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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Pope Benedict XVI and the Jews

With great affection I also greet all those who have been reborn in the sacrament of Baptism but are not yet in full communion with us; and you, my brothers and sisters of the Jewish people, to whom we are joined by a great shared spiritual heritage, one rooted in God's irrevocable promises.

Pope Benedict XVI, Inaugural Mass Homily April 24, 2005.

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While the harpies of the press and disgruntled remnants of heterodox factions are doing their best to fan the flames of controversy over the Cardinal's brief stint in the Hitler Youth -- rather a non-issue after a careful review of the facts -- a few people have actually raised the genuine inquiry: what does Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, actually think about the Jewish people?

Over the course of his life, as a Catholic theologian as well as in his formal capacity as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the Holy Father has written on the Church's relationship to the Jewish people. Following is, to the best of my memory, an overview of the 'highlights'. (To those for whom much of this is a recap of earlier discussions, my apologies).

'Interreligious Dialogue and Jewish-Christian Relations' (1998)

Interreligious Dialogue and Jewish-Christian Relations Communio 25, no. 1 (1998): 29-41. [.pdf format]; HTML Version. Produced for a session of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, Paris, this essay was published in Communio and was republished in Many Religions, One Covenant. The piece is chiefly devoted to the matter of interreligious dialogue and various approaches to the world's religions -- such as the sublimination of theistic religions into a transcendental, mystical model; the pragmatic approach, which prioritizes orthopracy over dogma and "interminable wrangling over truth" -- pointing out their strengths and deficiencies. In the latter part of the essay, Cardinal Ratzinger notes that beyond the superficial opposition of the "Old" to "New" Testament, "the primal fact is that through Christ Israel's Bible came to the non-Jews and became their Bible," bringing Jews and Gentiles together. Furthermore:

"Even if Israel cannot join Christians in seeing Jesus as the Son of God,it is not altogether impossible for Israel to recognize him as the servant of God who brings the light of his God to the nations." The converse is also true: even if Christians wish that Israel might one day recognize Christ as the Son of God and that the fissure that still divides them might thereby be closed, they ought to acknowledge the decree of God, who has obviously entrusted Israel with a distinctive mission in the "time of the Gentiles." The Fathers define this mission in the following way: the Jews must remain as the first proprietors of Holy Scripture with respect to us, in order to establish a testimony to the world. But what is the tenor of this testimony? . . . I think we could say that two things are essential to Israel's faith. The first is the Torah, commitment to God's will, and thus the establishment of his dominion, his kingdom, in this world. The second is the prospect of hope, the expectation of the Messiah -- the expectation, indeed, the certainty, that God himself will enter into this history and create justice, which we can only approximate very imperfectly. The three dimensions of time are thus connected: obedience to God's will bears on an already spoken word that now exists in history and at each new moment has to be made present again in obedience. This obedience, which makes present a bit of God's justice in time, is oriented toward a future when God will gather up the fragments of time and usher them as a whole into his justice.

Christianity does not give up this basic configuration. The trinity of faith, hope, and love corresponds in a certain respect to the three dimensions of time: the obedience of faith takes the word that comes from eternity and is spoken in history and transforms it into love, into presence, and in this way opens the door to hope. It is characteristic of the Christian faith that all three dimensions are contained and sustained in the figure of Christ, who also introduces them into eternity. In him, time and eternity exist together, and the infinite gulf between God and man is bridged. For Christ is the one who came to us without therefore ceasing to be with the Father; he is present in the believing community, and yet at the same time is still the one who is coming. The Church too awaits the Messiah. She already knows him, yet he has still to reveal his glory. Obedience and promise belong together for the Christian faith, too. For Christians, Christ is the present Sinai, the living Torah that lays its obligations on us, that bindingly commands us, but that in so doing draws us into the broad space of love and its inexhaustible possibilities. In this way, Christ guarantees hope in the God who does not let history sink into a meaningless past, but rather sustains it and brings it to its goal. It likewise follows from this that the figure of Christ simultaneously unites and divides Israel and the Church: it is not in our power to overcome this division, but it keeps us together on the way to what is coming and for this reason must not become an enmity.

