The People of God with Israel

Catholic-Jewish relations deepen under Pope Benedict XVI.

In 1928, when the future Pope Benedict XVI was 11 months old, the Holy Office, under the leadership of the vigorously anti-modernist Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val, decreed that “the Catholic Church has always prayed for the Jewish people, depositories, until the coming of Jesus Christ, of the divine promise, regardless of their subsequent blindness, or rather, precisely because of it. Moved by that spirit of charity, the Apostolic See has protected this same people against unjust vexations, and just as it reproves all hatreds and animosities between people, so it especially condemns hatred against the people elected by God, a hatred that today is vulgarly called ‘anti-Semitism.’”

When Joseph Ratzinger was nine, Pope Pius XI issued his anti-Nazi encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge (With Burning Anxiety). The following year, the Sacred Congregation for Seminaries and Universities published its “Syllabus Against Racism” and urged Catholic educational institutions to combat Nazi racial theories. Five months later, Pope Pius XI told a group of Belgian pilgrims, “Anti-Semitism is a revolting movement, of which we Christians cannot be part. Anti-Semitism cannot be justified. Spiritually we are Semites.”

More than 70 years later, Pope Benedict continues to condemn anti-Semitism while deepening the dialogue between the Church and Judaism. In doing so, he is focusing attention on the Jewish roots of Christianity—on the fact that Catholics are spiritual Semites— and quietly calling Jews to conversion to Christ in the Church, which he presents as Judaism fulfilled and opened to all.

Yet the press is largely ignoring the content of Pope Benedict’s dialogue with Judaism. When the Pontiff visited the Great Synagogue of Rome on January 17, he was received with repeated applause and spent the majority of his address lamenting the Holocaust, condemning anti-Semitism, and proposing the Decalogue as a primary area for joint Jewish-Catholic witness. However, focusing on one sentence of the Pope’s talk and investing it with a polemical meaning, the Associated Press wire story began, “In a synagogue visit haunted by history, Pope Benedict XVI and Jewish leaders sparred Sunday over the record of the World War II-era pope during the Holocaust….”

“One cannot avoid the conclusion that there is a widespread begrudging attitude towards Benedict XVI in the media and even hostility in some quarters; and it is not too difficult to analyze,” says Rabbi David Rosen, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Department of Interreligious Affairs. “As a generalization it is fair to say that the media is generally liberal and very secular. Religious conservatism is not the favorite flavor of the day.”


When Father Ratzinger was a 38-yearold peritus at the Second Vatican Council, the council fathers approved Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. As it condemned anti-Semitism, the declaration, frequently citing St. Paul, outlined the “common spiritual patrimony” of Christians and Jews.

“As Holy Scripture testifies, Jerusalem did not recognize the time of her visitation, nor did the Jews in large number accept the Gospel; indeed not a few opposed its spreading,” the document continued. “Nevertheless, God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their fathers; he does not repent of the gifts he makes or of the calls he issues— such is the witness of the Apostle.” While “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29), the document makes clear that “the Church proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ the way, the truth, and the life, in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to himself.”

At times, Catholics involved in Catholic- Jewish dialogue have emphasized the irrevocable nature of God’s gift and call to the Jews to the exclusion of the proclamation of Christ; indeed, in 2009, the US bishops’ doctrine committee criticized an influential 2002 Jewish-Catholic dialogue document as “insufficiently precise and potentially misleading,” in part because it implied that “the Jews have an obligation not to become Christian and that the Church has a corresponding obligation not to baptize Jews.”

In 1984, Cardinal Ratzinger, now the 57-year-old prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote Behold the Pierced One, in which he reflected on the Jewish roots of Christianity. In this work “Cardinal Ratzinger directs us away from the idea, posed by some, that the traditions of Israel were abrogated or replaced by Jesus,” notes David Moss of the Association of Hebrew Catholics. Instead, as Cardinal Ratzinger writes, the “universalization of [Israel’s] tradition [in the New Covenant] is its ultimate ratification, not its abrogation or replacement…Jesus’ task was only to renew this People by deepening its relationship to God and by opening it up for all mankind.”

Two years later, the future Pope was named chairman of the commission responsible for drafting and editing the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was eventually published in 1992 and includes a lengthy section (nos. 571-98) on the relation between Jesus Christ and Israel. The section on the Church and non-Christians (nos. 839-845), in line with Nostra Aetate, teaches that God’s gift and call to the Jews are irrevocable and that “the Father willed to call the whole of humanity together into his Son’s Church. The Church is the place where humanity is to rediscover its unity and salvation.”

