Like many Jewish prayers, Tevye’s prayer to be un-chosen also has become popular among some Catholics. The Catholic Church holds itself to be Israel, the People of God descended from Abraham in the Spirit. But many Catholics, including some in leading positions in the Roman Curia, think it an affront to the sensibilities of other cultures to insist on the unique role of the Church. At the other extreme , misnamed traditionalists do not think that the mustard-seed of faith is sufficient, and that the Church cannot fulfill its function without returning to the bygone days of state religion. Pope Benedict XVI, like his predecessor John Paul II, has fought manfully against these prospective deserters within his ranks. The tawdry burlesque over the case of the paranoid Jew-hater and Holocaust denier Richard Williamson is a sad gauge of his degree of success.
But there’s one more aspect to this complex drama that must be considered: the relationship of replacement theology to the Catholic Church’s concept of itself.
Replacement theology is the idea that the Christian Church–in this case the Catholic Church–is the total replacement of Israel in God’s plan. That idea was buttressed by the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, and is a common theme amongst the Church Fathers, even though we have passages such as Romans 9 and 11. At the same time the church developed the idea of an earthly priesthood, which neatly took the place of the priesthood that formerly ministered in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Thus the “replacement” was not only covenantal, but sacerdotal as well. The whole concept of an earthly, specialised priesthood (as opposed to the priesthood of all believers and the unique high priesthood of Jesus Christ) is in part dependent up on same priesthood being a replacement of its Jewish counterpart.
Now it’s admirable that Benedict XVI wants to get away from replacement theology. But he does so at the peril of undermining the Catholic Church’s claims on its own behalf. His rehabilitation of all of the bishops of the St. Pius X was a calculated risk to uphold the Church’s concept of its own role, because such bishops and people certainly have a high view of that role. But in doing so he bolsters the replacement theology he’s trying to get past.
Benedict is, IMHO, trying to square the theological circle on this one. If it took Protestantism three centuries to seriously tackle the issue, what can Roman Catholicism expect?