Benedict XVI has found himself battered from all sides after responding to criticism from a German theology professor. The dispute originated with the publication of an essay by the Pope Emeritus giving a theological appraisal of a Vatican document on achievements in Catholic-Jewish relations since the Second Vatican Council. It seems that some readers of the essay – one reader in particular – received Benedict’s contribution in a spirit very different from that in which the Pope Emeritus intended it. Michael Böhnke, professor of systematic theology at Wuppertal University, attacked Benedict XVI in the September edition of the German theological journal Herder Korrespondenz, accusing him of encouraging proselytism of the Jews.
The specific statements Böhnke challenged were made in an article by the Pope Emeritus published in the July-August 2018 edition of Communio. The article was an exploration of a 2015 note from the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity’s commission for religious relations with the Jews on the 50th anniversary of the conciliar document, Nostra Aetate. In fact, Benedict’s essay was originally intended for internal use by the commission. The president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity (and head of the commission), Cardinal Kurt Koch, eventually convinced Benedict to publish it.
In his message to Herder Korrespondenz, Benedict XVI described Böhnke’s charge as “grotesque nonsense” that had “nothing to do with what I said”. He continued: “I therefore reject [Böhnke’s] article as a completely false insinuation. The missionary mandate is universal, with one exception: a mission to the Jews was not foreseen and not necessary because they alone, among all peoples, knew the ‘unknown God’.”
For that clarification, Benedict received criticism from people who took him to be saying that Christians have no duty to share the Gospel with people of Jewish faith and heritage.
This was not the first time that Böhnke had attacked Benedict in print. When the Pope Emeritus’s 18-page paper first appeared in Communio over the summer, Böhnke wrote in the Münster Forum for Theology and Church: “After Auschwitz, I would not have expected that I would have to read something like this by a German theologian.” The academic also wrote: “The text first dispels the legend of the silent ‘Pope Emeritus’.”
A case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” might have become inevitable the moment Benedict decided to wade into the controversy, but the theological distinction he is making is readily discernible – even brightly shining – and finely made. To say that Benedict does not believe in mission to the Jews is misleading, because as Benedict sees the issue, “mission” is the wrong word. As Benedict points out, the Jewish people are the first to make a covenant with God. That does not mean that Christians should not offer a witness to Christ to Jewish people – we very much ought to. It means, rather, that the mode of our witness must be appropriate to both the subject matter over which we disagree and the historical circumstances in which we find ourselves conducting our disagreement.
As Benedict said in a 2000 declaration as Vatican doctrinal chief, “it must be firmly believed that ‘the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation.’” But he now stresses that “mission” is only the correct term in relation to peoples who are not in some sense expecting the Messiah. This was the implication of the 2015 note from the Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, which occasioned Benedict XVI’s 18-page reflection. In the note’s section headed, “The Church’s mandate to evangelise in relation to Judaism”, which follows a section headed, “The universality of salvation in Jesus Christ and God’s unrevoked covenant with Israel”, the commission wrote:
While there is a principled rejection of an institutional Jewish mission, Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews, although they should do so in a humble and sensitive manner.
Vatican News reported on Benedict’s treatment of the matter in his letter to Herder Korrespondenz:
For Israel, then, it was not a mission, but a dialogue about whether Jesus of Nazareth was “the Son of God, the Logos”, for whom, according to the promises made to His people, Israel, and the whole world without knowing it, was waiting. Taking up this dialogue anew, Benedict said, is “the duty given us at this time”.
In other words, Christians cannot consider their work with Jews as properly “missionary” – certainly not in the same sense as their work with Muslims, say, or atheists, because what is at issue is a historical question: is Jesus the Messiah? The proper attitude is therefore dialogical, where the proper field of dialogue is the common ground of the Old Testament and the disputed ground of the New Testament. Benedict’s concern is, in essence, to see that Christians and Jews speak earnestly together, learning about the other and about themselves. What comes of the conversation is God’s to determine in His good time.