Pope Benedict XVI’s recent visit to the Great Synagogue in Rome was by far his most effective gesture to the Jewish people. After misreading his audience during his trip to Israel, Benedict spoke to Jewish hearts and minds at the Rome synagogue.
The move came none too soon. Jewish-Catholic relations have had a rocky ride under Benedict’s papacy, leaving Jews and Catholics alike to doubt the future of Catholic-Jewish relations.
In July 2007, the Vatican authorized the wider use of the Tridentine Mass with its Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the Jews. In January 2009, the pope lifted the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop, Richard Williamson, and three other bishops of the Society of Pope Pius X. The renegade group rejects the Second Vatican Council’s salutary changes in Catholic teaching toward Jews and Judaism, and its Web site featured repugnant anti-Semitic canards.
Last June, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement – later retracted – that Catholics in interfaith dialogue should evangelize to Jews and extend to them an implicit invitation to the Church.
And several weeks ago, Benedict issued a decree advancing sainthood for the Holocaust-era pope, Pius XII, whose record during the Holocaust remains a legitimate historical question and is the subject of a deep emotional disagreement between some in the Vatican and Jewish leaders.
Vatican II’s official document, Nostra Aetate, proclaimed that the Church deplores all forms of anti-Semitism, that the living covenant between God and the Jewish people is irrevocable, and that the charge of deicide is utterly baseless.
Yet the recent steps taken by Benedict had led some professionals in Jewish-Catholic dialogue to question whether these breathtaking teachings are still operative Catholic theology.
Benedict addressed most of these concerns at the Great Synagogue. His visit affirmed – in word and in deed – that he wishes to continue the policy of warm relations with the Jewish people established by his saintly predecessor, John Paul II.
He stressed that the Second Vatican Council marked a significant and irreversible transformation in the Church’s attitude to the Jewish people and signaled the Church’s irrevocable commitment to a dialogue of brotherhood and mutual understanding with Jews.
Reflecting on the terrible history of Jewish-Catholic relations that culminated in the Holocaust, Benedict repeated John Paul’s poignant prayer asking for forgiveness for Catholics who caused Jewish suffering. He also reiterated what he said at Auschwitz in 2006: Because the Jewish people remain witnesses to God’s presence and to divine revelation at Sinai, Hitler knew that to destroy God and God’s moral law, he needed to murder the Jewish people first. This is an enormously significant theological statement, acknowledging that Jews and Judaism continue to play an essential role in the unfolding of God’s plan for humanity.
Yet serious pitfalls remain between the Church and the Jewish people. It seems that Benedict still will be forced to choose at times between appealing to arch-traditionalists among the Catholic faithful and strengthening the Church’s new relationship with the Jewish people. Moreover, pursuing Pius XII’s sainthood before the historical record is clarified is certain to cause public disagreement between the Vatican and the Jewish people, and inflict pain on Jews whose loved ones were murdered in the Holocaust.
One continuing disappointment for informed Jews and Catholics over the past 50 years has been that the wonderful teachings of Nostra Aetate and post-conciliar documents relating to Catholic-Jewish relations have not filtered down sufficiently to priests and worshipers in the pews. Too many Catholics are still unaware of the depth and beauty of Nostra Aetate. Nor are Jews as aware as they should be about post-Vatican II teachings about Judaism.
In light of Benedict’s reaffirmation of the irrevocable validity of these teachings, now would be the perfect time for the Vatican to take positive steps to permanently root the new Catholic-Jewish relationship in the minds of all Catholics.
This could be done in a number of ways, such as rigorously implementing the existing mandate to teach Nostra Aetate to all Catholic worshipers and seminarians, promoting the study of Pope John Paul II’s teachings about the Jewish people and Judaism, and perhaps instituting a non-conversionary prayer for today’s Jewish people and for the Jewish state on the Feast of St. James, the patron saint of Jerusalem. Jewish leaders also must teach Jews of the significance and content of Nostra Aetate and later Vatican documents about Catholic-Jewish relations if Jews are to understand Catholics and their faith.
As Nostra Aetate teaches, Jews and Catholics share a common spiritual patrimony. Catholic-Jewish reconciliation is one of God’s great blessings, one that inspires all people around the world. Because if the Church and the Jewish people can make peace with each other after nearly 2,000 years of enmity, then peace is possible between any two peoples anywhere. It is too important for Jews, for Catholics, and for the world to allow to lapse, and too important to be spoken about only on special occasions.
Jews and Catholics both have responsibility to do what they can to ensure that future obstacles to mutual understanding and respect are overcome, and that the Church and the Jewish people remain living witnesses to hope for a more peaceful future for all God’s children.