Leaders of the Catholic Church were flocking to Rome this week for Pope Benedict’s farewell yesterday and the prelude to the secretive process to choose his successor. Many of the cardinals had cancelled previous arrangements.
But it is a measure of the importance attached to Catholic-Jewish relations that the head of the Vatican council in charge of them still found time to come to the UK to honour his last engagement under Benedict.
Cardinal Kurt Koch, responsible for the dialogue since 2010, was in Cambridge on Tuesday for a lecture programme at the Woolf Institute which also featured Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks.
The Swiss-born cardinal, 62, believes that tributes to the Pope from the Jewish world on his resignation reflects a largely positive appraisal of his period of office.
The Pope was “very engaged” with the dialogue, Cardinal Koch said. “He wanted to deepen the relationship with the Jews. He visited many synagogues, more than [any] pope. He had many audiences with representatives of the Jewish people”.
As for how the dialogue might fare under any successor, he said that Catholic-Jewish ties were “not the private idea of this pope or another”, but an established commitment of the Church.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the ground-breaking Second Vatican Council which led to the Nostra Aetate declaration two years later – and the reverse of the historic teaching of contempt for the Jews.
Benedict had demonstrated that an “antisemitic approach has no place in the Catholic Church”, Cardinal Koch said.
The Church’s talks with the ultra-conservative breakaway sect, the Society for Saint Pius X — from which the Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson was expelled — had made it clear that there was no road back unless it accepted Nostra Aetate, he said.
He took a cautious line on one of the remaining areas of tension between the Vatican and the Jewish community — the controversial move to canonise the wartime Pius XII, who stands accused of failing to do enough to resist the Nazi genocide. The beatification process, the next stage before sainthood, is currently on hold.
“The hope of many people is that we know better the situation of this pope when all the archives are opened,” Cardinal Koch said.
But as signs of progress, he pointed to the continuing dialogue between the Vatican and Israel’s chief rabbis. Theological questions may still be a little too sensitive to appear formally on the agenda but their meetings have discussed the financial crisis and issues of religious leadership.