Emeritus Pope Benedict

The Unrevoked Covenant

[From Stimmen der Zeit 10 (October 2018): 673-682. "Unoffical translation" from German uploaded with permission of the author.]


Benedict XVI/Joseph Ratzinger confuses the Jewish-Catholic dialogue

Christian Rutishauser, S.J.


"Many questionable thinkers distort Benedict XVI, who can easily be read as anti-Jewish," writes Christian Rutishauser S.J., Provincial of the Swiss Jesuit Province and ongoing adviser to the Pope for religious relations with Judaism. Discussing an essay by the former pope, he analyzes the current debate about the Christian-Jewish relationship. However, Benedict XVI is not accused of antisemitism.


The theological journal Communio has published in its July issue a nearly twenty-page essay by Emeritus Pope Benedict as a contribution to a "treatise on the Jews."1 The editors have named it "Grace and Calling without Repentance" and preceded it with a preface by Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. He notes that the article, dated 26 October 2017, was not intended for publication. Rather, Koch had asked for its publication since it was an "important" contribution that would "enrich" the Catholic-Jewish relationship. The essay is therefore not only important because it comes from Benedict XVI / Joseph Ratzinger. The head of the Vatican Commission also welcomes it.

However, the text has provoked fierce criticism from prestigious representatives of the Jewish-Catholic dialogue. Rabbi David Bollag concludes that Benedict’s essay contradicts the recent Vatican document on the dialogue. Rabbi Arie Folger, among other things, sees the return of the Jews to the Promised Land as presented in a completely unreasonable way. Rabbi Homolka in turn goes so far as to accuse Benedict of antisemitism. The Orthodox Rabbinical Conference of Germany, without wishing to interfere in inner-Christian debates, calls for clarifications in an open letter to Cardinal Koch. The German Coordinating Council of the Societies for Christian-Jewish Cooperation worriedly asks why the theological foundations of the dialogue are being called into question. On the Christian side, members of Cardinal Koch’s Commission, Gregor Maria Hoff and this writer, were also surprised by the publication of this text and were publicly critical. The theologian Tomas Söding and the dogmatic theologian Jan Heiner Tück, the editor of the journal Communio, defended the text. Other voices cannot be mentioned here,2 but on the whole it seems that the Benedict essay is consistently judged negatively by participants in the dialogue, while some Christian theologians ask for the kindness of reading it generously. In a public letter, as well as in a detailed reply to the Orthodox Rabbinical Conference of Germany, Cardinal Koch has meanwhile pointed out that the Jewish-Catholic dialogue is by no means being called into question and situates the article within the dialogue process, together with other theological work from Benedict XVI/Joseph Ratzinger.

The State of the Jewish-Catholic Dialogue

In the year 2015, the Vatican Commission issued a comprehensive document for the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, entitled, “‘The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable’ (Romans 11:29).”3 In forty-nine paragraphs it presents the history of the dialogue since the Council, formulates the unique relationship between Jews and Christians, discusses the relationship of the Old and New Testament, as well as that of Judaism and the Church. Without compromising Christian truth claims, it speaks of the “never revoked Covenant” of God with the Jewish people (§39), as well as [Judaism’s] dynamic interpretative tradition of Sacred Scripture, which is enriching for Christians as well (§31). But Judaism and Christianity are not parallel paths to salvation (§35). Even though Christ must be proclaimed by Christians, the Church recognizes no “institutional mission” to the Jews (§40). Above all, however, how Jews and Christians are related to one another in history is a profound mystery, and how at the end of history, according to Paul, “all Israel will be saved” (§36).

The theological challenge in the Jewish-Christian relationship consists in exploring how the universal Christian claim to salvation and the conviction that God is to this day in covenant with Israel fit together. How does Christian mission relate to dialogue with Judaism?  How does the covenant of Sinai, which establishes Judaism, relate to the covenant of Christ on Golgotha? How is it justifiable that there should no longer be any mission to the Jews since in the New Testament Jesus is called “King of the Jews” and the early followers of Christ were a Messianic Jewish religious movement?

