Analysis: It's been a bumpy road, but this Pope wants to be our ally

By Ed Kessler, September 2, 2010
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The Pope when still Cardinal Ratzinger, known as “God’s rottweiler”

The Pope when still Cardinal Ratzinger, known as “God’s rottweiler”

Pope Benedict XVI started his papacy in 2005, expressing a desire to follow in the footsteps of John Paul II, for whom reconciliation with Jews and Judaism was a high priority. Since then, Catholic-Jewish relations have not received as much Vatican attention although they continue to face significant challenges.

Under Benedict, there have been controversies over the canonisation of wartime Pope Pius XII, which is supported by the present Pope; the revised Tridentine Rite Good Friday prayer, written by Benedict himself, which calls for conversion of Jews; and his re-admittance of four excommunicated bishops from the Society of St Pius X, including Holocaust-denier Bishop Richard Williamson.

However, there have been some notable successes, such as the sensitive and well-received address by the Pope at the Rome synagogue in January 2010 and his successful visit to Israel in May 2009.

What will the forthcoming papal visit demonstrate - more bumps in the road of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation or cause for cautious optimism?

Pope Benedict clearly rejects antisemitism in any form, and has said so on many occasions. However, his remarks on the Holocaust have raised some concern as he presents it as primarily a neo-pagan phenomenon which had no roots in Christianity. As Pope he has not acknowledged that Christianity provided an indispensable seedbed for the widespread support, or at least acquiescence, on the part of large numbers of Christians during the Shoah, although as Cardinal Ratzinger he did acknowledge some understanding of the link between traditional Christian antisemitism and nazism.

In a front page article in the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, in December 2000, he argued that "it cannot be denied that a certain insufficient resistance to this atrocity on the part of Christians can be explained by the inherited anti-Judaism in the hearts of not a few Christians".

The Vatican also adopts a totally "defensive" posture on Pius XII and the Holocaust, highlighting the work only of scholars who support its view, some of whose scholarship has been highly questioned, and ignoring the work of reputable Christian and Jewish scholars who take a more critical stance.

Former editor of the Catholic Herald, Gerard Noel, suggests in his book, Pius XII: The Hound of Hitler, that at another time Pius might have made a fine Pope, but in the one that also contained Hitler he found himself politically and diplomatically at a loss.

There is no question that Pope Benedict has a personal affection for Jews and Judaism and that he hopes for a positive relationship with the global Jewish community. There will be evidence of this during his UK visit.

In the Rome synagogue, it was significant that he pledged his support for the teachings of Vatican II and his predecessor John Paul Il, although he has contributed nothing new to the theological understanding of the church's relationship with the Jewish people.

Critics will suggest that for the most part, he shows little awareness that the vision of the Christian-Jewish relationship launched at Vatican II represents a fundamental challenge to central aspects of Christian theological self-understanding. It is evident that Pope Benedict has downgraded inter-religious dialogue in importance - the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue no longer contains the expertise it once did - and the Pope seems to prefer inter-cultural dialogue, rather than religious conversation with other faiths.

The more cautious will hope for no further backward steps and it is true that few observers expect to see any major new developments at the theological level. However, the more optimistic will point out that relations with Jews remain of high importance to this Pope, certainly in comparison with the other faith communities.

Dr Ed Kessler, founder and director, Woolf Institute, Cambridge. Dr Kessler is giving the Institute for Jewish Policy Research lecture in London on September 20, entitled 'The Pope and the Jewish People'

    Last updated: 11:10am, September 16 2011