions to this text. That's why I think it's good that the text has been published, and that we now perhaps have the opportunity to process and discuss this viewpoint, which I consider I would say scary and regressive.

Main: Daniel Krochmalnik, Judaic scholar and philosopher, and Thomas Söding, Catholic biblical scholar, on Deutschlandfunk, on the program "Day by Day - From Religion and Society," in conversation about an essay of the emeritus pope on the relationship between Jews and Christians. Now, mirroring the question for you, the Catholic thinker, Thomas Söding, hand on heart, what displeases you in this text?

Söding: I think the text is important.

"The intended audience of the text did not become clear."

Main: What displeases you?

Söding: Yes, let me say first that I have read it positively. But I think you have to grasp the text clearly, what type of text it is and who is its intended audience. And obviously this did not come across clearly enough.

There are two pillars in our conversation. One is actually when, as now, Jews and Christians talk together – and the other is that one also always wants to be accountable to their own community, so to speak, about what our positions are. The text of Benedict, who is responding to a dialogue document and intending to inspire further dialogues belongs to the second pillar. And that has obviously not been clear.

I regret that, but I can now perhaps put a few questions to the text, but I think that's not the point of the article.

"A highly self-referential text"

Main: Mr. Krochmalnik, what do you like about this "Ratzinger-reading"?

Krochmalnik: Yes, so generally I read texts positively for the first time and there are a number of reflections here. But I wanted to say something to Thomas Söding. I think he is right. This is actually not a text addressed to the Jews. It is called "About Jews," yes, "De Iudaeis," but it's an in-house text, and it's basically about the Christians – their attitude to the Old Testament, their promises to the New Testament.

In fact, there is very little talk about the Jews and, above all, not from their point of view, but only from the Christian point of view. So it is an assessment of one's location. It's about self-determination, self-assertion. It is also a highly self-referential text. He basically quotes only himself. Thus, five quotations from his own writings appear. Thus you cannot say that it is a contribution to dialogue. And so I agree with Thomas Söding. It is a determination of one's location. And now the question is, which location does the pope determine here? And I would be happy if we could go into more specific points here and there.

"A step back into the religious disputations of the Middle Ages"

Main: Where do you have the biggest problems?

Krochmalnik: Basically, if you ask me, the way the dialogue is being conducted, as well as between me and Thomas Söding, is a step backwards toward the medieval religious disputations. That's what it was all about: how to understand Isaiah 53? Is this referring to Jesus, who lived 600 years later? Or is that meant for the Jewish people? This had been discussed in the major religious disputations of Barcelona and Tortosa and so on for years. And I think that sort of adversarial theology should have been a thing of the past. And in my opinion, this text goes back a step into the era of religious disputations.

Söding: What Mr Krochmalnik is saying now is indeed of fundamental importance to the Christian exegesis of the New Testament. For the New Testament, the references to the scriptures of Israel are quite fundamental, because it would not be possible to find a language for Jesus or understand anything like the faith of Jesus, if one did not refer to those sources, which are now essential to Jesus Himself.

So that means that the Old Testament read today from the New Testament is such a resonant space, a space of possibility. But then clearly I am with Mr Krochmalnik in not being about a specific reading, for example, the Christian reading as now true compared to other readings. That is precisely the essence of the dialogue, that in diversity it first becomes clear that there is no self-evident fact in the divine speech, but that there is always this situating in a perspective, that there are always the perspectives on which one mutually can communicate. 

"From the point of view of others"

Main: Do not the viewpoints really have to be sharpened? Or, to put it simply: Christians cannot renounce their Christ and Jews cannot and do not want to believe that Jesus Christ is their Messiah. That's why you don't beat yourself to death.

Krochmalnik: Yes, but I do not think that's an accurate description of the problem. The Christian is not foreign to us. And it is not as if we have a definite messianic, triumphalist, messianic position in contrast to the teaching of the church. But we also have the Messiah of the sad countenance. And his name is Mashiach ben Yoseph, so he also has the name of Jesus, because even Jesus was ben Yoseph. He was a son, a Joseph son. And we know the suffering of the Messiah, the Messiah. This is not alien to us. I think that's the way dialogue has to go. We have a wealth of messianic statements. 

Indeed, Benedict XVI occasionally speaks of Talmud and Mishnah or Mishnah and Talmud, but he always quotes this en bloc. And you have to see that there are a lot of statements there that he does not even notice. So, if he wants to write a treatise on the Jews, after all the years of Judaic studies and Christian-Jewish dialogue, then it is also important to start from the point of view or from the standpoint of the Jews. Incidentally, in my opinion, this is the only possible position in Jewish-Muslim, Christian-Muslim, Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue. Of course, one must also start from the point of view of others and not just absolutize one's own.