"Reconciling Gospel & Torah: The Catechism" (1994)

"Reconciling Gospel & Torah: The Catechism". This essay was originally written for a Jewish-Christian encounter in Jerusalem in February 1994 and was republished in various forms, including the first section of Many Religions, One Covenant. Ratzinger asks the question: "Can Christian faith, left in its inner power and dignity, not only tolerate Judaism but accept it in its historic mission? Or can it not? Can there be true reconciliation without abandoning the faith, or is reconciliation tied to such abandonment?" -- framing his answer in light of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which teaches:

The mission of Jesus consists in leading the histories of the nations in the community of the history of Abraham, in the history of Israel. His mission is unification, reconciliation, as the Letter to the Ephesians (2:18-22) will then present it. The history of Israel should become the history of all, Abraham's sonship become extended to the 'many.' This course of events has two aspects to it: The nations can enter into the community of the promises of Israel in entering into the community of the one God who now becomes and must become the way of all because there is only one God and because his will is therefore truth for all. Conversely, this means that all nations, without the abolishment of the special mission of Israel, become brothers and receivers of the promises of the chosen people; they become people of God with Israel through adherence to the will of God and through acceptance of the Davidic kingdom.

During the course of this essay Ratzinger takes a stand against the "superficial polemics" of anti-Jewish biblical hermeneutics, objecting to "crass contrasts [which] have become a cliché in modern and liberal descriptions where Pharisees and priests are portrayed as the representatives of a hardened legalism, as representatives of the eternal law of the establishment presided over by religious and political authorities who hinder freedom and live from the oppression of others."

"Where the conflict between Jesus and the Judaism of his time is presented in a superficial, polemical way," says Ratzinger, "a concept of liberation is derived which can understand the Torah only as a slavery to external rites and observances." Such an antinomian portrayal of Jesus are in no way part of the Catechism, whose presentation of Judaism is derived from St. Matthew and presents "a deep unity between the good news of Jesus and the message of Sinai."

Citing paragraph # 1968 of the Catechism, Ratzinger goes on to say:

his view of a deep unity between the good news of Jesus and the message of Sinai is again summarized in the reference to a statement of the New Testament which is not only common to the synoptic tradition but also has a central character in the Johannine and Pauline writings: The whole law, including the prophets, depends on the twofold yet one commandment of love of God and love of neighbor (Catechism, 1970; Mt. 7:20; 22:34-40; Mk. 12:38-43; Lk. 10:25-28; Jn. 13:34; Rom. 13:8-10). For the nations, being assumed into the children of Abraham is concretely realized in entering into the will of God, in which moral commandment and profession of the oneness of God are indivisible, as this becomes clear especially in St. Mark's version of this tradition in which the double commandment is expressly linked to the "Sch'ma Israel," to the yes to the one and only God. Man's way is prescribed for him he is to measure himself according to the standard of God and according to his own human perfection. At the same time, the ontological depth of these statements comes to the fore. By saying yes to the double commandment man lives up to the call of his nature to be the image of God that was willed by the Creator and is realized as such in loving with the love of God.

In the third part of this essay, Cardinal Ratzinger discusses Jesus' encounter with the Jewish authorities, exploring the mysterious way in which he fundamentally reinterprets and transforms the Torah, opening up the covenant to the Gentiles in a process which culminated in his crucifixion and resurrection from the dead. I won't go into further details, but suffice to say it's a good read. According to the Cardinal, Jesus' death on the cross

cannot simply be viewed as an accident which actually could have been avoided nor as the sin of Israel with which Israel becomes eternally stained in contrast to the pagans for whom the cross signifies redemption. In the New Testament there are not two effects of the cross: a damning one and a saving one, but only a single effect, which is saving and reconciling.

