The announcement of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation from the papacy prompted Jewish leaders and scholars to reflect on his legacy regarding Catholic-Jewish relations, as well as to voice concerns over what the future could hold under the leadership of his successor.
While Benedict made some decisions during his papacy that have been criticized by Jews — including lifting the excommunication of a bishop who openly denied the Holocaust — his record, overall, fostered the continued goodwill between the two faiths that was set in motion by John Paul II.
“The ups and downs with the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community resonated on a high note under the leadership of Pope Benedict; they are the highest they have ever been since the founding of the State of Israel,” said Gregg Roman, director of community relations for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. He said he was basing his perspective on a dialogue in which he participated between the Holy See and Israel when he was working in the Deputy Foreign Minister’s office in the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
Because Benedict, who was born in Germany, was compelled to serve in the Hitler Youth, there had been some fear in the Jewish community when he became Pope in 2005, Roman said, but his subsequent actions proved that fear to be in vain.
Not only did Benedict visit Nazi death camps in Poland during his papacy, but he also visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust center in Israel.
“In addition to that, it was obvious that the relationship between the Vatican and Israel, and Jews and Catholics, was a priority during his papacy,” Roman said, noting as examples Benedict’s writings that removed any doubt in Catholic doctrine that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus, and his close working relationship with the chief rabbi of Rome.
“In general, he took up where John Paul left off, and rose it to another level that was unexpected when he was appointed,” Roman said. “In general, he was a visionary fighting against anti-Semitism, and he encouraged a positive rapport between synagogues and Catholic churches.”
Rabbi Aaron Bisno, spiritual leader of Rodef Shalom Congregation, said he has seen progress in Jewish-Catholic relations under Benedict.
“I believe Pope Benedict, has been continuing with Jewish-Catholic relationships in the spirit of Vatican II and Nostra Aetate,” said Bisno, who, in 2011 received the Benemerenti Medal, for outstanding contributions to interfaith relations, conferred by Benedict. “Certainly my experience of this pope and the Catholic community has been nothing but positive, and I attribute any early missteps to the transition from his being an academic and theologian to now having the world’s ear.”
Benedict’s background in Jewish theology helped shape his policies concerning Jewish-Catholic relations, noted Walter Jacob, rabbi emeritus of Rodef Shalom, who spent an hour with Benedict when he was a cardinal.
“What was interesting about him was that he was extremely well versed in modern Jewish theology,” recalled Jacob. “He approached everything from that point of view. This made his views somewhat different. He was very friendly to Jews, not only in a practical way, but also in a theological way.”
While Benedict made strides in continuing the interfaith work begun by John Paul, Jewish pundits differ on whether his successor will follow the same course.
“John Paul built the foundation, and Benedict solidified that foundation, and built upon it,” Roman said. “It’s so strong, in my opinion, the only way to go is up.”
Others are more wary.
“There is a certain danger in where the church may be going,” warned Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of interfaith affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
While the Catholic Church made vast advances in recent years in terms of reversing longstanding anti-Semitic church doctrine, and in teaching about Jews, the Holocaust and Israel in positive terms, “there is still lots of old church,” Adlerstein said.
His concern is that the next pope may be from a country that is not so friendly to Jews.
“There is a good chance they will go to Africa or South America where the church is not losing people at the same rate as France or Germany or England,” he said.
An African pope could pose challenges for Jews, he said.
“They don’t have the personal interaction with Jews that leads others to want to find out more about the Jewish people,” he said.
“If the nod goes to someone in South America, we could be in even deeper trouble,” he said. “There are too many incidents in the public writings of people who are not friendly with the Jewish people. I am less worried about Africa, where anti-Semitism is not imbedded. But still, we would have reason to fear that anyone they pick in Africa will not have the relationship with the Jewish people that comes from living aside Jews.”
Rabbi Alvin Berkun, rabbi emeritus of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation and immediate past chair of the National Council of Synagogues, is apprehensive as well.
“My concern is who comes next,” he wrote in an email to the Chronicle. “My sense is that it will be a cardinal from Africa or Latin America who will not have had and interfaith experience, especially with world Jewry.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)