Söding: That is very, very important, what you say, Mr Krochmalnik. And that was also one of the most important lessons that Christian theology generally and especially the biblical sciences had to learn: not to speak of "the Judaism" and then perhaps to develop a Christian projection upon it. On the other hand, one actually observes that in the New Testament, it is not just certain titles of sovereignty - I suppose now that of the Messiah - that would be claimed, as it were, and then no further questions would arise. Instead, whoever very carefully reads the New Testament realizes that there are very, very strong dialogues built into the texts themselves, and they, I think, must be brought to light. And then we also have a very strong dynamic in our own conversation, in which I would very much appreciate if we talked about God above all else.

Krochmalnik: One must also say that this is the posture that we academics take, yes, that we perceive the polyphony of the sacred texts, namely the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Koran. You have to say, too, of course, that is not shared by the church politicians, or the diplomats.

"A kind of ecclesiastical self-verification"

And above all, I see the text of the ex-pope as a kind of ecclesiastical self-verification, a disambiguation, where actually there is polyphony.

Main: Before we look again into the future of the Jewish-Christian conversation and then resolve something about the "Ratzinger text": are the allegations of antisemitism aimed at Joseph Ratzinger appropriate or exaggerated?

Krochmalnik: I think the allegations of antisemitism were exaggerated from the outset. In my opinion, he is also defended against extreme allegations in order to avoid having to explore or assess the legitimate criticisms that can be made of this text.

"Of course not an antisemite"

Of course, Joseph Ratzinger is not an antisemite, if one understands that to mean that Jews are murderers. But one must also see that the doctrine of supersessionism, which he initially questions, but which he then himself advocates, that this doctrine, over the course of more than 2000 years, has repeatedly led to a predisposition of cathedrals and pulpits toward genocide.

The genocide here in Germany was started by pagans. That is a point that Joseph Ratzinger has emphasized very much, who incidentally was and is a contemporary of all these events. But in other European countries it has partially started from clerical regimes. Not to mention the silence of the church. And even if Joseph Ratzinger is free from any charge of antisemitism, he is in a tradition that has to be aware of its guilt.

Söding: Yes, that is certainly true. This is one of the crucial questions that must be addressed by Christian theology. It is notoriously hard for the Catholic Church to embrace alternatives favorably, but in relation to Judaism that would be the most important thing. And as a New Testament scholar and a theologian, you can only contribute a very small part to it.

"Common Treasury of the Monotheistic Religions"

Main: Yes, what can we learn? Now we have this slightly toxic argument. The child fell in the well. Looking to the future, what are the consequences for a Jewish-Christian conversation, Daniel Krochmalnik?

Krochmalnik: Pope Francis sounds different. There is actually a beautiful movie about the pope and there is, in fact, in it the statement that Christians can learn, for example, from the Jewish Shabbat. I think that's an attitude that inspires. We can learn from each other. We have treasures, traditional treasures. We can understand each other.

We must not forget that all three monotheistic religions rest on a common treasury. We have a common language. It's almost the same language. Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic are so closely related. God is of course the same.

Here I see a lot of future potential. And above all, I see the necessity of making use of this potential because the conflicts of today are being religiously fueled. We have regions in Africa and also in the Middle East with religious wars. So, there is no alternative to trialogue. And then the voice of Pope Francis is a little more encouraging there.

Söding: Yes, I believe that all three monotheistic religions, perhaps not only them, have to provide evidence – and first and foremost I want to speak of Christianity because I myself belong to it – that in fact by a deeper reflection on the faith there are actually good reasons why we can promote peace between religions and between people.

Unfortunately, this is a task for God. It has in fact been overshadowed by a long history of hatred and mutual discrimination. That's a mild word, which I use now. To be able to pacify peace, so to speak, out of the heart of faith itself – such a christology would have to be introduced from the Christian side into this dialogue with Judaism, but also with Islam.

Main: The consequences of the debate, raised by 85-year-old [sic] former pope Joseph Ratzinger, I have spoken about with Daniel Krochmalnik, Professor of Jewish religion and philosophy in Potsdam, and with Thomas Söding, Professor of the New Testament in Bochum and co-editor of the journal Communio, in which the essay of "Pope emeritus Benedict" has appeared. A controversial essay about the relationship between Jews and Christians. Thank you, Daniel Krochmalnik.

Krochmalnik: Thank you.

Main: Thank you, Thomas Söding.

Söding: Thank you.