Pope Benedict XVI, Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, and Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, are pictured in 2011 at the Vatican. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)
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).
Cardinal Kurt Koch (CNS photo)
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
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
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
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
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.