Pope Benedict's second volume of reflections on the life of Christ (“Jesus of Nazareth, Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection”) was released today, in time to provide substantial Lenten reading for thousands of Christians. Rabbi Jacob Nuesner, author of “A Rabbi Talks with Jesus” (a book which Benedict read and engaged in the first volume of “Jesus of Nazareth”) met with Benedict last year and was saddened to hear (from the Holy Father himself) that this was the “last book” that we can expect from the professorial Pope. The Holy Father has made it clear that in this book, as in the preceding volume, he is writing in his own name, not offering official papal teaching. This is Joseph Ratzinger the biblical scholar addressing us, not the Successor of St. Peter writing authoritatively ex cathedra. Still, given the writer's prominence, his thought is sure to have more impact than that of other equally eminent academics.
In one of the three portions of the book made public ahead of the release date, Benedict dealt with the issue of responsibility for Jesus' death. Of course he restated the clear teaching of Vatican II: “what happened...cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today” (Nostra aetate, 4). He also reinterprets the “blood libel” of Matthew 27:25, a passage often invoked as justifying every sort of malice against the Jewish people (how Christian is that?). Not only, Benedict notes, was this cry (“His blood be upon us...”) attributed to an unspecified “mob” (who certainly could not represent a whole people), the words themselves have to be read in the light of Christian teaching: The blood of Jesus “is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all. … these words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation.”
This is lovely, but it's not exactly new.
The part we haven't heard before, at least not from a Pope (it's been in official Church documents since 1965), came earlier in the book. The Pope seemed to be mirroring comments made a few years ago by Cardinal Walter Kasper (comments that got him pilloried in a certain wing of Catholic blogdom). It was so unexpected that I got on the phone and called a few theologians to make sure I was getting it right. The context was the missionary dimension of Christian life in these “times of the Gentiles.” Clearly a critical issue for the Jewish people, whose collective memory includes “forced conversions” and a diabolical “final solution.”
What did the Pope have to say in this regard? “...[T]he question of Israel’s mission has always been present in the background. We realize today with horror how many misunderstandings with grave consequences have weighed down our history. Yet a new reflection can acknowledge that the beginnings of a correct understanding have always been there, waiting to be rediscovered, however deep the shadows” (page 44).
As an indication of what that “correct understanding” might be, he cites the current (Cistercian) Abbess of Mariastern-Gwiggen (Austria), Mother Hildegard Brem in her commentary on St. Bernard's letter to his former student, the Trappist Pope Eugene III: “...the Church must not concern herself with the conversion of the Jews, since she must wait for the time fixed for this by God, ‘until the full number of the Gentiles come in’ (Rom 11:25). . .” (quoted by Benedict XVI from Brem's Sämtliche Werke, ed. Winkler, I, p. 834; that's Mother Hildegard in the photo).
The Pope did not elaborate on Mother Brem's interpretation, giving us to understand that it echoed his own thought. Without at all downplaying the role of Jesus as universal savior and fulfillment of the Scriptures of Israel, or the need for Christian integrity in witnessing to him, Joseph Ratzinger seems to be affirming what his predecessors since “Good Pope John” have said: for Catholics, the Jews are and remain truly “elder brothers” with a vocation, a mission, all their own during this "time of the Gentiles." I hope that the people who objected so strenuously to Cardinal Kasper's remarks don't try to downplay the Pope's by dismissing them with the excuse that he is writing not as Vicar of Christ but as a private theologian, true as that may be. If anything, they should try to understand all the more why they disagree with this particularly eminent private theologian.
The Pope is not telling us to discourage Jewish inquirers who, following their conscience, seek to learn more about their most famous brother, but it does tell us that we should be directing our missionary efforts not to the people "whom God foreknew" but to people who don't know the God of revelation. Lord knows, there seem to be plenty of them in our neighborhoods and places of work.
An earlier version of this post was prepared for the Chicago Tribune; I'll link it if it appears.