Emeritus Pope Benedict

"Not Mission, but Dialogue"

Pope Emeritus Benedict clarifies his controversial views on the relationship between Jews and Christians

Christian M. Rutishauser


[Unofficial translation from Neue Zürcher Zeitung [The New Zurich Times], December 1, 2018, p. 45.]


Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI published in July an essay on the theology of Judaism in the journal Communio in which he wants to bring distinctions to the 2015 document of the Pontifical Commission [for Religious Relations to the Jews]. The document reflects on the relationship between Judaism and the Church. Since then, a debate with visceral energy has been underway. The achievements of the Jewish-Catholic dialogue since Vatican II are at stake.

In German-speaking countries alone there have appeared thirty contributions. Now Benedict feels compelled to speak again. Noticeably provoked, he took the floor in the December issue of the Herder-Korrespondenz and provides a "correction" in the face of the "prevailing controversy in Germany over my contribution.”

Benedict defends his statement that there has never been a defined theory of supersessionism, that is, the doctrine that the Church has replaced Judaism in salvation history. Nevertheless, even theologians who interpret his essay favorably have shown that the belief that the Church is the "true Israel" has characterized Catholic theology since antiquity. So it is point versus point. It's more about the conceptual terminology to set the record straight.

Who is the "true Israel"?

To understand the current debate the second point is more interesting: Benedict presents Judaism and Christianity as two different traditions of interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, as is undisputed today in professional circles. This is "best formulated so far in the document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission 'The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible' of May 24, 2001.” This text dates from the time when Ratzinger was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. And he continues: “Today, in terms of content and methodology, this document should set the path for Jewish-Christian dialogue. My contribution published in Communio followed this stipulation.” 

Thus, Benedict does not take up the document of the Pontifical Commission [for Religious Relations with the Jews] of 2015, which outlined the relationship between Judaism and Christianity in terms of systematic theology. He calls that merely a "successful synthesis of the theological reflection that arose after the Second Vatican Council.” The publication of his essay, which emerged from a kind of commentary on the 2015 document, could only have come about because he was not satisfied with its systematic classification of Judaism and the Church.

The document, to Benedict’s mind, provides only a good summary of the state of the discussion. His own essay was intended to correct it by means of clarification. In fact, Benedict presents a definition of the Jewish-Christian relationship with a distinctly different accent. Far away is his statement from an ecclesiastical theology. For the dialogue with Judaism, however, he starts from the document of the Biblical Commission, which speaks appreciatively of the history of Christian and Jewish biblical interpretation.

The place of Judaism!

The ongoing debate is thus predominantly internal to the church and in nature a work of systematic theology. It revolves around the question of what place post-biblical Judaism has for the Christian faith. If this place remains vaguely positive in Benedict's view, and it shows itself above all in the fact that Christians can learn something from Jewish biblical interpretation, then a Catholic theology that has grown out of the Jewish-Christian dialogue in general must also give Judaism an important place in salvation history.

Such striving for the articulation of Christian faith has always happened at the expense of Judaism in history. Only Nostra Aetate brought about a change. So it is not surprising that in the current debate Jews have reacted very critically to Benedict's Communio essay. Benedict himself, as well as Cardinal Koch, had to assure Jewish interlocutors that the Jewish-Catholic dialogue was not being called into question. In the just-published corrective, Benedict now explains clearly and explicitly as never before, and without even appealing to the complex, theological discussion, that there is no mission to the Jews.

The mission of the Risen One to baptize all people and to make them disciples of Jesus is aimed at all peoples to guide them to the "unknown god"; this is the God of the Jews. "For Israel, therefore, there was and is no mission, but the dialogue about whether Jesus of Nazareth is the 'Son of God, the Logos,'" says Benedict. However, this is a dialogue between equals only if this is not the only and obligatory subject of the dialogue, and only if Judaism, in its unbroken covenant with God, is recognized irrespective of christological questions.


Christian M. Rutishauser is Provincial of the Swiss Jesuits.