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Pope Benedict Was Pretty Good for the Jews

Now it's time to worry about the next one

Getty Images/Jack Guez

Any time a new Pope is named, the Jewish community regards him with skepticism. After all, Catholic-Jewish relations—medieval, modern, and in-between—have not been particularly amicable. When, in 2005, the new Pope was announced to be then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, some saw cause for further alarm: Pope John Paul II's longtime right-hand man on doctrinal issues, Benedict was known to shade conservative. There was also the unfortunate fact that, as a young boy in Germany in the 1940s, Ratzinger had been a member of Hitler Youth and later the army (though this was widely seen as an unavoidable product of circumstances). Still, the Anti-Defamation League managed to project cautious optimism over his appointment.

Nearly eight years later, as Pope Benedict XVI, 85, prepares to become the first pontiff in centuries to retire voluntarily, that optimism had proven to be well founded. "He visits the synagogues and reaches out to the Jewish communities," Abraham Foxman, the ADL's national director,1 told me. "He reiterated the historic changes of the Church vis-à-vis the Jewish people. He went to Israel. He spoke out against anti-Semitism. Did he live up to our hopes? Yes."

There were a handful of controversies, most notably Benedict's de-excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop and the Pope's support for wartime Pope Pius XII's sainthood. But it could've been worse—and there's reason to believe that under the next Pope, it will be worse. 

So where did Il Papa come down on the major issues facing Jews?

The basics. "Slowly and steadily, Benedict made it clear that he continued to uphold the teaching of the Church: that anti-Semitism is incompatible with Christianity, and that the State of Israel has legitimacy in the world community," said Xavier University's Dr. Peter A. Huff, an expert in Catholic studies. Although Benedict did not necessarily allow that Jews would ultimately be saved, he insisted that it was not Catholics' mission to convert them. Deborah Dwork, a professor of Holocaust history at Clark University, was a little more lukewarm. "There are a number of Jewish communities that feel that he has reached out to them and has sought to maintain the tradition of a special relationship between Judaism and Catholicism—‘you are the root, we are the branch,'" she said. "I am not part of that group. As a historian, my own analysis is that it is a far more complicated and fraught legacy."

Pope Pius XII. After initially putting it on hold, Benedict continued John Paul's goal of making Pius, the pope from 1939 to 1958 who has been widely accused of not speaking out or doing enough to protect the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust, a saint. He opened the door to Pius' beatification in 2009, paving the way toward eventual canonization. "Mussolini himself thought that the Pope did worse than Mussolini's own parish priest from his little village," said Dwork. She continued: "The Church can beatify and canonize whomever it wishes. That is the Church's department. My department, as a Holocaust historian, is to weigh in on the history of Pope Pius XII, and I know well that Pope Pius XII did far less than he ever could have done to save Jews." Huff downplayed the controversy somewhat: "It is true that Benedict and many Catholics continue to venerate Pius, and Benedict has been quite clear in his intent to move forward the canonization of Pius. But that seems to be on the slow track. Now, with the news of today, we wonder if that will stall indefinitely."

Vatican II. Besides being an important event in Catholic history, Pope John XXIII's Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was a watershed in Catholic-Jewish relations. Among other things, it approved a document stating that Jews, both at the time and forever after, were and are not in particular responsible for Jesus's death—a repudiation of millennia of Catholic dogma. In fact, Benedict helped write Vatican II's documents as a young, relatively liberal bishop. As Pope, Benedict reached out to several conservative Catholic groups that have not fully assimilated Vatican II's teachings. Still, on paper—and more than just on paper—like John Paul before him, Benedict reigned over a Vatican that, in the spirit of Vatican II, was self-consciously more progressive than ever before.

The Latin Mass. Vatican II put vernacular Masses on a much higher footing than the traditional Latin Mass. This seeming internal Church matter nonetheless pleased the Jewish community greatly, because parts of the Latin Mass can be interpreted as supersessionist—advocating that Jesus and his teachings superseded Judaism—and because the Latin Mass' Good Friday liturgy refers to "perfidis Judaeis," "the faithless Jews." But both John Paul and Benedict—who turned conservative after the 1968 student protests—worked to rejuvenate the Latin Mass, culminating in Benedict's 2007 decree that priests no longer require special permission to perform it. However, according to Huff, this does not include the Good Friday section. "Benedict said this Mass will not be used on Good Friday," Huff explained. "He said the most controversial part of the old Latin Mass—that had been dealt with by John XXIII, and after Vatican II, the Catholic Church is not going to use those prayers." But this was not everything that worried Jews could have hoped for: "The unfortunate thing," Huff added, "is [Benedict] did not directly address the very question. It would have been helpful if he would have said, ‘These prayers are no longer representative of Church teaching.'" A spokesperson for Opus Dei, the conservative Catholic institution, defended Benedict's moves: "He believes that the post-Vatican Council Mass is normative for the Church. But he also realizes that there are a lot of people who feel a deep sense of the beauty of the older form of the Mass. He's trying to reach out to those people." Dwork was less charitable than both Opus Dei and Huff: Of Vatican II, she said, "He undermined it at every point possible." Meanwhile, there is still a prayer on Good Friday for the Jews, but there are similar, benevolent prayers for many peoples. 

The Holocaust-denying bishop. As part of his outreach to the conservative Society of Saint Pius X, Benedict lifted the excommunications of four bishops, and it turned out that one, Englishman Richard Williamson, doubted that Hitler had killed six million Jews. It's likely that Benedict was unaware of this—at the time, the Church's liaison for Vatican-Jewish relations declined to comment, but with the ominous quote, "I have my opinions about it." Still, it is notable that it happened in the first place because Benedict actively sought outreach to the far-right Society. (Indeed, this was a rare place where Benedict veered from his predecessor: It was John Paul who had excommunicated the bishops in question.)

Israel. Benedict was essentially John Paul's top adviser (though not on diplomacy) when the Vatican and Israel formalized ties in 1993-94. In 2009, Benedict visited Israel, stopping off at the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem. Haaretz reports today that relations between the Vatican and Israel improved during Benedict's tenure. "No major issues," Foxman said. "The Church has tried to play the evenhanded role—nothing dramatic either way. The relationships did improve on a pragmatic level."

As for what the future holds...

"This is the end of the Vatican II popes," Huff told me. In other words, whoever comes next will have been active exclusively in a Catholic Church already transformed by that council, and therefore may not realize the sensitivity of some of these issues. Furthermore, many observers, including Huff, believe that we are about to see the first modern non-European pope, in recognition of the fact that Catholicism is primarily a non-European religion.2 And this could mean that issues of Jewish concern get back-burnered. "Some leaders in the Church are extremely seasoned and sensitive to Catholic-Jewish relationships, and some are not," Huff said. "The next person can't deny Church teaching, but he may or may not emphasize the way you would expect." The list of likely successors includes cardinals from Ghana, Argentina, Honduras, and Sri Lanka. They may not be quite as well-versed in the ecumenical language, postures, and policy positions that have kept the Abe Foxmans and Jewish rank-and-file more or less happy. On the other hand, the betting odds are currently 25:1 that the next Pope will be Cardinal Timothy Dolan. As archbishop of New York, home to the most Jews outside of Israel, he is practiced in the art of Catholic-Jewish relations.

  1. Born Jewish, Foxman survived the Holocaust after being baptized by his Catholic nanny, with whom his parents left him when the Germans forced them into a ghetto. He later returned to Judaism.

  2. Although you can never count out the possibility of yet another Italian getting the nod.