German bishops’ website sharply criticizes Pope Benedict for new essay on the Jews

German bishops’ website sharply criticizes Pope Benedict for new essay on the Jews

Maike Hickson

August 14, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI published an essay in July on the question of the Jews, to include the Church’s teaching on the Old Covenant and her relations with the Jewish religion. His attempt at refining and modifying some of the post-conciliar teaching in this matter – to adopt a somewhat more traditional viewpoint – has, however, provoked the indignation of many Christians and Jews, and also especially of Katholisch.de, the official website of the German bishops.

Pope Benedict originally wrote a study on the topic of the Jews at the request of Cardinal Kurt Koch, and only for internal use in the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews which is headed by Koch. Upon Koch’s pleading, Benedict finally agreed to the publication of this study, in the July issue of the international Catholic journal Communio. He signed the text “Joseph Ratzinger/ Benedict XVI,” and Cardinal Koch himself wrote a short introduction to it, explaining its genesis.

Felix Neumann, who comments for Katholisch.de on this new essay by Benedict, considers it to be something “offensive,” a “regression,” and a step backwards in the proper relations between the Catholic Church and the Jews. In his view, it presents a “stumbling block in the Jewish-Christian dialogue.” Neumann adds: “Christian and Jewish voices alike clearly criticized the theology which is contained in it [Benedict’s study].”

The reason for this sharp criticism is the fact that Pope Benedict, in his 20-page-long essay, makes an attempt at redefining or modifying two “theses” in the Church’s teachings of the last decades concerning the Jews and their role in the history of salvation. As Benedict says: “Both theses – namely that Israel has not been substituted by the Church and that the [Old] Covenant has never been rescinded –  are in essence true, but are in many respects imprecise and have to be further critically examined.” As he points out, it was Pope John Paul II who, on November 17, 1980, claimed in Mainz, Germany that the Old Covenant had never been rescinded and still remains valid, thus implying that the Jewish people with their variously practiced religion are still in full agreement with God. Subsequently, these claims have been included in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 121). As Benedict tentatively states, this claim about the Old Covenant “is, in a certain sense, part of the current teaching figure [‘Lehrgestalt’] of the Catholic Church.”

Pope Benedict subsequently tries to show that God Himself never rescinds a covenant, but, rather, that God’s people, mankind, often violate and break a covenant with God. In this sense, says the retired pope, there are several covenants – with Noah, Moses, David – that each have been broken by men. In this context, Benedict refers also to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Hebrews in which St. Paul mentions the previous covenants of the Old Testament “all of which he [St. Paul] sums up under the keyword ‘first covenant’ which now has been replaced by the final ‘new’ covenant.” The pope continues, saying: “Indeed part of the real history of God’s relations with Israel is the breach of the covenant on the side of man, whose first form was described in the Book of Exodus.”

In his own sharp critique, the Katholisch.de author Neumann rebukes the pope for not then also making that same claim about the Christian people and their own disloyalty to God. Rather, Pope Benedict makes it clear that the New Covenant is “forever valid” because of Christ’s Blood. Benedict says: “The re-institution of the Covenant of Sinai into the the New Covenant in the Blood of Jesus – that is to say, in His love which surpasses death – gives the Covenant a new and forever valid form.” For Neumann, Benedict’s statement is rather “abrupt.”

What Pope Benedict herewith says is that the Old Covenant has been transformed into the New Covenant, and that this New Covenant is now valid forever because it was bought with the Blood of Christ. This statement seems to some observers now as a return to traditionally oriented Catholic views that some had thought to have been overcome at, and after, the Second Vatican Council, whose Declaration Nostrae Aetate on the Church’s relations to non-Christian religions had somehow redefined the Church’s view on the Jews themselves and encouraged “fraternal dialogues” with them. Moreover, the Catholic evangelical mission to the Jews was effectively later to be abandoned, for the Jews now apparently had their own way of salvation. In 2015, 50 years after the promulgation of Nostrae Aetate, the Vatican stated: “In concrete terms this means that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.”

