Prime Minister Netanyahu welcomes Pope Benedict to Israel in 2009
By Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger)
Ignatius Press, £14.95
Pope Benedict XVI has, like his predecessor, John Paul II, forcefully rejected antisemitism in its many guises. At a personal level, he has good relations with many Jews. During his 2009 visit to Israel, he forthrightly acknowledged its security concerns. And he was clearly moved during his meeting with Jonathan Sacks when he visited the UK, quoting from the Chief Rabbi's book, The Home We Build Together.
But Benedict's rule has also already witnessed a number of undesirable developments, including the controversial proposal for the canonisation of wartime Pope Pius XII, which was postponed only due to criticism from within and outside the Church; the revised Tridentine Rite Good Friday prayer, which calls explicitly for conversion of Jews; the attempted re-admittance of four excommunicated bishops from the Society of St Pius X, including Holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson; and growing tensions between the Vatican and Israel.
In Jesus of Nazareth – Part II, he shows a positive attitude towards the Jewish religious tradition and emphasises Christianity's deep connections with it. Although Benedict XVI stipulated in the first volume that he writes as an individual theologian rather than as head of the Roman Catholic Church, his comments inevitably carry weight and will be read by millions, particularly in the lead up to Easter.
The Pope rejects the idea that "the Jews killed Christ" and also suggests that Christianity should not concern itself with the conversion of Jews.
It has been stated that he "exonerates" the Jewish people from all blame but this is not quite accurate. More than four decades ago, the Vatican formally rejected the idea of collective Jewish culpability in the Second Vatican Council document Nostra Aetate, condemning the charge of deicide used for centuries by Christians to justify the persecution of Jews.
The Pope devotes three pages to the infamous passage in Matthew's Gospel in which "the Jews" demand Jesus's execution, shouting to Pontius Pilate: "Let his blood be on us and on our children." The mob, says Benedict, does not represent the Jewish people, but humanity in general. He does, though, acknowledge that the phrase in Matthew has been used down the centuries to justify Christian antisemitism, with "grave consequences".
On conversion, the Pope clearly argues that the church should not be targeting Jews. This is important and under-reported. At first glance, the following statement seems innocuous: "Israel is in the hands of God, who will save it… at the proper time, when the number of Gentiles is full". However, the historical duration of this "proper time," Benedict says, cannot be calculated. In terms of the proper Christian attitude in the meantime, "the church must not concern herself with the conversion of the Jews, since she must wait for the time fixed for this by God."
The Christian truth claim is not dissimilar to the Jewish expectation that, at a time of God's choosing, everyone will bow down to the God of Israel. The important question is how to behave to one another in the meantime. According to the Pope, there is no specific need for the Church to convert Jews, which is in God's hands.
The theological argument laid out by the German-born pontiff, who has had his share of mishaps as far as Jews (and Muslims) are concerned, will help Christians in combating antisemitism and stemming missionary activity.
His conciliatory remarks about Judaism are powerful because they are grounded in scholarship rather than inter-faith diplomacy and delivered by the leader of 800 million Christians.