In October of last year, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI wrote an essay, in the form of a private letter, on the Catholic Church’s understanding of itself vis-à-vis Jews and the Jewish state. More recently, Kurt Cardinal Koch, the Vatican official in charge of Jewish-Catholic relations, convinced Benedict to allow for its publication. (It can be found in German here. An English translation is not yet available.) Pinchas Goldschmidt reflects on the document:
While Benedict’s essay revolves mainly about the use, misuse, or disuse of the substitution theology of the Church regarding the Jews, [that is, the idea that the Church replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people], it also tries to clarify theologically the terminologies used in recent Vatican statements regarding the Jews. Benedict highlights the importance of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple for Christian theology, allowing the substitution of the body of Jesus for the physical temple, with the crucifixion and resurrection symbolizing the creation of a new model of temple and of sacrifice. In departure from Church doctrine as it existed before Nostra Aetate, [Vatican II’s 1965 declaration formulating the Church’s relationship with other faiths], Benedict sees Jews in dispersion [not as suffering divine punishment for their rejection of Jesus] but as a people with a mission to sanctify and publicize the name of God. . . .
However, the really interesting part of Benedict’s words comes when he deals with the promised land. Here, we see his struggle with the religious meaning of the return of the Jews to Zion. If the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple is [a metaphor for] the resurrection of Jesus and the messianic idea is the spread of the Catholic Church, then the return of the Jews to Zion after 2,000 years of exile is theologically problematic.
Benedict [thus states], in essence, that a Jewish religious state, which claims the fulfillment of the biblical messianic promises of redemption, was seen in the Christian system of belief as an impossibility and a total rejection of Christian exegesis of the biblical messianic promises. Benedict then explains what has changed in the Vatican since then, making the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the Jewish State in 1993 possible: the creation of the state of Israel and the Vatican’s recognition thereof would be only possible in this context based on the history of political Zionism, which could be seen as a secular national-liberation movement.
This approach also explains why, when diplomatic relations were finally established and Israel contemplated sending Rabbi David Rosen—the architect of the rapprochement of the Vatican and Israel—as its first ambassador, the Vatican subtly signaled its wish to get a secular professional diplomat instead.