Gospel and Law according to Ratzinger

Recently, a prominent Italian Rabbi, Giuseppe Laras, criticized Pope Francis’s homilies for their “resumption of the old polarization between the morality and theology of the Hebrew Bible and of pharisaism, and Jesus of Nazareth and the Gospels.”

Decades ago, Joseph Ratzinger wrote a chapter titled, “Israel, the Church, and the World,” from his short study, Many Religions – One Covenant (1998). He argued there: “Jesus did not act as a liberal reformer recommending and presenting a more understanding interpretation of the Law. In Jesus’ exchange with the Jewish authorities of his time, we are not dealing with a confrontation between a liberal reformer and an ossified traditionalist hierarchy. Such a view, though common, fundamentally misunderstands the conflict of the New Testament and does justice neither to Jesus nor to Israel.”

This view of the relationship between the Gospel and the Law of Israel sounds familiar because Rabbi Laras is right: it is a steady drumbeat in Pope Francis’ homilies.

I have already written here about Francis’s oppositional interpretation of the Gospel and the Law. I won’t repeat what I’ve said. Rather, I want to discuss Cardinal Ratzinger’s reasons for rejecting such a “crass contrast” between the Gospel and the Law.

Ratzinger characterizes this contrast as a “cliché in modern and liberal descriptions where Pharisees and priests are portrayed as the representatives of a hardened legalism, as representatives of the eternal law of the establishment presided over by religious and political authorities who hinder freedom and live from the oppression of others. . . .In light of these interpretations, one sides with Jesus, fights his fight, by coming out against the power of priests in the Church.”

The Pharisees Question Jesus by J.J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]

Why does Ratzinger hold that this contrast fundamentally misconstrues the New Testament understanding of the relationship between the Gospel and the Law, and hence fails to do justice to Jesus and Israel?

The key Biblical principle that helps Ratzinger plumb the theological depth of the relationship between the Gospel and the Law is expressed in the words of Jesus: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Mt 5:17) The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC, 577-582) functions as the interpretive lens through which Ratzinger understands the words of Jesus. That the Law is fulfilled in Christ does not mean that the Gospel has no further relation to the Law. The moral Law remains God’s will for the life of the Christian. How so?

Jesus fulfills the Law by bringing out its fullest and complete meaning. He also fulfills it by bringing the finishing or capstone revelation. He radicalizes the Law’s demands by going to its heart and center. In Matthew 22:40, Jesus says, “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” Jesus neither replaces nor adds to the moral teachings of the Law, but rather he exposes its true and positive, indeed, fullest meaning in light of the twofold yet single, central Commandment: that we love God completely and love our neighbor as ourselves. (Mt 7:12; 22:34-40; Mk 12:38-43; Lk 10:25-28; Jn 13:34; Rom 13:8-10)

In that sense, Jesus interiorizes the demands of the Law because fulfillment of the Law must be measured by that central commandment to love. Because love of God and neighbor is the heart of the Law, Jesus shows that the commandments prohibiting murder and adultery mean more than the letter of the Law states. Jesus is not an ethical minimalist, a view that associates the Law with mere formality and externalism in morals, but rather an ethical maximalist. A maximalist – and Christ was a maximalist – refers to the dimension of interiority. (cf. Mt 5) Christ appeals to the inner man because “the Law is led to its fullness through the renewal of the heart.” (CCC, 1964)

Indeed, CCC teaches that the central Commandment to love expresses the “fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.” (1604). Ratzinger explains: “By saying Yes to the double commandment, man lives up to the call of his nature to be the image of God that was willed by the Creator and is realized as such in loving with the love of God.” The moral laws, whose core is the Ten Commandments, retain their direct and unchanging validity. Moreover, even these Commandments receive a new foundation in the Gospel. In short, “The Law of the Gospel ‘fulfills’, refines, surpasses, and leads the Old Law to its perfection.” (CCC,1967)

Furthermore, Jesus’ perfect fulfillment of the Law includes his taking upon himself the “‘curse of the Law’ incurred by those who do not ‘abide by the things written in the book of the Law, and do them.’” (Gal 3:11) In this light, we can understand why CCC states that Jesus brings about “the perfect fulfillment of the Law by being the only Righteous One in place of all sinners.” (CCC 579)

Christ’s atonement is vicarious, that is, it is a substitutionary atonement. He was a substitute for others, taking their place by paying the penalty for their sins – sins that involved breaking the Law of God. When a law is broken, a punishment is incurred. That is, Jesus was made sin on our behalf so that he would satisfy God’s righteousness and hence we might become righteous. (2 Cor 5:21): “He who was delivered up because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.” (Rom 4:25) Mercy and justice meet at the Cross.

In sum, “Jesus did not abolish the Law of Sinai, but rather fulfilled it (cf. Mt 5:17-19) with such perfection (cf. Jn 8:46) that he revealed its ultimate meaning (cf. Mt 5:33) and redeemed the transgressions against it (cf. Heb 9:15).” (CCC, 592)

Eduardo J. Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. His publications include Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II Revised and Expanded Second Edition (Lectio Publishing, Hobe Sound, FL, 2019) and Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma. (2018). His new book is Are We Together? A Roman Catholic Analyzes Evangelical Protestants.