Emeritus Pope Benedict

Not Mission, but Dialogue

[Unofficial translation from the Herder Korrespondenz, December 2018, pp. 13-14.]


Judaism and Christianity stand for two ways of interpreting Scripture. For Christians, the promises to Israel are the hope of the Church. Those who hold fast to them in no way question the foundations of the Jewish-Christian dialogue. 

By Joseph Ratzinger - Benedict XVI


BACKGROUND [From Herder Korrespondenz]. In 1965, the Second Vatican Council published the statement Nostra Aetate on the Church's relationship to non-Christian religions. For the 50th anniversary of the Declaration, a document from the Vatican Commission on Religious Relations with Judaism was published in 2015. Among other things, the paper rejects the "substitution theory" according to which the Church has replaced ("superseded") the people of Israel. Notes from the emeritus Pope on this document were published in July 2018 in the journal Communio with a preface by Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. In it, Benedict XVI asks, among other things, if something like a "substitution theory" ever existed. Moreover, the phrase the "never-revoked covenant" between God and his people must be made more precise theologically, according to the emeritus Pope. The contribution had caused a debate among theologians in German-speaking countries.


The Herder Korrespondenz saw fit, to supplement the factual contribution of Thomas Söding (see HK August 2018: 13-16) about my remarks on the subject of Judaism in the International Theological Journal Communio (“Grace and Calling without Repentance: Notes on the Tractate De Iudaeis,” in: Communio 47 [2018] 387-406) with another article by Michael Böhnke (see HK September 2018, 50-51), which reconfirms the prevailing opinion of my contribution in Germany. In light of this development, which only wants to paint, so to speak, an entirely negative reaction to my remarks, it seems to me justified and sensible for me to speak again – irrespective of the much more enjoyable dialogue I was able to have with Rabbi Arie Folger, the chief rabbi of Vienna, which will soon appear in Communio. I would like to make briefly just two points.

A "substitution theory" never existed

First, the basic claim of the Böhnke text is that I have challenged the foundations of the Jewish-Christian dialogue. This claim is simply wrong. Rather, my article came about because Father Norbert Hofmann, who was responsible for the topic of Jewish relations in the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, had invited me to comment on the small document on "Theological Issues in Catholic-Jewish Relations" (December 10, 2015). The document as a whole seemed to me to be a successful synthesis of what the theological reflection after the Second Vatican Council had accomplished. In response to the request of Father Norbert Hofmann, I first composed individual notes that I wanted to submit to him. In the course of the work, it seemed more appropriate to combine these notes into a complete text. This is how the article published in Communio was created. In line with this beginning, it does not intend to be the ultimate statement of what has been worked out so far, but rather continues the conversation in accordance with the Magisterium of the Church.

First of all, it seemed to me necessary to clarify the term "substitution" and to get to know the "substitution theory" in more detail, since it seemed that the answer to questions about the dialogue between Jews and Christians depended on it. It had always been amazing to me that I had never heard of this "substitution theory" myself. Although I had never dealt directly with the topic of Christianity and Judaism, it was surprising that I did not know the most important theory about it. That's why I went in search of it and found out that it was not an explicitly existing theory before the Council.

I still think it is important to find out how the concept of a "substitution theory" is to be overcome. In any case, I have not broken a consensus on this essential point, but only stated that there was no coherent "substitution theory" as such.

Secondly, I have made a clearer distinction between the Old Testament and Judaism than might otherwise happen. The Old Testament is the common Bible of Jews and Christians. After the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, a new interpretation of the Old Testament, based on his proclamation as well as his life, death and resurrection, developed in the community of those who believed in his resurrection. It was hoped at first that it would be recognized throughout Israel. As we know, this hope has not been fulfilled, so that two ways of interpreting the common Bible have become more and more separated from and contrasted with each other. The community of those who interpreted Scripture through Jesus recognized a number of scriptures that had emerged in the course of the first century to be "canonical," that is, as an authentic representation of their new perspective. This group of writings, which stands next to the previous canon of the Bible, was given the name New Testament, while the Bible, hitherto the only Bible among Christians, was henceforth called the Old Testament. The two "Bibles" were now so close to each other that the New Testament, according to the convictions of Christians, set forth the correct interpretation of the Old. Thus, the two communities, based on the Bible of the Jews as their foundation, were ultimately separated into two communities (two "religions" – Judaism and Christianity).

Christianity as a new interpretation of the Old Testament

The dialogue between the two, of course, remained, an intrinsic necessity because of their common ground in the Old Testament. It has never been completely demolished, but it was increasingly overshadowed by the political power of Christianity and the attempted destruction of Judaism by the National Socialist regime. Thus, after all the sufferings of the Jewish people, the Catholic Church at Vatican II sought a new basis for dialogue, best formulated thus far in the document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, "The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible" of May 24, 2001. Today, this document should pave the way for the Jewish-Christian dialogue in terms of methodology and content.

A mission to the Jews is not foreseen and is not necessary

My contribution published in Communio follows this stipulation. Accordingly, I have attempted to interpret the great promises to Israel as being at the same time the hope of the Church, and thereby represent both what divides us and what unites us. It was with great joy that I was able to see how much the new work of exegesis on both sides allows for approaches that were hitherto barely imaginable, especially in the case of classically divisive questions such as the figure of Messiah and the problem of law and freedom. At my age, I cannot hope to continue working on it, but it is a great encouragement to me to see so many new possibilities.

A small comment, if I may. The Gospel of St. Matthew ends with the mission to the disciples to go out into the world and make all the nations disciples of Jesus (Mt 28:19). A mission to all peoples and cultures is the mission that Christ left to his followers. It is about making known to humanity the "unknown God" (Acts 17:23). Humanity has a right to know God, because only those who know God can live truly human lives. That is why this mission is universal – with one exception. A mission to the Jews was simply not foreseen and not necessary because they alone among all the peoples knew the "unknown god." To Israel, therefore, there was not and still is not a mission, but rather the dialogue about whether Jesus of Nazareth is "the Son of God, the Logos," who is expected by Israel – according to the promises made to his own people – and, unknowingly, by all of humanity. Resuming this dialogue is the task that the present time sets before us.

What Michael Böhnke wrote in the Herder Korrespondez is absurd nonsense and has nothing to do with what I said. I therefore reject his article as an absolutely untrue allegation.