Emeritus Pope Benedict

Trouble with a retired pope

[From Studio Opinii. Unofficial translation from Polish.] 


When Benedict XVI announced his abdication, I was convinced that it was the most important decision in the life of this eminent theologian. When he added that from now on he would be silent and devote himself only to prayer, that seemed to me worthy of respect. 

That was until July of this year when the journal Communio, founded by Joseph Ratzinger in 1972, published his German text "Faith and vocation without regret" (Gnade und Berufung ohne Reue). At the moment there are no other official translations so the discussion about it is mainly in the German-language press, although articles have also appeared in English as well.

The text was preceded with an introduction by Cardinal Kurt Koch, who is responsible for contacts between the Vatican and Jews and Judaism. It was to this hierarch that orthodox German rabbis sent a letter a few days ago with a number of questions related to the aforementioned essay by the emeritus pope. These are fairly detailed and technical questions regarding the proper understanding of problems such as the traditional theology of the supersession of Israel by Christianity, the proper understanding of the messianism of Jesus, or the curse upon Israel due to the non-recognition of Jesus by Jews as messiah.

Apparently, the Reform Rabbi Walter Homolek from Berlin has expressed his opinion on the subject, who I wrote about in SO on the occasion of his receiving the Man of Reconciliation award. In his opinion, Ratzinger's distress forms the basis for a new antisemitism and demonstrates a total disregard for Jews and Judaism. In the article "We are not an unsaved people!" published in the journal Die Zeit dated July 19, 2018, he wrote: "For me, Ratzinger's essay is crystal clear: to the author, the living Judaism of today means nothing. For him, Judaism is merely a precursor of Christianity, a memory." Homolka adds: "Perhaps Joseph Ratzinger is not an antisemite, but he steals our covenant with God, like a thief in the night."

However, the rabbi concludes optimistically: "May Pope Francis distance himself from any form of converting Jews and may he ignore this text of Benedict."

I'm not so optimistic. It seems to me that Ratzinger expressed what most Catholics think: "Our covenant with God is unique, and other religions are without much significance, including the Jewish one." What happened 50 years ago at the Second Vatican Council (the declaration Nostra Aetate) has not penetrated into [our] universal consciousness in any way. And since "the greatest of living Catholic theologians" thinks so, what is the ordinary person to think? 

And besides, I can imagine how the crowd of Ratzinger's defenders will exclaim: why do these Jews criticize our retired Pope? Or maybe they will ask a question (I have heard one already): why did Benedict XVI wait so long and only on the threshold of eternity to dare to write what he really thinks? Surely, when he was the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and then pope for eight years, he was afraid of the Jewish lobby.

Many genuine Catholics in Poland will certainly say and write: "the assertion that there are many ways to God, and Christians recognized one of them thanks to the Jews, is a Jewish invention and various dialogists and pluralists will not persuade us outherwise."

And by the way, if Ratzinger would be silent – as he promised – there would be no problem. Unfortunately, Cardinal Koch will have to answer the rabbis. But maybe he will not have the opportunity because Francis will appoint a more dialogical chairman for the Commission for Unity. May it be so!


Prof. Dr. Stanisław Obirek teaches at the American Studies Center, University of Warsaw.