Emeritus Pope Benedict

The "R" Method

[Münsteraner Forum für Theologie und Kirche

by Michael Böhnke [unofficial translation] 


One can only be thankful to Cardinal Koch: thankful that he persuaded Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI to publish his notes on the treatise “De Judaeis.” For the fact of the publication did away with three myths at once: first, the myth of the silent “emeritus pope.” In the realm of theology Benedict, concerned for his legacy, apparently continues to pull the strings behind the walls of the Vatican. The publication of his reflections, which was not intended at first, shows that this situation should not really have come to light. Second, the publication does away with the myth that the revision of the Good Friday prayer for the Jews produced by Benedict during his pontificate was rather a mistake that shouldn’t have happened and that the rehabilitation of the notorious Holocaust denier Williamson was a diplomatic mishap based merely on a lack of knowledge. Unintentionally, the notes provide the justification for both [conclusions]. Third, the publication of the annotations is enough to do away with the myth that Joseph Ratzinger should be called a great theologian. They reveal, with unsurpassable clarity, that the method of a hermeneutic of continuity comes disguised as pious innocence and has the ability to redirect the tradition into a new direction long ago believed to have been overcome. The Chief Rabbi of Vienna Arie Folger has correctly described this in the Jüdische Allgemeine as “ahistoric revisionism.”

When Joseph Ratzinger expresses himself, it is seldom innocuous. He pursues his aims with the weapons of the mind, and in this relies above all on differentiation, reinterpretation and painstaking reflections. To magisterial texts he engages in quasi-minimal invasive linguistic modifications, often only detectable under a microscope, which, however, can lead to enormous alterations of meaning and change of direction. Just think of the reversal, made in the early nineties by the then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, of the relationship of ‘in’ and ‘ex’ in order to justify the priority of the universal Church over the local churches. With devilish cunning coming in the guise of devout virtue, the complicity of mind and authority is swept under the table. Even Cardinal Kasper has experienced this in the dispute over the relationship of the local churches and the universal Church.

In his “notes,” Ratzinger applies pluralization, dynamization and relativization upon the position that he wants to combat under the covert appearance of a claim of authenticity. This is followed by the formulation of his own position, setting itself apart from it [the opposed position]. This is inevitably exclusivist, and professed with an absolute claim of validity, which he intends to assert even as a retiree. The project of a hermeneutic of continuity doesn’t allow contradiction. It generates — by means of what seem to be more in-depth reflection changes in direction that compel revisions of the previous course. In such a project it becomes unthinkable that “dogmatic theology serves and must serve reconciliation.” But that is what distinguishes a really eminent theologian. For Ratzinger/Benedict on the other hand, any break or deviation from a position once reformulated by him in this way is rapidly branded by his minions as a betrayal of the cause, as a rebellion against the magisterium and as the despotism of relativism. This happens even when the position reformulated by Ratzinger contradicts the spirit of the case, in this case the spirit of the Second Vatican Council and the Christian-Jewish dialogue. With a christocentric covenant theology that first pluralizes the covenant of G-d with Israel, then dynamizes it, and finally relativizes so as to definitively realign it with a Christology that has to be understood as exclusivist. The anti-Judaism that was thought to have been overcome by Nostra Aetate, 4 will despite all assertions to the contrary be christologically upheld and entrenched. The logic of salvation history that results from such a Christology forces Joseph Ratzinger to interpret implicitly the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the ensuing cessation of the temple offerings, as well the dispersion of G-d’s people, as the sign of G-d’s wrath because of and against the unfaithful people of Israel. And on the other hand, he must regard the Zionist settlement and the foundation of the State of Israel as meaningless to salvation history, i.e. they are secular phenomena. One would not have expected to have to again read such a thing from a German theologian after Auschwitz. Even a retired pope isn’t allowed to be so reckless.

Looking at the “notes” from a methodological perspective reveals the ultimate program of revisionist theology. In the face of those egregious constructions with which Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI has burdened the church’s magisterium and for which he seemingly continues to exploit the authority of the magisterium, any theologian who works within the church for a non-anti-Jewish Christology without any reservations is at risk. As a theologian, one must be aware of this despite the invitation to understand the notes as an encouragement to a deeper inner-church reflection. This has not (yet) changed under the pontificate of Francis. But since 2013 there is hope that he who so to speak puts himself in danger in this way will not necessarily perish.


Michael Böhnke is Professor of Catholic Theology: Systematic Theology and Religious Education at the University of Wuppertal.