In his 1998 work Many Religions, One Covenant, Cardinal Ratzinger reflected on the Church’s relation to Judaism. “All nations, without the abolishment of the special mission of Israel, become brothers and receivers of the promises of the Chosen People; they become People of God with Israel,” he writes. “Thus the Sinai covenant is indeed superseded. But once what was provisional in it has been swept away, we see what is truly definitive in it.”

“Even if Christians look for the day when Israel will recognize Christ as the Son of God and the rift that separates them will be healed,” he adds, “they should also acknowledge God’s providence, which has obviously given Israel a particular mission in this ‘time of the Gentiles.’”


Cardinal Ratzinger’s work as a theologian made him uniquely prepared to deepen the Church’s teaching on the relation between the Church and Judaism. “I view him as our most serious partner in the Catholic Church, and he has been for the last 26 years,” said Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, upon the Pontiff’s election.

Pope Benedict mentioned Jewish-Catholic relations during the April 2005 Mass inaugurating his papacy. “With great affection I also greet…my brothers and sisters of the Jewish people,” he said, “to whom we are joined by a great shared spiritual heritage, one rooted in God’s irrevocable promises.”

Six weeks later, he told the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, “I wish to assure you that the Church remains fi rmly committed, in her catechesis and in every aspect of her life, to implementing” Nostra Aetate’s “decisive teaching. In the years following the Council, my predecessors Pope Paul VI and, in a particular way, Pope John Paul II, took signifi – cant steps towards improving relations with the Jewish people. It is my intention to continue on this path.” This talk was particularly signifi cant “because it comes very soon after his election” and because “he commits to following the historic path of Pope John Paul II in working to improve relations with the Jewish people,” Myrna Shinbaum of the Anti-Defamation League told CWR.

A few days later, Pope Benedict blocked the planned beatifi cation of Father Leon Dehon (1843-1925). Roy Schoeman, author of Salvation is From the Jews, notes that Dehon had called the Talmud “a manual for the bandit, the corrupter, the social destroyer” and had recommended that Jews not be permitt ed to own land or serve as judges or teachers.

In August 2005, Pope Benedict visited the synagogue in Cologne. “John Paul began these groundbreaking visits [to synagogues] but Benedict XVI made them a regular part of his Vatican travels,” says Marty Barrack of Second Exodus, an apostolate that promotes the Church as the eternal Israel. “From my perspective, these visits are the most important statements Benedict has made concerning the relationship between the Church and Judaism.” Gary Krupp, a Jew and the head of the Pave the Way Foundation, which has documented Pope Pius XII’s eff orts to save the Jews during the Holocaust, concurs; he told CWR, “I believe that every demonstrated gesture that the Pope has made speaks volumes of his spiritual bond to the Jewish people.”

“The history of relations between the Jewish and Christian communities has been complex and often painful,” Pope Benedict noted at the synagogue. “There were blessed times when the two lived together peacefully, but there was also the expulsion of the Jews from Cologne in the year 1424.” After mourning the victims of the Holocaust, he added:

Whoever meets Jesus Christ meets Judaism…I would encourage sincere and trustful dialogue between Jews and Christians, for only in this way will it be possible to arrive at a shared interpretation of disputed historical questions, and, above all, to make progress towards a theological evaluation of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. This dialogue, if it is to be sincere, must not gloss over or underestimate the existing differences: in those areas in which, due to our profound convictions in faith, we diverge, and indeed, precisely in those areas, we need to show respect and love for one another.

Echoing this call for an honest conversation that does not gloss over differences, Pope Benedict told an audience from the Anti-Defamation League in 2006 that “the four decades since [Nostra Aetate] have brought many positive advances, and they have also witnessed some early steps, perhaps still too tentative, towards a more open conversation on religious themes. It is precisely at this level of frank exchange and dialogue that we will fi nd the basis and the motivation for a solid and fruitful relationship.”

The Pontiff has spoken frankly on the controversial issue of Jewish conversion to Christianity in little-noticed addresses. In a March 2006 general audience, he taught that

the number 12, which evidently refers to the 12 tribes of Israel, already reveals the meaning of the prophetic-symbolic action implicit in the new initiative to re-establish the holy people. As the system of the 12 tribes had long since faded out, the hope of Israel awaited their restoration as a sign of the eschatological time. In choosing the Twelve, introducing them into a communion of life with himself and involving them in his mission of proclaiming the Kingdom in words and works, Jesus wants to say that the definitive time has arrived in which to constitute the new People of God, the people of the 12 tribes, which now becomes a universal people, his Church. With their very own existence, the Twelve—called from different backgrounds—become an appeal for all of Israel to convert and allow herself to be gathered into the new covenant, complete and perfect fulfillment of the ancient one.

