The decision of Pope Benedict XVI to resign shocked the world today setting off a wave of speculation about the outcome of the upcoming conclave of the College of Cardinals that will choose his successor. The next pope will have a long agenda of issues to deal with as the Church grapples with calls for liberalization of doctrine from within its ranks as well as from non-Catholics. There is also the cardinals’ choice will reflect a desire to reach out to the Third World in a way that reflects the Church’s future. These are issues that are beyond the scope of this blog and are for the Church and its adherents to resolve without comment one way or the other from us. But the transition from Benedict to the next generation at the Vatican is an apt moment to acknowledge the unique achievements of this pope and his predecessor on a topic on which we have a lot to say: Catholic-Jewish relations.
It has long been acknowledged that Benedict’s papacy was a transitional era that in many ways marked the conclusion of the era begun by the previous pope, John Paul II. Though naysayers can point to individual incidents in which some of the Vatican’s decision rubbed Jews the wrong way, an honest assessment of these two papacies must note that these men helped change a long and contentious history of Catholic-Jewish conflict and ill feeling into one in which the two faiths can truly be said to be partners and friends. Whatever else John Paul and Benedict accomplished, they must be considered heroes for their work toward ridding the Church of a legacy of 2,000 years of anti-Semitism and recognizing the legitimacy of the State of Israel. The modern papacy is largely their work and they deserve the gratitude of all people of faith for that.
On this score, Benedict who labored under the stigma of his German birth and brief service in Hitler’s army did not get as much credit as he deserved. Though nothing he did matched the symbolism of the way the first Polish pope embraced the Jewish people in a heartfelt manner, his service to John Paul and his actions while leading the Vatican, Benedict carried on his predecessors work on this issue.
Benedict was criticized for his efforts toward reinstating the Latin mass, which in one part contained a prayer for the conversation of Jews that most Jews thought offensive. But Benedict was quite clear that this was not a license to reinstate the Church’s abandoned efforts to proselytize Jews. Those who wished to judge Benedict harshly for this should have remembered that Jewish tradition instructs us to judge people by their deeds and in that respect, Benedict’s efforts to continue John Paul’s work was largely exemplar. Catholic doctrine about what will happen at the end of days should be of as little concern to Jews as Jewish ideas about the Messianic era should be to Catholics.
It should also be stated that under both John Paul and Benedict, the Papacy has been a bulwark of support for the cause of freedom against tyranny. In the battle against the evil empire of the former Soviet Union, the Pope’s divisions, as Stalin would have put it, were formidable assets in the struggle to overthrow Communism. Whatever changes occur in the Church in the future under the next pope, we hope that it will remain true to the legacy of John Paul and Benedict in this respect.