Let us return to Pope Benedict’s own reflections. “The whole path of God with His people,” continues Benedict, “finally finds its summation and final form in the Last Supper of Jesus Christ, which anticipates and contains the Cross and Resurrection.” With reference to Jeremiah 31, which foreshadows a New Covenant in the Old Testament, Benedict explains: “The Covenant of Sinai was in its essence already always a promise, an approach toward the definitive and the conclusive. After all the destructions, it is the love of God which reaches up even to the death of the Son, and which is itself the New Covenant.”

Benedict attempts to redefine the discussion of the substitution theory as follows:

Thus there is indeed not really a ‘substitution’, but a journey which leads finally to one single reality, with the nevertheless necessary disappearance of the sacrifice of animals [of the Old Covenant] which is being replaced (“substitution”) by the Eucharist.

There are other statements in Benedict’s essay which have also provoked indignation among observers. First, Benedict makes it clear with regard to the Zionist project of settling in Palestine that the Catholic Church did not approve of the concept of a “theologically grounded settlement [‘Landnahme’] in the sense of a new political Messianism.” While politically recognizing the state of Israel as such, the Vatican rejected the idea of a “theologically grounded state, a Jewish confessional state” which understands itself as the fulfillment of divine promises.

Secondly, Pope Benedict discusses the facts of the destruction of the Jewish Temple and the scattering of the Jews further into the Diaspora in theological terms, and sees them both as a consequence of their breach of God’s Covenant. He says:

But part of the history of the covenants between God and man is also human failure, the breach of the Covenant and its inner consequences: destruction of the Temple, the scattering of Israel, the call for penance which enables and prepares man anew for the Covenant. The love of God cannot simply ignore the “no” of man.

The third Benedict statement, which is picked out and highlighted by Felix Neumann for Katholisch.de, is the quote that Benedict places at the end of his whole essay with which he thereby proposes to focus the discussion in this entire matter. It stems from the Second Epistle to Timothy (2:12seq) and it says, “If we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” In Neumann’s eyes, it is “negligent” to quote this passage “without comment.”

It can now be summed up that, while Pope Benedict still retains many of the newer teachings concerning the Jews and their relationship with God, he does depart in some parts from some of the recent Catholic interpretations and tries to “find harmony with Catholic tradition,” as one commentator puts it for Catholic News Agency. Benedict thus provokes the anger of much of the modern world, as it were, to include the German bishops’ own news website. But, regarded in light of the redeeming love of Christ for all mankind, one could say that Benedict therewith defends the Divinity of Christ as the Messiah of Mankind and thus invites, in charity, the Jews to conversion, which is the greatest act of charity any Catholic could bestow upon a non-Catholic.

However, the Jews themselves are unmistakably indignant.  On August 3, the Orthodox Conference of Rabbis in Germany published a letteraddressed to Cardinal Koch in which it claims that Pope Benedict’s recent essay “poses more doubts and questions than positive thought-provoking impulses for the future.” The authors wonder “whether the Catholic Church still cherishes today’s Jewry and how this appreciation is expressed theologically.” And they are concerned that Pope Benedict “might not leave much room for a religious appreciation of today’s Jewry.” The letter now also asks how these thoughts of Pope Benedict are related to the statements of Pope Francis.

Furthermore – and more ominously – a German Rabbi, Walter Homolka, already criticized Benedict early in July, and he says that Benedict’s claim that “God’s Covenant of Sinai has been replaced with Christ’s Covenant” “builds the foundation for a new anti-Semitism with a Christian foundation.”

In response to such accusations, Cardinal Kurt Koch himself has now come to Benedict’s defense. He said on August 13 that Benedict XVI’s essay did not at all aim at a doubting or questioning, but, rather, aimed at a “deepening of the Jewish-Catholic dialogue.” According to Koch, Benedict tried to “deepen theologically this path” of dialogue. The cardinal also stated that this Ratzinger essay is about a “discussion within the Church which should promote the Jewish-Christian dialogue, and it is not so much a document of the Jewish-Christian dialogue itself.” But Koch also assured his Jewish partners that there is still no intention on the part of the Catholic Church to conduct missionary evangelical activities among the Jews.

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