In a January 2009 Sunday Angelus address, the Pontiff returned to the theme, noting that “in Paul’s case, some prefer not to use this term [conversion] because, they say, he was already a believer, rather a fervent Hebrew, and therefore he did not pass from no faith to the faith, from the idols to God, nor did he have to abandon the Hebrew faith to adhere to Christ. Actually, the Apostle’s experience can be the model of every authentic Christian conversion…. In this consists his and our conversion: in believing in Jesus dead and risen and in opening to the illumination of his divine grace.”

In his addresses to representatives of Jewish organizations, Pope Benedict has repeatedly affi rmed the teaching of Nostra Aetate, condemned anti Semitism, and focused on the Jewish roots of Christianity. In 2006, he told the chief rabbi of Rome, “The Catholic Church is close and is a friend to you. Yes, we love you and we cannot but love you, because of the fathers: through them you are very dear and beloved brothers to us. In Christ we participate in the same heritage of the fathers as you, to serve Almighty God with one accord, grafted onto the one holy trunk of the People of God.”

In May 2006, Pope Benedict visited Auschwitz and delivered one of the most moving addresses of his pontificate.

To speak in this place of horror, in this place where unprecedented mass crimes were committed against God and man, is almost impossible— and it is particularly difficult and troubling for a Christian, for a Pope from Germany…. Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are eternally valid. If this people, by its very existence, was a witness to the God who spoke to humanity and took us to himself, then that God finally had to die and power had to belong to man alone— to those men, who thought that by force they had made themselves masters of the world. By destroying Israel, by the Shoah, they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention.

As the Pope was concluding his visit, a rainbow suddenly appeared. “I was privileged to be with him in Auschwitz and personally photographed the rainbow, which appeared in the sky when he blessed the memorial,” Krupp told CWR. “I gave him a copy of this picture during a private meeting I had with him. I was most touched by his reaction to the photo, and he asked me, ‘Was this from Auschwitz?’ He was so moved by this providential sign from God.”

Upon its publication in 2007, Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth was hailed as a scholarly critique of Scripture scholars who had sundered the “Jesus of history” from the “Christ of faith.” Mark Drogin of the Remnant of Israel, an organization devoted to proclaiming the Jewish roots of the Gospel, told CWR that Popes John Paul and Benedict “carried the vision of Vatican II in the third millennium with remarkable continuity and agreement. Following World War II and the establishment of a secular political state in Palestine, the Church was confronted with one of the biggest questions since apostolic times: what is the relation between the Church and Israel?… For decades, Ratzinger and Wojtyla approached this question carefully and with a unified vision. Now, the Pope is building on the progress of John Paul II and going forward with this dialogue in charity.”

Pope Benedict is advancing the dialogue, says Drogin, by raising the essential question of whether Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament. “Jesus opened the dialogue within Judaism during his public ministry,” Drogin says. “Pope Benedict resumed this dialogue with his book, Jesus of Nazareth. To both Jews and Christians, Benedict’s book shows that the dialogue is within Judaism and addresses the primary question: did Jesus of Nazareth fulfill the messianic promises to Israel?”

“Neither Jesus nor the Apostles started a new religion: they preached the fulfillment of Judaism,” adds Drogin. “In Jesus of Nazareth, the Pope explains with charity that Jesus and his Church are legitimate partners in this dialogue within Judaism.”

In 2008, Pope Benedict changed the Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the Jews in the extraordinary form of the Mass. Replacing a reference to the Jews’ “blindness” with the language of Romans 11, the new prayer reads, “Let us also pray for the Jews: that God our Lord might enlighten their hearts, so that they might know Jesus Christ as the Savior of all mankind: Almighty and eternal God, who will that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of truth, grant in your mercy that as the fullness of mankind enters into your Church, all Israel may be saved, through Christ our Lord.” The new prayer—like the older one—received criticism from Jewish organizations. The Anti-Defamation League’s Shinbaum told CWR that the prayer, “issued without comment, raised major concerns about the theological direction he is heading in.”

Two months later, while in the United States, Pope Benedict delivered well-received talks to members of the Jewish community in Washington and New York. Describing the first as the Pontiff’s “most significant” address on Jewish-Catholic relations, Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union, told CWR that “on that occasion, he assembled several dozen of us for a private audience during which he gave us a greeting on the occasion of Passover. His remarks there were excellent. He quoted from the Hallel (the Jewish prayer of praise, taken from the Psalms) and spoke in a very warm and well-wishing voice with very appropriate remarks, which he asked us to relay to the Jewish community at large.”

