Benedict XVI, who surprised many this week by being the first pope in seven
centuries to relinquish the papacy before death, will be remembered as a true
friend of the Jewish people. But his eight-year stint was not without its
In many ways, Benedict continued the legacy
of his predecessor John Paul II, who rejected anti-Semitism and supersessionism
(the notion that Christianity supersedes Judaism as the true religion) and who
established diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel.
was very little difference in substance between Benedict’s and John Paul’s
approaches to Judaism and the Jewish people, however when it came to public
relations and delivery, the two were worlds apart.
Benedict’s lack of
charisma and communicative skills sometimes embroiled him in controversies that
John Paul, once referred to as a “papal pop star,” would have either avoided
altogether or succeeded in glossing over with a charm offensive.
popes’ trips to Israel – John Paul’s in 2000 and Benedict’s in 2009 – illustrate
this. While John Paul’s visit was widely regarded as a landmark event in
relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, Benedict left the
impression among many Israelis that more could have been said and done to
assuage suspicions regarding his German background – including a period during
World War II when he was obligated to join the Hitler Youth – his position on
the Holocaust and his theological approach to the Jewish people.
not just that John Paul, who had grown up with Jews in his native Poland, could
convey a genuine warmth toward and familiarity with Judaism.
profound, abstract and deeply philosophical messages and his monotonous,
ponderous style of address came across as cold, distant and lackluster for many
Israelis, particularly in an age of sound bites, narrowing attention spans and
fast-paced media coverage.
Several incidents marred the Church’s
relations with the Jews during Benedict’s stint and were probably exacerbated by
the pope’s weaknesses as a public figure.
There was, for instance, the
Vatican’s decision in 2007 to restore the Latin Mass with the inclusion of a
prayer that seemed to encourage the conversion of the Jews. While Benedict
omitted the original reference to Jewish “blindness” to Jesus, he left in a
passage praying for Jewish recognition of Jesus that was not clearly set in the
context of the end of days.
In another incident, Benedict lifted the
excommunication of four bishops, all members of the Society of Saint Pius X, who
had rebelled against reforms instituted in the Second Vatican Council, a series
of meetings and resolutions between 1962 and 1965 among highest-level clergy
culminating in the Nostra Aetate document that addressed Catholicism’s approach
to modernity and to other religions.
While his intention was to heal a
two-decade old schism, Benedict was inadvertently drawn into a debate over
Holocaust denial. It turned out that one of the four bishops had said publicly
that historical evidence “is hugely against 6 million Jews having been
deliberately gassed,” and that only 200,000 to 300,000 Jews had died in the
Holocaust and that gas chambers were a fiction. Benedict, who has personally
emphasized his intolerance of Holocaust denial, had been unaware of
Due to a lack of communication, Benedict gave many the impression
he sought to advance the cause of sainthood for Pope Pius XII, the WWII-era pope
who has been accused on inaction and silence in the face of the destruction of
European Jewry. In reality, Benedict did not beatify him, which would have been
a step toward sainthood, though he did sign a document declaring Pius’s
In 2010, Benedict also failed to distance himself from
a statement made by a Lebanese clergyman that Catholic theology had “abolished”
the notion of a Promised Land for Jews because the Kingdom of God is for all.
The statement was made by Greek Melkite Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros, a member
of a special Vatican Synod in Rome composed of about 200 bishops, mostly from
Muslim countries, and tasked by Benedict with addressing injustices perpetrated
against Christians in the Middle East.
Benedict truly and sincerely
wanted closer relations between the Church and Jews and worked to this end. But
his style, that of a German professor more comfortable in the world of books and
ideas than in the world of people and mass communications, ultimately hurt his
efforts. Good intentions are not always enough.