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The pope and the Jews: How are we to assess Benedict’s legacy?

While his supporters speak of Pope Benedict XVI with admiration, the historian of Jewry and the papacy, looking at him with the more balanced eye of posterity, may well come to a different judgment. [Janek Skarzynski | AFP via Getty Images]

In 2005, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elevated to the See of St. Peter as Pope Benedict XVI — only the second non-Italian in 400 years (his predecessor was the first) — one of the first things that most people heard about him was that he was a former member of the Hitler Youth. Born in 1927, he was compulsorily enrolled at 14, and a couple of years later, in 1943, he was drafted into the German armed forces, serving until he deserted on the approach of Allied troops in 1945. Berlin fell just after his eighteenth birthday, and he was interned by the Allies for a while before taking up his studies for the priesthood.

Even without such a record, relations between the new pope and the Jews, and between the new pope and the state of Israel, were bound to be tense. Ratzinger was a German, at a time when Jews could not forget or ignore German responsibility for the Holocaust; and he was an increasingly, and uncompromisingly, conservative Christian theologian at a time when the world was changing radically and quickly in both social and religious terms.

In 2005, barely sixty years after the end of the Holocaust, the elevation of a man who had, however unwillingly, served Hitler gave an unwelcome face to a Roman Catholic Church that was still having difficulty coming to terms with its own past — a past which included much persecution of Jews and outright and deep-rooted hostility to Judaism, and with the fact of a Jewish state. That pope himself lacked a certain flexibility and the willingness to discard past doctrines that the times called for.

Israel and the Jews are not, of course, the only or the main concern of Christianity, or even of its central administrative organ, but for several reasons both acquired special importance after 1945. The Church’s record during the Second World War, when Pius XII had visibly not done much to help save Jews, even those living on his doorstep in the city of Rome — a record that to this day remains highly controversial — made the creation or the re-building of relations with Jewry difficult. That task was made still harder by the decision of the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Anton Zolli, following the Allied liberation of the city, to enter the Vatican City, where in February 1945 he converted to Christianity.

The re-birth of a Jewish state in the aftermath of the war presented the Church with theological problems that it found itself ill-equipped — for intellectual reasons as much as because of the traditionalist and almost instinctive anti-Jewish sentiments of many church leaders — to respond to. And the existence of that state in territory that was sacred to Christians as the land where Jesus had walked and preached made papal recognition of the Jewish state of Israel appear an impossibility.

All these obstacles were, slowly and stumblingly, overcome, but with Ratzinger’s election in 2005 it appeared almost as if a page was being turned back, as if the Church was taking on board, not the trends of thinking that conscience and the modern world had made inescapable, but reactionary and even illegitimate attitudes and ideas of the past.

No longer did the Church accept, as it had begun with difficulty to do, that there could be other paths to God and salvation outside Roman Catholicism. Instead, it held, in a document entitled Dominus Iesus, authored by Cardinal Ratzinger himself as recently as 2000, that “salvation is found in no one else” than Jesus. Judaism and Jews might be tolerated — we live in a world of generally charitable attitudes, after all — but the Church, the document said, “support[s] the evangelizing mission of the Church, above all in connection with the religious traditions of the world.” Which is to say, missionising among Jews — which is abhorrent and unacceptable to Jews themselves — was back.

Benedict did not do himself or the church any favours. Piano-playing and undoubtedly amiable though he may have been, Benedict was also a man of stern rigidity when it came to the central questions of his faith. The Church was the final arbiter on matters of faith and religious truth; Jesus was, as he had aways been, the one and only path to God. As he wrote in Dominus Iesus: “If it is true that the followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.” He went on:

Inter-religious dialogue, therefore, as part of her evangelizing mission, is just one of the actions of the Church in her mission ad gentes. Equality, which is a presupposition of inter-religious dialogue, refers to the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not to doctrinal content, nor even less to the position of Jesus Christ — who is God himself made man — in relation to the founders of the other religions. Indeed, the Church, guided by charity and respect for freedom, must be primarily committed to proclaiming to all people the truth definitively revealed by the Lord, and to announcing the necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ and of adherence to the Church through Baptism and the other sacraments, in order to participate fully in communion with God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

With such attitudes, it is not surprising that Ratzinger’s actions as pope left little room for surprise. He visited Auschwitz, but rather than acknowledging Christian responsibility for the historic foundations of the relations between Christian and Jew that had led there, he called Nazism “madness” and said, “By destroying Israel, they ultimately wanted to tear up the tap root of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention.” He visited synagogues, in Cologne and in New York, but he also rescinded the excommunication of a bishop who was a Holocaust denier (criticism of that action was met with Vatican denials that it had known about the bishop’s record). He changed the Good Friday prayer to delete the offensive reference to Jewish “blindness”, but the new version called on Jews to recognise Jesus Christ as “saviour of all men”. He knew, better than many, the record of Pius XII, but he made a point of giving him the title “Venerable”, a step on the path to sainthood (taking care to do the same for John Paul II at the same time).

As in other contexts, the man is not the institution, nor the institution the man. But when the institution claims to be the repository of eternal values and absolute truth, and the man God’s representative on Earth, the attitudes expressed and actions undertaken call for a degree of responsibility beyond that of the conventional pieties of peace and brotherly love.

Reactions to Benedict’s passing have been predictably mixed. President Joe Biden, a Catholic himself, spoke of “a lifetime of devotion to the Church, guided by his principles and faith.” The Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, in some sense a friendly rival, described him respectfully and diplomatically as “one of the greatest theologians of his age — committed to the faith of the Church and stalwart in its defence.” American television networks outdid each other in boorishness, with Anne Thompson of NBC calling him “cartoonish” and Chris Livesay on CBS speaking of him as a “rigid enforcer of church policy” — as if the head of the Catholic Church should be anything else.

The American Jewish Committee, for its part, aware of the need for continuing dialogue even if progress is measured in millimetres and centuries, recognised the difficulty of the challenges he and the Church confronted. Showing a measured thoughtfulness, it called Benedict “a true friend of the Jewish people” and pointed, in connection with its own special concerns, to his emphasis on “the unique relationship between Christianity and Judaism”, as he “continued the path of reconciliation and friendship with world Jewry blazed by his predecessor, John Paul II.”

Any observer will recognise that this pope’s legacy is mixed, not least because of the perceived character of the man. While his supporters and followers in the Church speak of him with admiration and love, and Pope Francis calls him “so noble, so kind”, the historian of Jewry and the papacy, looking at him with the more balanced eye of posterity, may well come to a different judgement.


(c) 2023, ABC


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