Notes on the discussion on the article “Grace and Vocation without Remorse” of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope em. Benedict XVI
After the wave of reflexive criticism that has arisen concerning Joseph Ratzinger’s “Notes to the tract De Iudaeis“, one may ask why Cardinal Koch asked Pope em. Benedict XVI to publish this sketch. The cardinal – rightly – recognized the provocative potential of this article. This has a double tradition:
Joseph Ratzinger has always sounded out every beloved slogan in theology and in the Church for their true content. With intellectual curiosity and passion in his search for truth, he has repeatedly reviewed slogans that were considered by many to be inviolable paradigms of theology: Liberation Theology, the Catechetical Turn, the Spirit of the Council, the Reform of the Church, etc.
On the other hand, we must remember that it was in particular the last popes – John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis – who together with the strongly involved Pontifical Biblical Commission, creatively developed the doctrine of Nostra aetate. To accuse Benedict XVI that he was opening the door to new ecclesiastical anti-Judaism, is plain mischief and bases on an incorrect reading of the text, which, by the way, begins with the indispensable reflection on the Shoah: “Since Auschwitz, it is clear that the Church has to reconsider the question of the nature of Judaism.” For some, their obvious “anticipated antipathy” makes it impossible for them to even read the text of the Pope emeritus, which is not without intricacies and dialectics.
In some passages, Benedict XVI goes far beyond the general consciousness of today’s Catholics, beyond what is taught in seminaries and what especially is common in the practice of ecclesial life and in daily preaching. If the scriptures are interpreted there at all, it is often only the Gospels that are the subject of homilies. And the “Christian Bible” is then of course only distributed as the New Testament in pocket size. Where do you hear so unequivocally that the New Testament is “not within itself,” but – thus Benedict XVI – “consistently refers to the ‘Old Testament, the Bible of Israel’?”
As far as the substitution theory is concerned you have to read the article carefully. It may seem a bit naive to measure its existence by its appearing in theological lexicons. Joseph Ratzinger, however, does not stop there: “It is actually the case that from texts like the parable of the tenants of the vineyard (Mark 12: 1-11) or of the feast (Matt. 22:1-14; Luke 14:15-24) to which the invited do not come and are then replaced by others, have largely shaped the thought of the rejection of Israel of its function in today’s history of salvation.” Benedict XVI here, too, in the true sense of the word cultivates a language that is far from a scheme of black and white looking for applause. That may seem too cautious to some. However, most of what his article has been criticized for rolls off like mercury, as it is inappropriate.
Above all Benedict XVI reminds us that “revoking the covenant” is no category of God. This the prophets of the exile already recognized clearly: God does not “revoke”, so therefore there can be no substitution coming from him. In his contribution to this, Ratzinger remains completely based on concrete history and with the human beings: “It is always and again difficult for people to realize that the mystery of liberation and freedom is a gift of salvation, and they want to go back to the time before liberation.” This you can see blindfolded. However, following him in thinking in such a way seems almost impossible for many theologians.
Benedict XVI once again experiences what happened to him after his speech in Auschwitz. He had not chosen the expected figure of self-accusation, but had instead carried through a more radical swing and had steered us toward the question of what conclusions would result from this for us: “We cannot look into God’s secret – we only see fragments and adopt the wrong approach (…). But our cry to God must also be a cry into our own heart …” It is his conviction that every human person is responsible – for the suffering, the crimes and the ruptures in the history with God, and this he shares with the clairvoyant and self-critical believers of Israel of all times.
The contribution of Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI is not a text of the dialogue with Judaism, but first of all a text directed into the Church. Only when Christians really understand the meaning of Judaism, and that is: both historical and contemporary, and understand the statements about temptation and the reality of the breaches of the covenant primarily as texts for and about themselves, can the remarks of the Pope emeritus act in such a way that it corresponds to the intention of the author’s text. The publication of his contribution is a help in this that should not be overlooked.
Prof. Dr. Achim Buckenmaier
Chair for the Theology of the People of God at the Pontifical Lateran University, Rome