Review: No going back: Letters to Pope Benedict XVI

Dear Pope, why don’t you…


Carol Rittner & Stephen Smith (Eds)
Quill Press, £10

It’s a brilliant idea. Invite 40 people to put down in letter form what they would say if they had five minutes to address the Pope, turn it into a book and time publication to coincide with the Papal visit to the Middle East.

The recipient of all this advice, Pope Benedict XVI, was born Joseph Ratzinger in Bavaria in 1927. Behind confused reports from the Vatican, it appears he was compelled to join the Hitler Youth at 14 but did not attend meetings. After a distinguished, career as a theological conservative, he was elected to succeed John Paul II as Pope. John Paul had also been a conservative but was a progressive when it came to Catholic-Jewish relations.

The letter writers are American, Israeli and British. Almost all the Americans are academics and the Catholics among them give the Pope a hard time. They bridle at his longstanding reluctance to acknowledge the unsuperseded covenant with the Jewish people and his possible inability to see Judaism as a source of salvation independent of Christ.

They also castigate him for his recent “insensitivities” — over the re-wording of a Good Friday prayer, the rehabilitation of the British Holocaust-denier, Bishop Williamson, and the defence of the wartime Pope Pius XII (and of Martin Luther).

The Jewish American academics are more muted but equally alarmed. While huge progress has been made in the United States since the promulgation of Nostra Aetate by Pope Paul VI, the mutual understanding and respect built up over the ensuing 40 years is now genuinely threatened.

The Israeli contributors are rather self-critical, wondering if they have shown enough interest in Christianity (or Islam). One psychology professor, a former hidden child, calls for more forgiveness and less ego. Several Israeli Christians feature, lamenting the exodus of Christians from the Holy Land.

The British contributors are, perhaps predictably, more polite. Yet, whether it be the Jew Ed Kessler or the Christian Marcus Braybrooke, enthusiasm for Pope Benedict is hard to find.

We Jews today tend to embody the old joke: “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me.” Not completely true — we do have genuine friends. This book is evidence that there are significant numbers of people who empathise.

But, sadly, two of the British contributions trouble me. The first is by Christine E King, vice-chancellor and chief executive of Staffordshire University, who focuses entirely on the 20,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses banned from their religious work under the Nazis. They stood up for their values and stuck to their principles of non-violence: “The iron strength of Witnesses… and their ability to turn belief into action, whatever the cost, became the heart of a serious resistance and challenge to the Nazis.” They are the victims whose example we should follow, says Professor King. What is Pope Benedict to make of that?

There is only one Muslim voice in the entire book, which may reflect the revelation in the book’s introduction that some people turned down the invitation to contribute.

I was initially delighted to see that the one Muslim contributor was Abdal Hakim Murad (aka Tim Winter), lecturer in Islamic Studies at Cambridge. It was Winter who rescued Ed Husain, author of The Islamist, from his entrapment in Islamist fundamentalism. But what does Winter have to say? He compares the treatment of the Palestinians by Israel with the Shoah, and the notion of a Jewish state with Apartheid. He quotes Neturei Karta with approval and urges Pope Benedict to side with the Palestinians against Israel.

We do have friends within the British Muslim community but it isn’t always easy to convince people of that fact.

Rabbi Dr Tony Bayfield is head of the Movement for Reform Judaism

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