On May 14, 1948, the British occupation of Palestine ended and the State of Israel was proclaimed. On the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the founding of that State, Oliver Maksan of the international Catholic charity “Aid to the Church in Need” (ACN) spoke with the president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, Cardinal Kurt Koch, about the current status of the Vatican dialogue with Judaism. The original German-language interview was posted at the Austrian Catholic news website www.kath.net. English translation by Michael J. Miller with permission of Aid to the Church in Need (Germany).
ACN: Your Eminence, the State of Israel is celebrating its 65th birthday. Should Christians regard this as a modern fulfillment of the biblical promises of land to the Jews?
Cardinal Kurt Koch: That is a very difficult question. The question as to the relation between the biblical promise of land and its fulfillment in 1948 in the State of Israel has on the one hand a theological and on the other hand a political significance. It is true that the promise of the land is part of Israel’s identity. But we have to distinguish between promise and accomplishment. Palestinian Christians would emphatically disagree with you there. They experienced the new Israeli annexation as nakba, as a catastrophe, which often led to the loss of their ancient homeland through flight and banishment.
That is understandable. Because the promise has to be distinguished from the political manner in which it is carried out. The Palestinian Christians experienced it as an event that was unjust for them and associated with violence. Hence you can understand that Palestinian Christians, for example, cannot adopt a theological interpretation of the founding of the State of Israel. Moreover the Palestinians too have the right to their own State.
ACN: The Apostle Paul says in the Letter to the Romans that God remains true to his covenant. Yet in the history of theology the idea that the Jews were disinherited was predominant for a long time. How did that happen?
Cardinal Koch: This has to do with the separation of Church and Synagogue. As historical research has shown, the process of estrangement took place less rapidly than was long thought to be the case. But the process had increasingly radical consequences in the aftermath. The notion became prevalent that the Church had taken the place of Judaism. Nor was Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which very subtly reflects on the mystery of the interpenetration of the New and the Old Covenant, able to prevent this. How we are to think about the eternal validity of the Old Covenant and at the same time about the newness of the New Covenant in Jesus Christ remains even today a major theological challenge.
ACN: But what does that mean? Are there two separate ways of salvation, then, for Jews and Christians? Abraham and Moses for the one group, Jesus Christ for the other? Then the Jews would be an exception to the Church’s commission to evangelize.
Cardinal Koch: For Christians there is naturally only one way of salvation, which God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. On the other hand we Christians, in dealing with the Jews, do not have to bear witness to a way of salvation that is completely foreign to them, as is the case with other religions. For the New Testament is built entirely on the Old Testament. For this reason the Catholic Church has no organized mission to the Jews, as is the case for instance in certain Evangelical circles. On the other hand, we Christians witness to the Jews also concerning the hope that faith in Christ gives us.
ACN: Can the Messianic Jews, who acknowledge Christ as the Messiah and fulfillment of their Jewish identity, be a bridge in this regard?
Cardinal Koch: They could be a bridge, and they are a reality that cannot be neglected. For a great many Jews, however, the Messianic communities pose a major challenge. Therefore this question must be considered with great sensitivity, so as not to endanger the official dialogue with Judaism.
ACN: The beatification of Pius XII someday could also be an encumbrance to this dialogue. For many Jews, now as always, that is like waving a red flag. He is accused of remaining silent about the genocide of the Jews during the Nazi era. Can you understand that perspective?
Cardinal Koch: Pius XII was in a very difficult situation during the Second World War with respect to the cruel extermination of the Jews. There is no disputing the fact that he saved the lives of a great many Jews. That is why, at his death, there were many positive statements about him from the Jewish community as well. Even today there are Jews who would like to number this pope as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.” Of course, nowadays in the Jewish community, most voices warn publicly against a beatification. There is still hope that the opening of all the archives from that time will make it possible to have a more appropriate image of Pope Pius XII and a better insight into the extremely complex situation in which he had to make decisions.
ACN: In contrast, the name of Pius’s successor, John XXIII, occupies a positive place in public opinion. On June 5 it will be exactly 50 years since the day of his death. Is this pope still a trendsetter for the Jewish-Catholic dialogue?
Cardinal Koch: Most certainly. With him, a fresh start was made in the relations of the Catholic Church to Judaism. He really had a prophetic vision of the fact that we Christians are inseparably associated with the People Israel. This view was then crystallized during the Second Vatican Council in the Declaration Nostra Aetate and since then has borne abundant fruit. We can remember this with gratitude, especially this year as we celebrate 50 years since the opening of the Council.
ACN: The pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI was felt by many Jews to be a step backward from Nostra Aetate. They cite the new formula for the Good Friday petition in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite of the Mass or the Williamson case. Can you understand views of this sort?
Cardinal Koch: All told, I see no obstacles to the Jewish-Catholic dialogue in the pontificate of Benedict XVI. On the contrary. There were quite a few Jews who after his resignation emphasized that relations had never been as good as during the last pontificate. The Good Friday petition is actually not a call to mission work among the Jews, as it is often misunderstood, but rather adopts the eschatological perspective of the Apostle Paul. Pope Benedict himself honestly admitted that in the Williamson case there were serious blunders in the preparations for and the announcement of the lifting of the excommunications. Therefore in my view it makes no sense to repeat these misunderstandings over and over, instead of appreciating the great contribution of Pope Benedict to the Jewish-Catholic dialogue. In this respect he carried on and enriched the great heritage of Pope John Paul II.
ACN: Was Pope Francis positively received by the Jewish world?
Cardinal Koch: In my estimation, just as positively as Pope Benedict. I am glad that our Jewish [dialogue] partners are looking to Pope Francis with great expectations and hope. Certainly this could have something to do with the good relations that he cultivated with the local rabbis and Jewish communities when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires.