Does the news that Pope Benedict has again addressed the perennial question of the Jews in his new book (yet to be published in full) fill you with joy or with trepidation? The “Jewish question” remains, so forcefully present and perennially difficult in the minds of many people of the Pope’s generation at least in part because of the associated guilt of the Shoah. It seemed vital in 1965, and still to this day retains, for them in particular, that vitality. But, how large is the question for Christianity, for the Church, as a whole?
I ask this because it so often seems to dominate in our discussion or understanding of Great and Holy Friday that it could be imagined that the question of the guilt, or not, of the Jews was the fundamental one of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. But can it really be? I have written before that to a certain extent I share the conviction that the Holocaust altered the historical relationship between the Church and the Jews and demanded a renewal of understanding; but I am unconvinced that the answer to this renewal is total abandonment of the Church’s previous teaching and its replacement with, essentially, the conviction that the Church is not contiguous with, or, better still, the true completion of, ancient Judaism. I say this for historical as also the very well established theological reasons.
It is my contention that, in effect, the Church and modern Judaism represent two possible developments of ancient or first century Judaism – one in which the Temple has been replaced by the Messiah and its liturgy and sacrifices by the Divine Liturgy of the “unbloody” sacrifice of the Mass, the other which has declined to believe in the coming of the Messiah, still awaits, and has replaced its ancient liturgical and sacrificial heart with the Torah and the synagogue. One of the Popes (Pius XI?) said, “spiritually we are all semites”. Quite so. The Gentiles are “grafted” onto the ancient tree of Judaism, but the Church is not “the Gentiles” but the whole tree; can it therefore be said that both of these developments of semitic religion are equally valid? Perhaps that is not what is contended?
Yet to all appearances, in the latest Papal insight, as well as in the lex orandi of the Modern Roman Rite as well as Pope Benedict’s altered Good Friday prayer for the Jews in the rite of 1962, the continuing existence of the Jewish people is not only providential (as the Fathers say) but also a legitimate expression of the religion of which Christianity is completion. The idea that the blood of Christ, because it “speaks a better word” than Abel’s, is salvific for the Jews: “these words [Matt. 27:25] are not a curse but…salvation”. Not only is that interpretation against the plain meaning of Scripture, it is also opposed the Patristic interpretation of the role of the Jews in the death of Christ.
I shouldn’t like to push all this too far. I’m willing accept an interpretation which makes only that generation of the Jews, or a particular section of first century Jewish society, responsible for encouraging the execution of Jesus (despite the fact that “the Jews” does not really have “a precise and clearly defined meaning”, as Pope Benedict says, in John’s Gospel; how, for example, would the Temple aristocracy have the authority to expel Christians from the synagogues (John 9:22) and event which occurred after the fall of the Temple?).
What I find uncomfortable about the whole question of the understanding of Judaism in the Church today, is that the tradition, both liturgical and scriptural, can be so easily overturned, in order to avoid political problems, without really any attempt to engage with it fully. The final danger of this is that ordinary Catholics, and Jews themselves, come to believe that the Jews are not in need of the same salvation – brought about by the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ – as everybody else.