These Christian questions are not in the foreground for Jewish partners. But Jewish responses to the Vatican document were not lacking. While many liberal Jews have been involved in dialogue with the Church for decades, Orthodox rabbis have now also entered into the dialogue with significant statements. They have acknowledged the reforming effort of the Church as it grapples with its faith while appreciating Judaism. In 2015, a solid sixty Orthodox rabbis from Israel, the US and Europe published the eight-point statement “To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven.” As preconditions for dialogue were the Church's rejection of anti-Semitism, as well as its renunciation of active mission to the Jews, and then the recognition that God is in everlasting covenant with the Jewish people (§2). Under these conditions, the statement expresses an appreciative view of Christianity. Like no other Jew, Jesus spoke positively of the Torah. Moreover, Christianity is not a historical accident, but a gift from God to proclaim the God of the Bible to humanity (§3). Controversial issues, such as the question of whether Christianity is idolatrous because of its belief in the Trinity, are wisely avoided.  The document does not seek a blending of faith. It adheres to common ethical values ​​according to which Jews and Christians should work together on the world's behalf (§§ 6,7). Partnership is possible, even if there are differences of faith.

The Rabbinical Council of America, the European Conference of Rabbis, and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel in its statement, “Between Jerusalem and Rome,” expressed a fundamental rejection of theologically-driven dialogue. This text was signed in the beginning of 2017 and presented to Pope Francis on August 31.  It also sees the Church as an ally, a partner and a sister to work ethically in the world. It calls for social justice, the sanctity of life, freedom of religion, family values, etc., in the face of a secular world as well as to defend against religious extremism. The text describes in detail and with full appreciation the Church’s process of reform since the Council and identifies the same preconditions for cooperation with the Church as expressed by the rabbis’ document discussed above. However, “Between Jerusalem and Rome” omits a theologically-based consideration of Christianity but articulates its own vocation, completely independent of Christianity. “When God chose Abraham and then Isaac and Jacob, he entrusted them with a dual mission: to found the nation of Israel that would inherit, settle and establish a model society in the holy, promised land of Israel, all while serving as a source of light for all mankind” (Preamble). This Jewish self-definition, to which the people remained faithful under the most difficult conditions, combines particular and universal aspects. Moreover, the central importance of the promised land comes into play.

The Controversial Essay

The three documents discussed above show the state of the dialogue: there is a basic trust and many friendships have grown. However, the emphases, issues, and purposes differ. There are common concerns as well as practical actions, especially given the historical burdens. Relations are good and have survived the tensions that Pope Benedict caused on the one hand with the controversial Good Friday prayer for the Jews in the re-authorized Tridentine rite and on the other hand with his approach to the Society of St. Pius X and their anti-Jewish theology that lingers to this day. In this context, Cardinal Koch now lets Benedict speak again. This is astonishing, not only in the light of the situation already troubled by Benedict, but also because his latest essay does not refer to the most recent Jewish documents in any way. He wants to secure the truth and therefore incorporates statements about Judaism into the structure of Catholic teaching.

Benedict considers how the temple cult transforms the moral-legal and ritual precepts of the Hebrew Bible, and how the promise of the Land is removed in Christianity. Reflecting on how the scriptures were fulfilled in Christ and arguing in the manner of Patristic theology, the Old Covenant has prefigured the New Covenant. He also says that according to the Apostle Paul at the end of time all Israel will be saved. All this is unproblematic and is recognized by Jews as Christian belief. But Benedict turns it around so that on the one hand supersessionism, the view that the Church has taken the place of Israel in the history of salvation, acquires a new respectability. On the other hand, he characterizes the doctrine of the “unrevoked covenant” as a helpful expression that does not hold up in the long run. According to Benedict, the Sinai Covenant of God with Israel is “transformed” in Christ and thus replaced. He interprets the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the dispersion among the nations as God’s punishment for not having accepted Christ. The Holy Scriptures must be explained to the Jews [he says], just as Jesus explained the Holy Scriptures to the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

With this theology, he deprives Jewish interlocutors in the dialogue of the ground under their feet. He also interprets the Vatican Commission document against the grain. He actually contradicts the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which speaks of the “unrevoked covenant” and he opposes a statement of Saint John Paul II. Benedict’s reasoning is even in tension with Pope Francis, who writes in Evangelii Gaudium that Judaism holds a wealth of wisdom over its history and is to be understood as in many ways complementary to Christianity.