I expect that Christian and Jewish readers will be sharply divided in their reactions to this portion -- the former intrigued by Ratzinger's line of thought; the latter finding themselves in disagreement. Nevertheless, it is my hope that Jewish readers will at the very least appreciate the Cardinal's rebuke of anti-Judaism and his reminder that: "Jesus did not act as a liberal reformer recommending and himself presenting a more understanding interpretation of the law. In Jesus' exchange with the Jewish authorities of his time, we are not dealing with a confrontation between a liberal reformer and an ossified traditionalist hierarchy. Such a view, though common, fundamentally misunderstands the conflict of the New Testament and does justice neither to Jesus nor to Israel."

The Cardinal closes with a reiteration of the Catechism's rejection of the charge of deicide and collective Jewish guilt, teaching that "Jesus' violent death was not the result of chance in an unfortunate coincidence of circumstances, but is part of the mystery of God's plan" (599) and that "All sinners were the authors of Christ's passion."

. . . the blood of Jesus speaks another - a better and stronger - language than the blood of Abel, than the blood of all those killed unjustly in the world. It does not cry for punishment but is itself atonement, reconciliation. Already as a child - even though I naturally knew nothing of all things the catechism summarizes - I could not understand how some people wanted to derive a condemnation of Jews from the death of Jesus because the following thought had penetrated my soul as something profoundly consoling: Jesus' blood raises no calls for retaliation but calls all to reconciliation. It has become, as the "Letter to the Hebrews" shows, itself a permanent Day of Atonement of God.

'Reconciling Gospel & Torah' is an interesting essay -- one which I found to be conciliatory in spirit and refreshing in its rebuke of "superficial polemics" against the Jews and caricatures of the Jewish law which are found in liberal theology as well as some traditionalist camps.

Dominus Iesus (August, 2000)

Dominus Iesus, or "Declaration on the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the Church" was chiefly intended as a corrective measure to theological excesses and erroneous positions adopted in the course of ecumenical/interreligious dialogue, as well as were found in theologies of "religious pluralism." As such, it was not really intended to address the issue of the Church's relationship with the Jewish people. Nevertheless, some Jews did take offense at its reiteration of standard Christian doctrine concerning the centrality of Christ and his Church in the salvation of mankind, their protests bolstered in part by the press, enough to warrant commentary by Cardinal Kasper, President of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, who offered both an apology for any misunderstanding that might have occured as well as a defense of Cardinal Ratzinger and the intent of the document:

Some Jewish readers tend to think that the Church's attitude towards Jews and Judaism is a sub-category of its attitude towards world religions in general. Yet, such a presumption is a mistake, and so is the presumption that [Dominus Iesus] represents "a backward step in a concerted attempt to overturn the [in this case Catholic-Jewish] dialogue of recent decades" . . .

[Dominus Iesus] does not affect Catholic-Jewish relations in a negative way. Because of its purpose, it does not deal with the question of the theology of Catholic-Jewish relations, proclaimed by Nostra Aetate, and of subsequent Church teaching. What the document tries to "correct" is another category, namely the attempts by some Christian theologians to find a kind of "universal theology" of interreligious relations, which, in some cases, has led to indifferentism, relativism and syncretism. Against such theories we, as Jews and Christians, are on the same side, sitting in the same boat; we have to fight, to argue and to bear witness together. Our common self-understanding is at stake.

Rabbi David Berger of the Rabbinical Council for America, on the other hand, took issue with Cardinal Kasper's interpretation that Jews "are entirely excluded from the purview of its controversial assertions," and offered his own qualified support of the "supercessionism" of Cardinal Ratzinger (On Dominus Iesus and the Jews May 1, 2001 -- further commentary: "To Evangelize - Or Not to Evangelize?" Against the Grain March 21, 2005).

