Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world by announcing his resignation, effective the end of February, and there are many ways to think about the significance of the event, including both the challenges and the opportunities in Catholic-Jewish relations that may come in the decision’s wake.
While some Jewish leaders have been troubled over the years by certain comments and actions by the outgoing pontiff, upon close examination, I think we see that there has been little if anything to be disturbed by, and much for which to be quite pleased. In fact, in his relationship to issues relating to Jews and Judaism, Pope Benedict has been, as he has been in regard to so many other matters, a fascinating figure -- deeply principled and highly intellectual, if sometimes frustrating in his seeming to be less than fully aware of the full emotional and public relations implications of some of his words and deeds.
His decision, to return to a Latin Mass which includes a prayer for the conversion of the Jews, could have been handled with greater sensitivity, but the idea that the liturgy is somehow wrong, uncaring, or necessarily damaging to Catholic-Jewish relations, is simply foolish. It is unfair to complain about a text, which has its own parallels in Jewish liturgy, and especially unfair when those doing the complaining still recite Jewish prayers not so different from the mass to which they objected.
Likewise, Pope Benedict’s re-starting WWII era Pope Pius’ path down the road to sainthood disturbed some Jewish leaders. But how many of them have seriously considered the complexity of Pius’ role serving as pontiff under Fascist and Nazi control? How many simply find it convenient to assume that as Pope he could have done much more to save Jews because we want to assume that if blame could be placed we could cope better with the agony of the millions murdered?
Even the pope’s ongoing negotiations to re-integrate excommunicated Bishops who teach clearly anti-Semitic views, and even deny the Holocaust, were handled with far greater care than Benedict was often given credit for. To be sure, this church leaders were engaged in a spirit of reconciliation, but they were also engaged under the premise that their hateful teachings ended once and for all.
In all of these cases, Pope Benedict functioned with his own unique brand of sharp intellect, defense of conservative Catholic teaching, and a genuine spirit of respect for as wide a range of people, both within and beyond the church, as possible. And his fearless commitment to that path, was what informed many of his teachings and actions which discomforted those within his own community.
Repudiating the concept of collective guilt, whether for Jews or for others, the pope marshaled his prodigious intellect and mastery of philosophy and theology to go beyond simply standing against the notion, to building a rock-solid wall against it. He bravely stood in Auschwitz, declaring himself “a son of Germany” and confronted his native country’s role in created the horror of the Holocaust.
Pope Benedict even addressed the church’s history of violence in the name of God, noting “with great shame” the church’s ongoing use of force over the centuries. For Pope Benedict, however painful it may have been to confront, or however uncomfortable it may have made others to hear, the truth had to be told. While all people will not agree with his understanding of the truth, all people should be able to appreciate and admire that kind of spiritual and intellectual integrity.
The central issue, when it comes to Catholic-Jewish relations, is not anything the church has done in recent years or is likely to do in the near future. And while there are certainly confidence building measures which the church, and a more emotionally aware future pope, could undertake, in the end, the most important question in these moments are those asked by each community of itself e.g. “what could we do to improve things with that other group?” That is far more important that assessing what “they”could do for “us”.
For Jews as a group, that would mean to curtailing the common practice of negotiating with the church as aggrieved victims, and instead entering conversations of mutual learning between partners seeking to live God’s will and word, even as we know that we will not always agree as to what that means.
And perhaps even more importantly for most American Jews and Catholics, the real question is how how many of both are struggling with the desire to cling to an identity even as they become increasingly estranged from the institutions through which those identities were traditionally built. That’s a big issue, no matter who is pope, but also best left for another time.