LOS ANGELES — The election or the demise of a pope is always an event of enormous public interest that resonates well beyond the Catholic world. This was certainly the case when the newswires flashed their bulletin that Pope Benedict XVI had taken the unprecedented step [in the modern age] of resigning because of age and ill health, becoming the first pope in more than six centuries to do so.
Jewish people have a particular interest in the election of a new pope, because their 2,000-year tumultuous relationship with the church has caused much pain and suffering and who know from experience what an impact a pope can have on our future.
In April 2005, I remember vividly being glued to my television as the white smoke went up from the Sistine Chapel on the fourth ballot soon followed by the stunning announcement that the new supreme pontiff of the church would be the German cardinal who had once worn the uniform of the Hitler Youth. I remember thinking, “Here we go again.”
It was only after some research that I discovered a different story, that in fact Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — now Benedict XVI — was born in Bavaria into a home that opposed Hitler’s policies, but like all teenagers he was forced to join the Hitler Youth and later assigned to the anti-aircraft corps responsible for protecting German industry from allied attacks. When the war ended, he and his brother Georg decided to enroll in a Catholic seminary where he quickly rose through the ranks.
Within two decades, he rose to become one of the Catholic Church’s pre-eminent theologians, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Although very much a staunch conservative, on the major issues facing the Jewish people, Benedict relied on what he wrote in 1985: “The church marches forward to the fulfillment of history. One does not go back, nor can one.”
For more than two decades, he played a major role as a key advisor to John Paul II in the historic change of the church policy toward the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Ratzinger agreed with Pope John Paul II that the fact that Jews still did not recognize the divinity of Christ should not stand in the way of fostering better relations in the “temporal world” with them or the State of Israel. Ultimately, Ratzinger believed that answer would have to await the “end of days” for a final judgment. There is no question that had he been opposed to such a major shift in church policy, then Pope John Paul II’s decision to recognize the State of Israel, may never have happened.
Although, Benedict lacked the exuberance of a John Paul II or John XXIII, he looked very good indeed when compared to most of the popes who sat on the throne of Saint Peter for the last 20 centuries and treated Jews with utter disdain and contempt.
In the fourth century, Pope Augustine said, “The Jew … will bear the guilt for the death of Jesus, because their fathers killed the savior.” The 13th-century Pope Innocent III decreed, “The Jews’ guilt of the crucifixion of Jesus consigned them to perpetual servitude and they, like Cain, are to be wanderers and fugitives.”
Even 20th-century popes such as Leo X told Theodor Herzl, “Jews have not recognized our lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people,” and Paul VI, who went to Jerusalem for a day and refused to mention Israel by name. His subsequent thank you note to Zalman Shazar, then-President of Israel, was sent to Tel Aviv, lest he be accused of acknowledging Israel’s sovereignty in Jerusalem.
Benedict on the other hand went to the Cologne Synagogue to reaffirm, “I intend to continue with great vigor on the path toward improved relations and friendship with the Jewish people.” He went to Israel and told hundreds at Yad Veshem, including survivors of the Holocaust, “I have come … to honor the memory of the millions of Jews killed in the horrific tragedy of the Shoa. They lost their lives, but they will never lose their names … may the names of these victims never perish. May their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten. And may people of goodwill remain vigilant in rooting out from the heart of man anything that could lead to tragedies like this.”
Then in 2011, he did something no other pope had done before. He wrote a book about the life of Jesus that clearly exonerated the Jews from responsibility for his death.
“Now we must ask,” Benedict wrote, “who exactly were Jesus’ accusers? Who insisted that he be condemned to death? According to John it was simply ‘the Jews.’ But John’s use of this expression does not in any way indicate as the modern reader might suppose — the people of Israel in general … after all John himself was ethnically a Jew, as were Jesus, and all his followers. The entire early Christian community was made up of Jews.” Benedict goes on to say that those responsible were the aristocracy and that the mob “does not refer to the Jewish people.”
As a new pope is about to be elected, there is an important lesson that can be learned from the dramatic changes that have occurred over the past eight decades in the relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people.
The church understands that the founders of its faith were Jews, who not only lived in, but also loved the land of Israel. They also know that there are few churches in the Arab world, and that the State of Israel remains eternally committed to the principle of freedom of religion. We Jews, on the other hand, also need to remember that in a global society we need friends to survive, since there are only 14 million of us left in the world.
Naturally, Jews will continue to have their differences with the church. When popes offend us we should not hesitate to speak up. If the Vatican wants Jerusalem to be divided or internationalized, we should bluntly tell them, nonsense, look at what happened when we tried doing that in Berlin or Vienna. Most importantly, we must continue to engage their leaders so that future popes will not revert back to the church’s infamous past, but will build upon the legacies of Popes John XXIII, John Paul II and Benedict XVI in the 21st century and beyond.
(Rabbi Marvin Hier is the founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance.)