According to his theology of the "final dispersion" of the Jews in the world, Benedict cannot derive any theological significance from the return of the Jews to their land in the 20th century and the establishment of the State of Israel. Rather he reflects, starting with the Jewish diaspora, on the suffering that belongs to history, as well as the work of evil in general, since man is freely created and placed in the world. If in the light of Christ's Cross he ascribes a positive meaning to the Jews among the peoples and if "God's punishment" becomes a "mission" this remains problematic: First, the dialectic "living in the land" and "living in diaspora" belongs to the Jewish form of existence at the latest since the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC, independently of the Christ event. Second, because the one who suffers has to wrestle meaning from his situation by himself, that is to see it as punishment from God. External assurances of meaning are already seen in the Book of Job as false consolations, and in view of the Shoah they seem cynical. Third, because the suffering of the Jews in history was largely caused by the Church. The Church needs conversion here. Fourth, because the infidelity of Christians to God is not addressed anywhere, as if only the Jews carried a burden of guilt, the consequences of which they would have to bear, but not Christians. It is understandable that Jewish voices protest here. And it is significant that Thomas Söding, who defends Benedict's reflections on Christology and covenant theology, ignores his statements about Jewish history and the Jewish-Catholic dialogue.

But the point is how the Judaism of today is to be spoken of from a Christian perspective. For in the time after Christ in which we live, a new theology has developed since Nostra Aetate. In place of the Church as the “true Israel” has emerged the teaching of God’s “unrevoked Covenant” with Israel. The fact that for the Church the scriptures are fulfilled in Christ does not have to mean a negative judgement about Judaism. Although Benedict says he recognizes the theological renewal theology after Nostra Aetate, he undermines the teaching against supersession and the teaching of the unrevoked covenant. There is no reform of the Church for him. No Council would have been needed for the theology of Judaism as presented in this essay. If elsewhere Benedict XVI/Joseph Ratzinger has indeed advanced the dialogue with Jews since Nostra Aetate, in general he writes in continuity with Augustinian theology. The suspicion cannot be dismissed out of hand that he is fundamentally concerned with his own interpretation of the Council. Benedict remains true to himself. He reinforces Christian truth as he did as Prefect of Congregation for the Divine Faith in the declaration Dominus Iesus in 2000. The essay seems like a justification of the 2009 Good Friday prayer that was revised by his own hand.

However, the charge of antisemitism against Benedict must be rejected. He nowhere argues ethnically, albeit not pro-Jewishly, that according to natural and international law that Jews are entitled to the State of Israel. The fact is that this view is problematic from a biblical perspective because the Israelites are not the natural population of the country, but God promises them a land that is already inhabited. This is an open question. But many questionable thinkers distort him since he can easily be read anti-Jewishly. His Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, which is legitimate and understandable since he ultimately writes as a Christian, is not framed in opposition to a Jewish one. Rather, he does not measure Judaism by the same standards as Christianity. He also uses internal Jewish criticism from the Old Testament prophets as Christian critique of Judaism. He explains the theology of the covenant in such a way that Jewish violations lead to punishments from God, but not for those of Christians. He describes the Jewish interpretation of the Bible as static, but the Christian interpretation as dynamic and true, with Christian theology as ultimately correct, so that the dynamic vitality of the rabbinic tradition is no longer perceived.  He interprets the dispersion of the Jewish people theologically, but the Zionist return [to the Land] secularly.

Current Needs and Open Questions

The essay by Benedict shows how challenging is the reform that the Council initiated toward a renewed relationship with Jews. Since every Christian statement of faith also speaks about Judaism, it can easily become stridently self-serving if Judaism is not recognized as the “sacrament of Otherness,” as Archbishop Bruno Forte once said. The Church has been grafted by the Jewish Messiah onto the olive tree like a wild shoot (see Rom 9-11). But the olive tree represents the national tradition of the Hebrew Bible and of the Jewish people. It would be the significance and purpose of an ecclesiastical Day of Judaism to celebrate this linkage as given by God. Thus, the question has been raised for many years as to whether the German bishops’ conference would embed the Day of Judaism in the liturgical calendar. In Austria, it is on January 17, the day before the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It is celebrated in Switzerland on the second Sunday of Lent ever since Cardinal Kasper prompted the Episcopal Conferences to consider such an initiative.5 There is also an initiative to reintroduce the Feast of the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus on 1 January, which fell victim to the liturgical reforms of the Council. For centuries, this feast had shaped the liturgy and the theology of the Church. On the one hand, it would deepen the observance of the mystery of the Incarnation of God, and, on the other, instill the Jewish-Christian connection within the faithful. Today, first and foremost must be broad impact of the Jewish-Christian dialogue. Additionally, the 2015 Vatican document also formulates guidelines for the theology of the Jewish-Christian relationship. They should be affirmatively included:

  1. Judaism continues to share in the history of salvation. “From the Christian confession that there is only one way to salvation, it does not in any way follow that Jews are excluded from God’s salvation because they do not believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God … Israel was entrusted by God with a unique mission. … The fact that the Jews participate in God’s salvation is theologically unquestionable, but how this can be possible without an explicit confession of Christ remains an unfathomable mystery of God” (§36). The claim to Christ’s revelation is to be seen together with the recognition of Jews as the “people to whom God first spoke,” as in the standard Good Friday intercession. If the Gentiles are taken into Abraham by Christ, as Paul puts it, then the New Covenant with the Old Covenant, which God instituted with his people on Sinai, cannot be thought of as a parallel juxtaposition or a substitution. A more complex view of the relationship comes to those who start from a Trinitarian theology, which understands unity-in-relationship.

  2. There is no active mission to Jews in the traditional sense. “The Church is therefore obliged to see the evangelizing mission to Jews who believe in the one and only God in a different way than to people with different religions and ideological convictions. In concrete terms, this means that the Catholic Church does not know or support any specific institutional mission directed at Jews (§40).

The mission of the Risen Christ is addressed to the nations (Mt 28:19) so that they may find the God of the Bible through Christ. But if the Jews are already in covenant with God, then Jesus' claim is to deepen their covenant. Even the Gospel of Matthew distinguishes a mission of the pre-Easter Jesus from the mission to Israel only (Matthew 10: 5-7). Early Christianity also knew a Jewish-Christian and a Gentile-Christian Church. Giving Jews the space to existentially deal with Jesus Christ is a difficult task for both the Church and established Judaism. It requires the in-depth healing of the wounds of history, an unqualified positive appreciation of both religious communities, and an affirmation of the secular value of religious freedom. We are still far from that. But the Vatican document concludes for the future:

“It is and remains a qualitative definition of the Church of the New Covenant that it consists of Jews and Gentiles, even if the quantitative proportions of Jewish and Gentile Christians may initially give a different impression. Just as after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ there were not two unrelated covenants, so too the people of the covenant of Israel are not disconnected from ‘the people of God drawn from the Gentiles’” (§43).

  1. A Theology of the Promised Land. The Vatican document is silent about this. However, if the Church is to teach the "unrevoked covenant" with Israel, it must also reflect on the biblical promise of the land. Neither the land nor state of Israel today must be theologically legitimized. Rather, they show how both Christians and Jews can live their vocations together and side-by-side in this world. For Christians, the land has become the "Holy Land" through the history of salvation. It is part of the mystery of the Incarnation and represents a kind of "sacrament" that refers to God's actions. The life of the Jews both in the State [of Israel] and in the diaspora can be seen independently of Christian faith. It has belonged to Judaism since time immemorial, corresponds to its particular and universal mission, and both ways of life always seem to be positively interrelated. It is similar to the belief as understood by the Catholic Church with the successor of Peter as being the metaphysical foundation that cannot be judged solely on the basis of the policies of the current pope. Church and Judaism with their historical and metaphysical norms must be measured by the same standards. So it is necessary to formulate a Catholic theology as an alternative to Christian-evangelical Zionism,7 which often interprets the Bible fundamentalistically, does not want to discern the distinction between faith and politics, and does not or does not adequately reflect on the importance of the local Palestinian Church or human rights. But a Catholic land theology will be a litmus test for the Jewish-Catholic relationship.


  1. Communio 47 (2018), 316-335.
  2. Eine Zusammenstellung von Beiträgen ist zu fi nden auf: ‹www.theologie-und-kirche.de›.
  3. Die in diesem Beitrag besprochenen Dialogdokumente sind zu fi nden auf: ‹www.iccj.org›.
  4. Dazu Christian Rutishauser: 2009. Ein bewegtes Jahr jüdisch-christlichen Gesprächs, in: Stimmen der Zeit 134 (2009), 807-818.
  5. Christian Rutishauser: Christlichen Glauben denken. Im Dialog mit der jüdischen Tradition (Forum Christen und Juden 15). Wien 2016, 249-278.
  6. Thomas Lentes: Der hermeneutische Schnitt. Die Beschneidung im Christentum, in: Katalog Haut ab! Haltungen zur rituellen Beschneidung. Ausstellung im Jüdischen Museum Berlin. Hg. v. Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek und Cilly Kugelmann. Göttingen 2014, 105-117.
  7. Ausführlich: Christian Rutishauser: Eretz Israel . Ein Land, das Christen heilig ist, in: Zeitschrift für christlich-jüdische Begegnungen im Kontext 3/2019, im Druck.