Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

On the Church and the Jews

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 08, 2023

Another thing on which Pope Benedict sheds considerable light in his posthumous collection of essays (see Tuesday’s commentary on Islam and Catholicism) is the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. This has always been a fairly difficult relationship for me to understand. Indeed, I have occasionally phrased certain details of the relationship inaccurately, forcing me to make revisions. I suspect I am not alone in this difficulty. The key issues are highlighted in the essay and letters Benedict decided to include in the section entitled “Jews and Christians in Dialogue”.

The Theory of (Covenantal) “Substitution”

The section begins with an essay Benedict wrote in 2017 (and circulated and then published in July and August of 2018) entitled “Grace and Vocation without Remorse”. The most important theological obstacle to understanding the Catholic position on the “status” of Judaism since the Resurrection of Christ has long been the false theory of “substitution”. In broad strokes, this is the theory that the New Covenant abrogated and became the substitute for the Old, such that Christianity was a substitute for Judaism, that God’s covenantal relationship with the Jews must be considered revoked, and that Christians alone, in effect, possess what we might call a valid formal relationship with God.

Although the Church has never officially taught this theory of substitution, it has been a common misunderstanding among her members, including many theologians, a misunderstanding even inadvertently expressed at fairly high levels. Benedict offers a prime example in Leo XIII’s “Prayer for the Consecration of the Human Race to the Sacred Heart of Jesus”, which refers to the Jews as those “who for such a long time had been your chosen people”. In other words, many Catholics have thought that the Jews had ceased to be the bearers of God’s predilection, God’s law and God’s promises. This bad theological habit was in fact officially rejected in Vatican II’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, in the paragraphs on the relationship between Christianity and Judaism.

A different understanding, after all, was from the first presented in the New Testament itself, particularly in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (see especially chapter 11) and in the Book of Revelation, which in chapter 7 personifies salvation specifically in both Jewish terms (12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel) and Gentile terms (those “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues”).

In his essay, then, Benedict specifically examines the concept of “substitution” with respect to what he considers the individual elements of Jewish election: cultic worship, cultic laws concerning the individual, the legal and moral teachings of the Torah, the Messiah, and the promise of land. In examining each of these key elements, he explains that the notion of “substitution” cannot apply in any simplistic conventional sense, either because it is a misunderstanding (as if, for example, the Eucharist is not at once both a recapitulation and a perfection of Temple worship1) or it simply is not applicable (for example, fundamental morality for both Jews and Christians is rooted in the natural law; Christian morality does not “substitute” for or “replace” Jewish morality).

Now, of course, these questions require theological study, and Benedict sketches them only briefly in an effort to explain why the Church has rejected the idea that Christianity is a simple “substitute” for Judaism, creating a new and different chosen people; and also rejected the idea that the Jews are no longer bearers of the promises of God. Clearly, the Church regards Christianity as a fulfillment of God’s plan—but without invalidating the ongoing role of Judaism in that plan, as St. Paul himself explained.

This is why the Church’s relationship with Judaism is fundamentally different from her relationship with every other religion. At the same time, it explains why there is so much mystery, so much in all this that we do not fully understand—including what may now be an exaggerated ecclesiastical disapproval of evangelization with respect to the Jews, a disapproval which contradicts the earliest example of both Christ and the apostles. Nonetheless, Christianity is not a simple substitute for and replacement of Judaism.

Past Abuse

This section of Benedict’s final book also includes a response published by Rabbi Arie Folger (chief rabbi of Vienna) along with a letter Benedict wrote to Rabbi Folger, and his response to Benedict. I was hardly surprised that Rabbi Folger made an obvious point: Regardless of the now official teachings of the Church on the subject, it remains true that a great many Catholics treated Jews very badly down through the centuries, and that the deliberate protection of Jews by the Church herself, while not insignificant, was certainly limited and not always clear with respect to its purpose.

This is true enough, but I should also remind those with historical amnesia that the enormous atrocities under Hitler, which led to the establishment of the specifically Jewish state of Israel, were perpetuated in direct opposition to Christ and the Church, with serious Christians often suffering the same fate, partly because of their willingness to protect their Jewish neighbors. And there’s the rub, of course—the very abrasive “rub” of human history—which is replete not only with truth and goodness but with error and evil. Where sin is concerned, even given the changes from one culture to another, it is very often the case that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Serious and humble Christians, then, are always left with a sense that they ought to make reparation. After all, this is a key part of Christian piety, and it inescapably colors all discussions and relations between one group and another, one religion and another, one people and another. Truth and justice take a very delicate human balance, seldom achieved apart from love. Most of us fail at times to maintain that balance, more often in our speech and sometimes in our writing, not to mention in our behavior. But in this too Pope Benedict XVI was a notable exception. In treating every topic, he remained exquisitely poised. I will close with a highly relevant case in point:

[S]piritual theology has always emphasized that the time of the Church does not mean…having arrived at paradise, but for the whole world corresponds to the forty years of Israel’s exodus. It is the path of those who are liberated. In the wilderness, Israel was repeatedly reminded that its wandering was the the result of its liberation from the bondage of Egypt; wayfaring Israel constantly wished to return to Egypt, failing to recognize the good of freedom as a good. The same is true of Christianity on its Exodus journey: again and again, it becomes difficult for men to recognize the mystery of liberation and freedom as a gift of redemption, and they desire to return to the conditions before their liberation. Through the mercies of God, nevertheless, they can also learn constantly that freedom is the great gift that leads to new life. [79]

1 With respect to sacrifice under the Old and New Covenants, Benedict aknowledges that here we can see that the substitution theory is not completely without any theological foundation. After all, the Temple no longer exists and the sacrificial offerings that were part of Temple worship have ceased. But he argues that this is the only heading under which substitution can be considered relevant, though not simplistlically, but in the dynamic and accommodated sense he proposes.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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