ROME — Pope Benedict XVI’s eight-year reign was at times a bumpy one for the Vatican’s relations with Israel and Jews. But it was also a period in which relations were consolidated and fervent pledges made to continue interfaith dialogue and bilateral cooperation.
Both elements were evident in the tributes that flowed from Jewish leaders following the surprise announcement Monday that due to his advanced age and weakening health, Benedict would step down on Feb. 28. The 85-year-old pontiff is the first pope to resign since the 15th century.
“Pope Benedict followed a giant, John Paul II, who made historic inroads in Jewish-Christian relations,” said Rabbi Alan Silverstein of Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell and past president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Judaism.
“It isn’t whether Pope Benedict, if he had been given more time, would have done more to pioneer in additional ways as well,” Silverstein told NJJN in a Feb. 11 phone interview. “The fact that he was willing to go to synagogues was a good thing. Prior to John Paul II, popes did not do that. Benedict certainly was a friend of the Jewish community, but he did not add a lot to what he had done as part of John Paul II’s team.”
“There were bumps in the road during this papacy,” Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman said in a statement. “But he listened to our concerns and tried to address them, which shows how close our two communities have become in the last half-century and how much more work we need to do together to help repair a broken world.”
Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations at the American Jewish Committee, told NJJN he felt a number of emotions on hearing the news: “gratitude that notwithstanding bumps in the road Pope Benedict followed John Paul II in affirming the historic change in the relationship between Catholics and Jews, empathy for his pursuit of his religious traditions during a time when the church faces demographic changes and difficult moments particularly because of the sex scandals that have dominated the news, and anxiety because Jews do not know what the future holds in Jewish-Catholic relations.”
“We can only say the foundation is very strong, but a foundation needs to be tended lest it erode,” Marans said in a Feb. 12 phone interview.
Rabbi Alan Brill, Cooperman/Ross Endowed Chair of Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University, told NJJN, “Pope Benedict was quite positive and committed to Jewish-Catholic relations,” but, Brill added, “he lacked getting his message across. He was not a great communicator. He enhanced the relationship, but nobody can see the enhancement.”
As pope, Benedict met frequently with Jewish groups and visited synagogues in several countries. His first trip abroad as pontiff was to his native Germany. There he made it a point to visit the synagogue in Cologne and issued a strong condemnation of anti-Semitism and “the insane racist ideology” that led to the Holocaust. The visit marked only the second time a pope had visited a synagogue. Benedict later visited synagogues in Rome and New York.
He also confronted his troubled past in Poland in 2006 when he visited Auschwitz and, declaring himself “a son of Germany,” prayed for victims of the Holocaust, as well as on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009 when he visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and met with Holocaust survivors.
Under Benedict’s leadership, the Vatican “has been a clear voice against racism and anti-Semitism and a clear voice for peace,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said in a statement. “Relations between Israel and the Vatican are the best they have ever been, and the positive dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people is a testament to his belief in dialogue and cooperation.”
Benedict was elected pontiff in April 2005 following the death of Polish-born Pope John Paul II. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he had been a close friend and adviser to the charismatic John Paul II, who had made fostering better relations with the Jews a cornerstone of his nearly 27-year papacy.
Benedict’s personal history also helped shape this commitment. Born in Bavaria, he grew up in an anti-Nazi Catholic family but, like all teenagers, was obligated to join the Hitler Youth organization and was conscripted into the German army. Eventually he deserted.
As a young theologian in the 1960s, Benedict attended the Second Vatican Council, which aimed to liberalize the Church. In 1965, the council promulgated the “Nostra Aetate” declaration that opened the way to Catholic-Jewish dialogue. Benedict repeatedly reaffirmed commitment to Nostra Aetate’s teachings.
Still, several issues that emerged during his tenure called that commitment into question, casting a shadow over Catholic-Jewish relations.
These included reviving a pre-Vatican II Good Friday Latin prayer that called for the conversion of Jews, moving the Holocaust-era Pope Pius XII one step closer to sainthood, and reaching out to a breakaway ultra-traditionalist group, the Society of St. Pius X, in an effort to bring it back into the mainstream Catholic fold. In doing so, Benedict revoked the excommunication of four of the movement’s bishops, one of whom turned out to be a Holocaust denier.
Vatican officials said a conclave of cardinals will be convened in March to elect a new pope. But there is no clear indication as to who might be picked, or from what country or continent he might come. Vatican observers said that since all the cardinals eligible to vote for a new pope had been appointed either by John Paul II or Benedict, whoever is elected would probably follow similar overall policies.
Like John Paul II, Benedict is a doctrinal conservative, staunchly opposed to female priests, gay marriage, abortion, birth control, and divorce.
“History will view Benedict as the last of the traditional European pontiffs, the last pope who personally experienced World War II and the Holocaust, and one of the last Catholic leaders to have participated in the historic Second Vatican Council,” said Rabbi James Rudin, the AJC’s senior interreligious adviser, who first met Ratzinger in the 1970s.
The next pope will have to deal with fallout from scandals that tainted Benedict’s reign, from continuing accusations of sex abuse by priests to a security breach that saw Benedict’s butler leaking the pope’s private papers to a reporter. It remains to be seen, however, whether fostering Jewish-Catholic relations will receive less attention under a younger and possibly non-European pope without the historic memory of the Holocaust and Vatican II.
“Doctrinally this will never happen, but in terms of visibility and engagement, that may happen if he is from a place where there is no significant Jewish community present today or in the very recent past,” said Rabbi David Rosen, the AJC’s international director of interreligious affairs.
Rosen added, however, that a non-European pope might be less encumbered by the burdens of the past. “Past tragedy and past failure are not the best basis for a long-term future relationship,” he said. “This has to be based upon nurturing the sense of common patrimony, roots. Some African cardinals are better in this regard than many European ones.”
NJJN staff writer Robert Wiener contributed to this article.