Emeritus Pope Benedict

The Broken Consensus

 [From Herder Korrespondez. Unofficial translation.]


by Michael Böhnke

Nostra Aetate, 4 placed the relationship between Christians and Jews on a new footing. Pope John Paul II released energies that advanced the Christian-Jewish dialogue. With the phrase "unbroken covenant," he encouraged Christians to listen to Jewish voices, to engage in dialogue on an equal footing, and to learn from their older brothers. 

Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, with his article published in the journal Communio and hotly debated since then on "Grace and calling without remorse" (cf. IKaZ 47 [2018], 387 – 406), has broken the consensus established after Nostra Aetate and Pope John Paul II on the foundations of the Christian-Jewish dialogue. He has relativized the formulation of his predecessor about the "unbroken covenant" by saying that the phrase "is not suitable in the long-term" (406) and criticizes the unnuanced rejection of supersessionism. Supersessionism never existed. The phrase "unbroken covenant" is not included in Nostra Aetate. The rejection of supersessionism as well as the expression "unbroken covenant" represent in his view innovations that have no basis in traditional church doctrine and are therefore critically questionable. The existing consensus on the foundations of the Christian-Jewish dialogue is therefore called into question because it is in discontinuity with church doctrine (before the Second Vatican Council). Ratzinger would speak of a "hermeneutics of rupture."

It is not the first time that Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI has questioned an existing consensus because it is suspected of having been achieved by breaking with tradition. In the context of the Christian-Jewish dialogue, the abolition of the Good Friday intercession [for the "perfidious Jews"] by Pope John XXIII could be recalled. In the context of the liturgy, the abolition of the Tridentine rite by Pope Paul VI and the translation of the "pro multis" in the [eucharistic] prayer as "for all." In the context of ecclesiology, the greater appreciation for local churches by Lumen Gentium and in the context of the movement of Lefebvre the penalty of the excommunication of the traditionalists after the unauthorized episcopal consecration during Pope John Paul II's pontificate: all this could be considered consensus. All this Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI has questioned and revised in the interest of continuity of teaching.

Thomas Söding has called the article, in which Joseph Ratzinger on the one hand questions the consensus on the foundations of Christian-Jewish dialogue and honors its achievements on the other, "programmatic" (see HK, August 2018, 13-16). He also rightly pointed to the genre of the text. It serves "the inner understanding of the church" and, as a consequence, reflects "only positions inside his own church." So what should nuance, pluralization and dynamization mean in terms of the rejection of supersessionism, what should they programmatically produce in terms of the phrase the "unbroken covenant"? Analogous to the examples above, the project is to reformulate the cornerstones of the foundations of the Christian-Jewish dialogue so that they can be said to be in continuity with church tradition, which must be more nuanced than is usually seen. The "inner church discussion" thus aims at understanding its own tradition. This does not mean that the traditional beliefs are simply repeated. It means that the achievements of the dialogue are to be reformulated in a thought-provoking movement of continuity – Ratzinger called it the hermeneutics of reform.

Specifically, first of all, the rejection of supersessionism does not always mean giving up on theologically justifying the idea of ​​replacement. Ratzinger does this on the basis of the celebration of the Eucharist. Second, the talk of the "unbroken covenant" should not lead to understanding God's covenant with people as a contract. It is a foundation, a charitable trust. Unlike a contract, a foundation is a one-sided "legal transaction" in favor of someone or something: God creates and renews the Covenant for the benefit of his people. With regard to the New Covenant, Ratzinger consequently chooses the term "re-establishes" – which is highly problematic in the Christian-Jewish dialogue.

As is often the case, the project of a hermeneutic of reform seems to fail this time too. In its reception, the insecurity and indignation over the breaking of the consensus is superimposed onto the intention to formulate a new basis for the Christian-Jewish dialogue that is in line with tradition. In effect, the project of a hermeneutic of reform does not lay the foundation for the Christian-Jewish dialogue on a theologically broader and deeper foundation. Rather, it divides those who have till now had a consensus on this issue (cf. the document of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, "'The Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable' (Rom 11.29)" from 10 December 2015, nr. 17f and 35) and breaks open new trenches inside the church as well.

