Benedict XVI criticized for new article on Jewish-Christian relations

‘It is highly problematic for the former pope to insist that Christians continue to push their interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures on the Jews’
Christa Pongratz-Lippitt, Vienna – July 31, 2018

Several German-speaking rabbis and Christian theologians have sharply criticized Benedict XVI for his newly published article on Catholic-Jewish dialogue, which appears in the current issue of the international theological journal Communio.

One rabbi went so far as to say that the article encourages “a new anti-Semitism,” while another said it was “most problematic” that the former pope insists that Christians instruct Jews on how the Old Testament is to be interpreted from a Christological point of view.

Benedict’s new text, “Grace and Vocation Without Remorse,” appeared in the German edition of the July-August issue of Communio, a major theological journal Joseph Ratzinger co-founded in 1972 with Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubac.

The 18-page article is dated Oct. 26, 2017 and is signed “Joseph Ratzinger-Benedikt XVI.” It was originally written as a reflection on the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 declaration on the church’s relations with non-Christian religions.

It was intended as an internal document for the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, which is under the auspices of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Cardinal Kurt Koch, the pontifical council’s president since 2010, convinced Benedict to have the article published in Communio. The 68-year-old Swiss cardinal provides a one-page introduction to the former pope’s reflections.

“After going over it very carefully… I came to the conclusion that the theological reflections it contained ought to be introduced to the future dialogue between the church and Israel,” Koch wrote.

But several leading scholars on Jewish-Catholic relations in the German-speaking world reacted negatively to the article’s publication.

The first was Father Christian Rutishauser, provincial superior of the Society of Jesus in Switzerland and scholar of Jewish studies. The 52-year-old Jesuit said Benedict’s newly published article is “hardly a contribution to dialogue with the Jews.”

In a seven-page critique of the article that appeared on July 8 in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ), he concluded that that it was highly problematic for the former pope to insist that Christians continue to push their interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures on the Jews.

However, Rutishauser said the text is helpful in explaining why Benedict in 2009 re-worded the Good Friday Prayers for the Tridentine Rite, the pre-Vatican II liturgy the former pope had freed from almost all restrictions two years earlier.

Michael Böhnke, professor of systematic theology at Wuppertal University, was more critical.

“One can be thankful to Cardinal Koch for publishing Benedict’s text as it dispels certain legends in one go,” the 62-year-old Catholic theologian said.

“The text first dispels the legend of the silent ‘Papa emeritus,’” he wrote in the Münster Forum for Theology and Church.

“Theologically, Benedict, anxious about his legacy, obviously still pulls the strings behind Vatican walls. The fact that the text was originally not intended for publication shows that the content was not actually supposed to be brought to public attention,” Professor Böhnke said.

“Secondly, the publication dispels the legend that the revision of the Good Friday Prayer… was not a mistake that should not have happened, and the rehabilitation of the notorious Holocaust-denier (former Lefebvrist Bishop Richard) Williamson was not just a diplomatic mishap based on ignorance. The text involuntarily provides the reasons for both,” the theologian said.

Böhnke, arguing that the text reveals the definitive edition of a program of revisionist theology, said: “After Auschwitz, I would not have expected that I would have to read something like this by a German theologian.”

The text has, of course, also been sharply criticized by several prominent rabbis. Rabbi Walter Homolka, rector of Potsdam’s Abraham Geiger College, accused Benedict of encouraging “a new anti-Semitism on a Christian basis” in an interview with German weekly Die Zeit.

And the Chief Rabbi of Vienna, Arie Folger, told Jüdische Allgemeine, the largest Jewish daily in Germany, that Benedict’s suggestion that Christians should teach Jews how the relevant passages in the Hebrew Bible are to be understood from the Christological point of view was “most problematic.”

Recalling that Catholics had tried for many centuries to forcibly convert Jews, he said: “As so much blood has been shed as a result of Christian animosity towards Jews, it should be clear to Benedict that there can be no positive approach to proselytizing Jews.”

But Jan-Heiner Tück, editor of the German edition of Communio, said Benedict’s text was “remarkable” for several reasons.

In an interview with Kathpress, the 51-year-old theologian said it showed that Pope Francis “now has a ‘second voice,’ so to speak, at his side; especially since (the current pope) has himself spoken out on Christian-Jewish relations – in Evangelii gaudium and on other occasions.”

Tück said Benedict’s article also provides “explosive food for thought.” He said that while it does not claim to be “doctrinally authoritative,” it should be approached “benevolently… but certainly without letting due critical queries to be swept under the table.”

The former pope is chiefly concerned with two issues: the current rejection of the so-called substitution or replacement theory and the expression of the “never-revoked covenant” coined by his predecessor St. John Paul II in 1980.

“Both theses — that Israel was not replaced by the Church and that the Covenant was never revoked — are basically correct, but in many respects inaccurate and therefore require further thought,” Benedict said.

He also reflected on the differences between Jewish and Christian understandings of the Messiah and on the foundation of Israel as a state. The foundation of Israel was a consequence of the Shoah and a purely political event, he said, adding it has no theological significance and is not part of redemption history.

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