The Heritage of Abraham: The Gift of Christmas (December, 2000)

The Heritage of Abraham: The Gift of Christmas, published in L'Osservatore Romano December 29, 2000, is one of my favorite writings by our Holy Father on the Jewish people -- in that it clearly demonstrates his alignment with the thought of his close friend and predecessor, Pope John Paul II, and the Second Vatican Council, in speaking of a "new vision of Jewish-Christian relations":

We know that every act of giving birth is difficult. Certainly, from the very beginning, relations between the infant Church and Israel were often marked by conflict. The Church was considered by her own mother to be a degenerate daughter, while Christians considered their mother to be blind and obstinate. Down through the history of Christianity, already-strained relations deteriorated further, even giving birth in many cases to anti-Jewish attitudes, which throughout history have led to deplorable acts of violence. Even if the most recent, loathsome experience of the Shoah was perpetrated in the name of an anti-Christian ideology, which tried to strike the Christian faith at its Abrahamic roots in the people of Israel, it cannot be denied that a certain insufficient resistance to this atrocity on the part of Christians can be explained by an inherited anti-Judaism present in the hearts of not a few Christians.

Perhaps it is precisely because of this latest tragedy that a new vision of the relationship between the Church and Israel has been born: a sincere willingness to overcome every kind of anti-Judaism, and to initiate a constructive dialogue based on knowledge of each other, and on reconciliation. If such a dialogue is to be fruitful, it must begin with a prayer to our God, first of all that he might grant to us Christians a greater esteem and love for that people, the people of Israel, to whom belong "the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; theirs are the patriarchs, and from them comes Christ according to the flesh, he who is over all, God, blessed forever. Amen" (Romans 9:4-5), and this not only in the past, but still today, "for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable" (Romans 11:29). In the same way, let us pray that he may grant also to the children of Israel a deeper knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth, who is their son, and the gift they have made to us. Since we are both awaiting the final redemption, let us pray that the paths we follow may converge.

The Jewish People & Their Sacred Scriptures (May, 2001)

The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible was published by the Pontifical Biblical Commission on May 4, 2001. In the wake of the Shoah, it dealt with the pertient questions of whether Christians "can still claim in good conscience to be the legitimate heirs of Israel's Bible . . . and propose a Christian interpretation of the Bible," also addressing the issue of scriptural passages in the New Testament deemed "anti-semitic". Although the document reaffirmed the unity of the Old & New Testaments and Christian reading of the Jewish scriptures, it did include a positive treatment of the Jews, as indicated in Cardinal Ratzinger's proposal that:

what ought to emerge now is a new respect for the Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament. On this subject, the Document says two things. First it declares that "the Jewish reading of the Bible is a possible one, in continuity with the Jewish Scriptures of the Second Temple period, a reading analogous to the Christian reading, which developed in parallel fashion" (no. 22). It adds that Christians can learn a great deal from a Jewish exegesis practised for more than 2000 years; in return, Christians may hope that Jews can profit from Christian exegetical research (ibid.). I think this analysis will prove useful for the pursuit of Judeo-Christian dialogue, as well as for the interior formation of Christian consciousness.

Likewise, the document caused something of a stir in the Jewish press by its recognition that:

What has already been accomplished in Christ must yet be accomplished in us and in the world. The definitive fulfilment will be at the end with the resurrection of the dead, a new heaven and a new earth. Jewish messianic expectation is not in vain. It can become for us Christians a powerful stimulant to keep alive the eschatological dimension of our faith. Like them, we too live in expectation. The difference is that for us the One who is to come will have the traits of the Jesus who has already come and is already present and active among us. (paragraph 5.)

See also:

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This will not be last we have heard from Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, on the subject of our elder brothers and sisters in the faith. We can rest assured that, contrary to the fear-mongering accusations of some critics, as well as honest concerns of others, our Holy Father will carry on the friendship between the Church and Israel that was maintained to such an excellent degree by Pope John Paul II.

Further reading:


From the new blog Against The Grain

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