What Joseph Ratzinger conceals is able to shed light on what he says. So he does not begin to consider why a "break" with tradition has proven to be historically necessary and beneficial, especially in relation to the Christian-Jewish dialogue. He acknowledges and accepts the achievements that have arisen in the Christian-Jewish relationship only because of and thanks to that rupture. In concrete terms, this can be seen with regard to the rejection of supersessionism: in the history of Christianity, supersessionism has played a very significant role. Joseph Ratzinger does not get into that. He fails to mention the suffering that Christians have done to Jews as the reason for the reconceptualization of the Jewish-Christian relationship without the idea of ​​substitution. Wilhelm Breuning has pointed out in two articles in the third edition of the LThK, in which he addressed supersessionism and referred to Ratzinger, that there is no biblical basis for replacement theology. He denied theological legitimacy to those who used supersessionism as a model for determining the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. Is this what you call a break with tradition? In my opinion, the Viennese Chief Rabbi Arie Folger is right to call Joseph Ratzinger's rejection of the unnuanced "no" to supersessionism "ahistorical revisionism." On this basis, in continuity with tradition, Ratzinger rehabilitates the notion of supersessionism, at least in relation to one aspect of election. He proves the suitability of the term in the movement of salvation-history with regard to defining the relationship of the temple cult and the Eucharist: "in fact, there is no substitution, but a journey that ultimately becomes one reality, yet with the necessary [italics added] disappearance of the animal sacrifices, in whose place ("substitution") is the Eucharist" (394). On the one hand, Ratzinger rejects a "supersessionist ecclesiology" and sees this as an achievement of the Christian-Jewish dialogue. On the other hand, he restores the term substitution in relation to the Eucharist "as the source and summit of the whole Christian life" (Lumen Gentium 11).

The wording "unbroken covenant" is substantively criticized by Joseph Ratzinger because it cannot adequately proclam the infidelity of the people to the God of the covenant. "By the phrase the 'unrevoked covenant' that we are examining, it is true that there is no renunciation on the part of God. But it is part of the real history of God with Israel, the breaking of the covenant on the part of man, whose first instance is described in the book of Exodus" [i.e., the Golden Calf] (404). The word "unbroken" does not "express the real tragedy of the history between God and man" (405). This tragedy does not leave God untouched. In this tragedy, God suffered, "God's punitive actions cause Himself to suffer" (ibid.). The suffering of God is, according to Ratzinger, a new stage of his love. Ratzinger speaks of the "reestablishment of the Sinai covenant in the new covenant in the blood of Jesus, that is, in his death overcoming love." It "gives the covenant a new and forever valid form" (405). This new covenant is referred to as "irrevocable." With the very same word, Joseph Ratzinger describes, and this is remarkable, the destruction of the temple (see 406), which he regards as the "intrinsic consequence" of the breaking of the covenant by man.

What Ratzinger does not discuss in turn is the suffering of the Jewish people. The suffering of a God being an "intrinsic consequence" of the covenantal breakage by the people, meaning the people of Israel, and at the same time being oblivious of history and forgetting the endless suffering of the people of Israel, paves the way for a new anti-Judaism. One cannot achieve an internal church understanding of the cornerstones of the Christian-Jewish dialogue without reference to the suffering of the Jewish people! Third, Ratzinger's reflections on the Temple cult and the Eucharist vis-à-vis the Jews could easily lead one to misjudge the diaspora of Israel as the result of the infidelity of the Jewish people, and they could only too easily declare the land promise irrevocably obsolete. It is impossible for Ratzinger to any longer oppose such an anti-Judaism, which was believed to have been overcome. It is to be hoped that the critical questions from Jews to Cardinal Koch in this respect are taken seriously.

It can justifiably be said that the "repercussions of Christology have led to contempt for the Jews" (Wilhelm Breuning, "Fundamentals of a Non-anti-Jewish Christology" in: Jahrbuch für Biblische Theologie 8 [1993], 293-311). That is why Christology must be conveyed in such a way as to avoid these negative consequences. Dogmatic theology must be put at the service of reconciliation. Therefore, one must not lightly question the post-Vatican II consensus in the Christian-Jewish dialogue. In view of the history of the Christian-Jewish relationship, one must ask what the anti-Jewish consequences might be if, in reference to the Eucharist as constitutive of the new covenant, the term replacement, even in salvation history, is (again) introduced. One must ask oneself what the anti-Jewish consequences might be if one speaks of the irrevocability of the temple's destruction as an "intrinsic consequence" of the breaking of the covenant. One has to ask oneself what the anti-Jewish consequences might be if one speaks of the suffering of God without remembering the suffering of the Jewish people – the suffering that Jews have suffered from baptized Christians.


Michael Böhnke (born 1955), dr. theol., Lic iur. can., is Professor of Catholic Theology, Systematic Theology at the Bergische Universität Wuppertal. From 1988 to 2004 he was head of the Department of Fundamental Issues and Church Law in the Episcopal Vicariate of Aachen.