Benedict’s papacy

Benedict truly and sincerely wanted closer relations between the Church and Jews and worked to this end, but good intentions are not always enough.

February 12, 2013 22:38
3 minute read.
Pope Benedict boards a plane at Ben Gurion, May 15, 2009

Pope Benedict boards a plane at Ben Gurion 370. (photo credit: reuters)


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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 Jewish-related controversies.

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.

There 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.

The two 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.

It was 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.

Benedict’s 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 this.

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 spiritual virtues.

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.

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