The People of the Covenant

(This is Neil) If you are like me, you have already concluded that there is far too much to read, and, consequently, have stopped reading most comment sections. However, I found the following comment by the scholar Philip A. Cunningham, which was left after a John Allen column about the Pope’s visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome on January 17, to be quite informative and somewhat reassuring.  (Please read the Pope’s remarks at the synagogue here.)

I do not believe that Professor Cunningham’s remarks necessarily encourage a marginalization of Christology and a weak “theism.” In fact, they could instead encourage an eschatological intensification of Christology. As the Pontifical Biblical Council wrote in The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, “Like [the Jews], we too live in expectation. The difference is that for us the One who is to come will have the traits of the Jesus who has already come and is already present and active among us.”

Here, then, is Philip A. Cunningham’s comment:

While there is some merit in recalling Pope Benedict’s remarks about interreligious vs. intercultural dialogue, it is risky to apply this distinction to Catholic relations with Jews because of the unique “solidarity which binds the Church to the Jewish people ‘at the level of their spiritual identity,'” as the pope himself noted last Sunday, citing words of his predecessor. It is therefore mistaken to think that his remarks at the synagogue were devoid of theological significance.

Benedict explained that his “visit forms a part of the journey already begun, to confirm and deepen it.” He went on to express his esteem for “the people of the Covenant” and again made his own John Paul’s words of commitment at the Western Wall to “the people of the Covenant.” He expressed horror over the Nazi “extermination of the people of the Covenant of Moses.”

Why is this choice of words important? Because it makes it crystal clear that Pope Benedict is serious about continuing his predecessor’s theological perspective: because God is ever-faithful, the Sinai covenant continues to be the basis of a living and dynamic relationship between God and the Jewish people. Benedict’s words offer a corrective to some Catholic writers who in recent years have reasserted the old language of obsolescence regarding Sinai in a post-New Testament world.

As if to hammer this point home even further, the pope went on to describe Jesus as “reaffirming” (not superseding) a central teaching of Moses and then urged Christians to have “a renewed respect for the Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament.” Why would Jewish interpretation(s) have any value for Christians if Judaism had no ongoing covenantal relationship with God?

He next did something that perhaps no other pope in history has ever done: he affirmatively quoted a rabbinic text, the Pirkei Avot, as having some inspirational and theological value for both Jews AND Christians.

If a rabbinic teaching is religiously consequential for Christians as well as Jews, and if Christians have a mission with (as distinct from “to”) Jews to witness to the Kingdom of God, then clearly Pope Benedict understands the rabbinic Jewish tradition ― past and present ― as genuinely interacting with God and authentically encountering divine holiness. Otherwise, the recurrent phrase “the people of the Covenant” would be rather meaningless.

It seems to me that the point of interreligious dialogue between Catholics and Jews has never been to find “a lowest common denominator of theology,” but to compare our traditions’ experiences of God, especially in their differences, in order to understand both ourselves and each other and the greatness of God better. Since our traditions are related “at the level of their spiritual identity,” what we learn about the other inevitably affects how we understand ourselves as well.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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One Response to The People of the Covenant

  1. Kenneth says:

    Thank you for posting this. You are correct, I do tend to by-pass a lot of comments, but this is an excellent post; not only crucial for an accurate understanding of current papal/Catholic position re: the Jews, but profound in its implications for all.

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