Emeritus Pope Benedict

Theologian Tück comments on a new text by Benedict XVI

Actually, he wanted to be silent. Now Benedict, the emeritus Pope, has spoken or written. He caused surprise a few days ago with an essay for the current issue of the journal Communio about the Jewish-Christian relationship.


[From Vatican News. Unofficial translation.]


The publisher of Communio is the Viennese dogmatic theologian Jan-Heiner Tück. He finds Benedict's essay remarkable – and for a number of reasons. First, from the perspective of Pope Francis, suddenly a theological "second voice" appears at his side, especially since Pope Bergoglio had already written in Evangelii Gaudium about the Jewish-Christian relationship. Second is the content of the text itself, which is stimulating and encouraging for Tück, deserving of further discussion.

The differences between Judaism and Christianity make dialogue fruitful

In his text Benedict XVI problematizes two "standards" of the post-conciliar Jewish-Christian dialogue, not to question them, but, according to Tück, to deepen them theologically. Thus he considers in need of further refinement the widespread rejection of the so-called "substitution theory," according to which the church has replaced the role of Israel in salvation history. The theological tradition did not speak of "substitution," writes Benedict in his essay. Instead, he proposes to look at different elements such as the temple cult, the ritual, legal, and moral regulations, but also the question of the Messiah and the land promise. In this way, he opens up the possibility of a theological critique in the Jewish-Christian dialogue, “which does not amount to a replacement of Israel, but on the contrary also makes the differences between Judaism and Christianity fruitful for the dialogue,” according to Tück.

"Revoke" is not in the biblical vocabulary

Benedict also clarifies the phrase, "never revoked covenant" – a phrase that Pope John Paul II first used in 1980: "Revoking" is not biblical terminology; moreover, in the Bible, the covenant is not in the singular but often in the plural: there is a whole series of covenants ranging from Noah to Abraham and Moses to the prophetic speech of the new covenant.

The story between God and his people, the emeritus Pope argues in his essay, is characterized by infidelity and violation on the part of human beings, but faithfulness on the part of God.  As helpful as the phrase "unrevoked covenant" was to solve roadblocks in the dialogue, "the language of the Bible itself must be chosen in the long run, which speaks of the incorruptibility and faithfulness of God to his promises," Tück recognizes in his analysis of Benedict.

Re-exploring the relationship with Judaism

All in all, Benedict's text should therefore be seen as a "witness to an inner-church reflection" that attempts to re-explore the relationship with Judaism, according to Tück. It should also be noted that Benedict sees the existence of the State of Israel not as a part of salvation history, but as politically justified: it is the consequence of the Shoah and a sign of the faithfulness of God to his people, even if it cannot be validated directly from Scripture.

Not an authoritative magisterial text

On the question of the classification of the new text, Tück emphasizes that the article "does not claim an authoritative magisterial status,” but rather "is as strong as the arguments he puts forth.” Correspondingly, the text should also be engaged with a "hermeneutics of benevolence," without which there is no understanding – certainly without throwing essential critical queries under the table. An example of such a question is the fact that the author deals exclusively with the refining of internal Christian linguistic norms but does not actually have a conversation with Jewish theology.

A central question and at the same time a request to the text was also how one could express the abiding theological dignity of Judaism despite its difference with the Christian side on the question of the Messiah. Benedict XVI explains in the essay that Israel being in the Diaspora, which was often considered a punishment, was, in fact, its own mission." What that means exactly must continue to be worked out, says Tück. Pope Francis sensitively sums up the lasting dignity of Judaism when he writes in Evangelii Gaudium that the church has a "very special regard" for the Jewish people, "whose covenant with God was never abolished" and that "Friendship with the children of Israel (...) belongs to the life of the disciples of Jesus."