The papacy of Benedict XVI has been a challenging time for Catholic-Jewish relations. He entered the papacy in 2005 expressing a desire to follow the footsteps of his predecessor Pope John Paul II.
Having met him in 2011, there is no question in my mind that Pope Benedict has a personal affection for Jews and Judaism and that he sought a positive relationship with Jewish communities around the world.
On a theological level, however, he has not contributed anything constructive to the development of a new understanding of the church’s relationship with the Jewish people. His revised 2008 Good Friday prayer in fact moved the theology of the Christian-Jewish relationship some steps backwards.
There have been other controversies, such as the proposed canonisation of wartime Pope Pius XII, which he supported but due to criticism from inside and outside the Church is currently postponed; the attempted re-admittance of four excommunicated bishops from the Society of St Pius X, including Holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson; and tensions between the Vatican and Israel.
Nevertheless, like his predecessor, Pope Benedict has been forceful in his rejection of antisemitism in all forms, but he differs regarding the origins of the Holocaust. He presents it primarily as a neo-pagan phenomenon which has no roots in Christianity.
For Benedict, the Holocaust constituted a fundamental challenge to all religious belief and he made no mention of the contribution of the Church.
As for Israel, he successfully walked a tightrope, although he could not match the accomplishments of the Polish Pope, who ensured the Vatican recognised Israel in 1994 and who made a pilgrimage there in 2000.
Benedict’s visit in 2009 was a success, striking a delicate balance between acknowledging the need for greater justice for the Palestinians and the legitimate concerns of Israel for security. Looking to the future, there are appear to be two major issues:
1) If peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians open, as part of Barack Obama’s forthcoming initiative, the Holy See will be forced to react publicly to the process. How such a reaction is worded will be critical.
2) The vision of Christian-Jewish relations launched at Vatican II remains a fundamental challenge. My aspiration is for the next Pope to declare unequivocally that the teachings of Vatican II represent the true spirit of the Church, from which there is no return.