In June 2008, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, acting at Pope Benedict’s explicit direction, banned the liturgical use of words based on YHWH. “Avoiding pronouncing the Tetragrammaton of the name of God on the part of the Church has therefore its own grounds,” the congregation noted. “Apart from a motive of a purely philological order, there is also that of remaining faithful to the Church’s tradition, from the beginning, that the sacred Tetragrammaton was never pronounced in the Christian context nor translated into any of the languages into which the Bible was translated.”

The year 2009 was a crucial year for Jewish-Christian relations, both because the Pope visited Israel and because of the inadequate public relations surrounding Pope Benedict’s decision to lift the excommunications of four bishops of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). On January 21, the decree lifting the excommunications was issued and went into eff ect but was not announced; that evening, a Swedish television station broadcast an interview with SSPX Bishop Richard Williamson, in which he denied the extent of the Holocaust.

In the days that followed, spokesmen for Jewish organizations expressed concern about rumors that Bishop Williamson’s excommunication might be lifted. On January 24, the Holy See Press Offi ce without comment released the text of the January 21 decree, provoking an international furor, since many observers had concluded wrongly that Bishop Williamson was now in full communion with the Holy See and that the Pope knew of his remarks when he lifted the excommunication. On February 4, the Secretariat of State issued a statement noting that the SSPX “does not have any canonical recognition in the Catholic Church” and that Bishop Williamson must “absolutely, unambiguously, and publicly distance himself from his position on the Holocaust” before exercising public ministry within the Church. If the February 4 statement had been released on January 24, much of the harm to Catholic-Jewish relations could have been avoided.

Relations began to thaw during a February 12 meeting with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The Anti-Defamation League’s Shinbaum told CWR that this meeting was especially signifi – cant because the Pope made “the profoundly influential prayer of Pope John Paul II at the Western Wall his own, quoting the entire prayer. Referring to the Jewish people, he uses the term ‘people of the Covenant’ expressing the Roman Catholic Church’s official position [on] the ongoing vital covenantal life of the Jewish people.”

In May, Pope Benedict visited the Holy Land, where he unambiguously condemned anti-Semitism and mourned the victims of the Holocaust at the Yad Vashem Memorial. “From a Jewish perspective Benedict XVI’s encounters in Israel with the highest civic, political and religious leaders, could hardly have been warmer—and having been present at most of these, I can personally att est to such,” says Rabbi Rosen of the American Jewish Committ ee. “Benedict followed in [John Paul’s] footsteps, showing the deepest respect towards both Jewish tradition and Jewish suff ering.”

One scholar told CWR that the Pontiff’s participation in an interreligious meeting in Nazareth was especially significant. “I do not pretend that Pope Benedict holding hands with a rabbi and a Druze leader and singing together with them ‘Lord grant us peace,’ is his most important statement, but to me it has extraordinary symbolic value,” says Dr. Joseph Sievers, a Jewish history professor at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. Rabbi Rosen concurs: “the real interfaith moment during this pilgrimage was in Nazareth where, led by a rabbi singing a song of peace, the Pope held and raised hands in prayer, song, and celebration with the other religious leaders on the dais, before hundreds of religious figures from the different faith communities in Israel. This event reflected the real spirit of the papal visit, but most major media outlets didn’t even report on it.”

Pope Benedict’s initiatives in Catholic- Jewish relations culminated with the 2010 visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome. Twenty-four years after Pope John Paul II made history by visiting that synagogue, Pope Benedict—welcomed by shouts of “Viva il Papa!”— visited the synagogue in early 2010.

In an address that was interrupted by applause several times, Pope Benedict noted that “the Church has not failed to deplore the failings of her sons and daughters, begging forgiveness for all that could in any way have contributed to the scourge of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism.” After mourning the victims of the Holocaust, Pope Benedict called Sacred Scripture the “most stable and lasting foundation” of fraternal relations between Jews and Christians and said the Decalogue offers “several possible areas of cooperation and witness,” three of which “are especially important for our time”: the existence of God, respect for human life, and the sanctity of the family.

Citing St. Paul, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in whose drafting Pope Benedict played such an infl uential role, teaches that “the glorious Messiah’s [second] coming is suspended at every moment of history until his recognition by ‘all Israel.’” When that day comes, the dialogue deepened by a Pontiff who grew up in history’s most anti-Semitic regime may well have played a crucial role.

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About J. J. Ziegler 62 Articles
J. J. Ziegler, who holds degrees in classics and sacred theology, writes from North Carolina.