In praise of the legacy of Pope Benedict
In Judaism, we speak about hakarat hatov, recognizing and reciprocating acts of kindness. Remembering Pope Benedict XVI, who died Dec. 31, calls that Jewish value to mind. In so many ways, he strengthened the bonds between adherents of the Jewish and Catholic faiths, both in his support for the papacy of John Paul II and during his own tenure, from 2005 to 2013.
During his first visit to the United States, in the spring of 2008, Pope Benedict made a historic visit to Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue, thus becoming the first Roman Catholic pontiff to visit a Jewish place of worship in the United States. As host rabbi Arthur Schneier said, “You don’t come into someone’s home unless you wish them well.”
When Pope Benedict was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Israel Singer, formerly of the World Jewish Congress, said he was “the architect of the policy [of healing] that John Paul II fulfilled with regard to relations with the Jews….”
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In many ways, Jews have applauded Benedict’s record in helping heal the breach between Jews and Catholics.
Covenant: As the prefect of the Vatican’s top doctrinal body and then as pope, Benedict joined with his revered predecessor John Paul II in citing Romans 9:11 as a proof text that Jews remain forever in covenant with God. In his installation homily, Benedict reflected the centrality of this fraternal theme, greeting “my brothers and sisters of the Jewish people, to whom we are joined by a great shared spiritual heritage, one rooted in God’s irrevocable promises.”
Messianism: As Cardinal Ratzinger, he oversaw the preparation of “The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible,” a volume that provides a theological explanation for the Jews’ rejection of Jesus, noting that “Jewish messianic expectation is not in vain.” The cardinal taught that the continuing Jewish aspiration for the Messiah is not, in the words of Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee, “an act of rejecting God but is part of God’s plan to remind the world that peace and salvation for all humanity had not yet come, [and] this is amazing. He took something that had been the source of major condemnation of Judaism and the Jewish people down the ages and twisted it into something of a positive theological nature.”
Biblical interpretation: The above-cited document also recognizes rabbinic interpretations of the Torah as legitimate counterparts to the interpretations of the Church fathers. It reads, “Christians can and ought to admit that the Jewish reading of the Bible is a possible one, in continuity with the Jewish Sacred Scriptures from the Second Temple period.” As noted by Dr. Philip A. Cunningham, director of Boston College’s Center for Christian-Jewish Learning, this statement “contradicts centuries of Christian polemic that decried rabbinic Judaism as an illegitimate deformation of biblical Judaism.”
The Shoah and anti-Semitism: Pope John Paul II labeled anti-Semitism as a sin against both humanity and God. Cardinal Ratzinger added to this moral legacy by personally preparing “Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past.” This document outlines the church’s historical errors in its mistreatment of the Jews. “It cannot be denied,” the document concludes, “that a certain insufficient resistance to this atrocity on the part of Christians can be explained by an inherited anti-Judaism present in the hearts of not a few Christians.”
Israel: Cardinal Ratzinger also played a significant role in theologically justifying the Vatican’s diplomatic recognition of Israel in December 1993. No longer were the Jews to be viewed as divinely banished from the Holy Land. Instead, the Jewish return to Eretz Yisrael was part of God’s plan. To this end, the cardinal made several quiet visits to Israel before diplomatic ties were formalized. Shortly after the establishment of formal ties, Cardinal Ratzinger delivered the keynote address at a Jewish-Christian conference in Jerusalem in order to officially express his personal support for Vatican-Israel relations.
With the death of Pope Benedict, we laud his multifold contributions to healing the historic rift between Christians and Jews. May the memory of the legacy of this esteemed pontiff continue to lead the world’s Roman Catholics to lead lives of great piety, of good fellowship with their Jewish brethren, and of profound faith in the Almighty.
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, Ph.D., became rabbi emeritus of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell in 2020; he began there in 1979. He’s headed the Conservative movement’s International Rabbinical Assembly, the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues, the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel, and Mercaz Olami.