Despite some missteps, Benedict XVI was a committed friend to the Jews
The 2019 film The Two Popes presents Francis as a warm, avuncular man of the people.
His predecessor Benedict XVI, the Pope Emeritus who was buried in the Vatican on Thursday, could not be more different, at least in the film’s narrative. He is portrayed as a cold, hard pope who is out of step with the pastoral needs of the modern world.
While the film offered a faithful portrayal of Francis, it fell short of Benedict’s goal, said Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interfaith affairs for the American Jewish Committee. “I think it was unfair to Benedict precisely because it didn’t capture his humor and warmth.”
Not only in Hollywood did Benedikt’s image contradict reality.
From the beginning of his pontificate, Benedict—born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger in Germany in 1927—was viewed with suspicion by many Jews. He had been drafted into the Hitler Youth and then into the Bundeswehr as a teenager, and although he came from an anti-Nazi family and avoided active participation, his past certainly did not endear him to Jewish-Catholic relations.
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He also had a hard act to follow. Pope John Paul II, who he succeeded, was a pioneer in the Church’s relationship with the Jews and the State of Israel.
Pope John Paul II meets Israeli Chief Rabbis Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron. March 23, 2000. (Flash90)
“Certainly there were a lot of questions when he was elected in April 2005,” recalled Murray Watson, co-founder of the Center for Jewish-Catholic-Muslim Education at Western University in Ontario.
As Cardinal Ratzinger, he was not a leading figure in the Judeo-Christian dialogue. However, those who paid close attention could see encouraging signs.
Ratzinger was a member of the Vatican commission that advocated establishing diplomatic relations with Israel in the 1990s.
Rosen said Ratzinger’s close friend Jehudah Zvi Werblowsky, a Hebrew University religion professor, received a call from Ratzinger after diplomatic relations were established in 1993. The cardinal expressed his delight at the development, calling it the culmination of the revolutionary 1965 Nostra Aetate document The Church’s Relation to the Jews.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, left, of Munich, Germany, in Vatican City during the inauguration of five new cardinals by Pope Paul VI, June 27, 1977. (AP Photo/Massimo Sambucetti)
In 2000, Ratzinger wrote an article entitled “The Heritage of Abraham: The Gift of Christmas,” in which he spoke of the gratitude Christians must feel toward Jews for protecting the gift of faith in one true God. He wrote that the dialogue between the two faiths “must begin first of all with a prayer to our God, that he might give us Christians a greater appreciation and love for this people, the people of Israel”.
He was also head of the Pontifical Biblical Commission when it released a landmark document in 2002 entitled The Jewish People and Their Scriptures in the Christian Bible, which affirmed Jewish “property” and interpretations of the Hebrew Bible.
“All of those things gave us great hope for his pontificate as he took on that role – in his own unique way – and we certainly weren’t disappointed,” said Watson.
In many ways, Benedict XVI built tacitly on the efforts of John Paul II regarding the Church’s relations with the Jews.
Benedict’s first official correspondence as Pope was a letter to Rome’s Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff on the occasion of his 90th birthday. He was also the first pope to invite Jewish representatives to his coronation and to the funeral of his predecessor.
Elio Toaff in Rome, around 1985 (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/indeciso42 Free Document)
And while John Paul II laid the foundation by becoming the first pope to attend a synagogue since St. Peter — his only synagogue visit in his 27 years on the papal throne — Benedict visited three during his eight-year pontificate. His visit to Cologne’s Roonstrasse Synagogue in 2005 was his first visit to a place of worship outside the Vatican.
In his 2007 book on Jesus, the pope emphasized the influence American-Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner had on his own thinking about Christ’s Judaism.
“This was probably the first time a pope publicly acknowledged learning from a rabbi,” Watson said, “which for a theologian of Pope Benedict’s caliber was a profound statement and one he clearly hoped would be would inspire other Christians to seriously consider what Judaism has to teach us about the life and message of Jesus.”
Rosen had many conversations with Benedict and said he was always impressed. “What a remarkable friend of the Jewish people he was,” Rosen recalled. “If you look at his writing, his commitment to the Jewish people, to the Christian-Jewish relationship, his perspective on the Jewish people and Judaism is remarkable.”
An “image problem”
Despite the important steps he took, Benedict is often remembered as a controversial figure because of his attitude toward Jews.
Pope Francis, left, hugs Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. at the Vatican, June 28, 2017. (L’Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)
“The problem that Benedict really had was an image problem,” Rosen said.
As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger was responsible for enforcing Orthodox Catholic doctrine against heresy, a position that did not endear him to secular journalists.
More importantly, he was a German academic with very little pastoral experience, and he lacked the popular touch possessed by both his predecessor and successor. The media portrayed him as rigid and distant.
This division became clear during his visit to Israel in May 2009, when Benedict visited the Western Wall and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. But many Israelis were missing something. “What they wanted was some kind of emotional outpouring,” Rosen said. “They wanted to hear some kind of expression of atonement. They wanted a more emotional connection and it never was there.”
Rabbi David Rosen speaks during a press conference following the general audience at the Vatican Press Center, Oct. 28, 2015. (AP/Alessandra Tarantino)
“John Paul II’s trip to Israel had a tremendous impact,” said Rabbi Eugene Korn, a scholar of Judeo-Christian relations, “because he did and said all the right things. He was very, very warm to Israelis, and Benedict was the opposite.”
But beyond the image problems, there were also serious missteps.
In a key 2006 address at Auschwitz, in which he defined Nazism as an attack on Christianity, Benedict also portrayed the Nazis as a group of thugs who exploited the democratic process to take over Germany and bully the country. The first German pope never spoke about the collective responsibility of his compatriots for the crime of the Holocaust.
The Pope also lifted many restrictions on the older Tridentine form of the Mass, whose Good Friday prayers spoke very negatively of Jews, including a plea for their conversion. He later personally rewrote the prayer to make it more respectful.
Another controversy arose around Pius XII, the controversial war pope, whom Jewish organizations accuse of not condemning Nazism or the murder of Jews. In 2009, Benedict advanced Pius’ canonization process by declaring his “heroic virtue.” Quite predictably, the move sparked outrage in the Jewish community.
Men, women and soldiers gather around Pope Pius XII with outstretched arms on October 15, 1943. during his inspection tour of Rome, Italy, following an August 13 American air raid in World War II. (AP)
A more serious problem arose in 2009, when Benedict lifted the excommunication of a traditionalist British bishop named Richard Williamson, who is part of the Society of Saint Pius X’s group, which opposes the modernizations that had taken place after Vatican II.
It soon emerged that Williamson had repeatedly publicly denied the magnitude of the Holocaust. Jewish leaders were stunned and the Vatican apologized.
Rosen argued that the media placed undue blame on Benedict for the fiasco. “John Paul II was the one who was already trying to get society back in its folds and even gave permission for a limited Latin mass to be recited.”
Korn explained that Benedict’s motivation was to heal the rift in the church, not to legitimize its teaching.
Furthermore, Benedict did not bring the SSPX back into the fold, but instead conditioned their return on acceptance of the teachings of Vatican II, including those about the Jews.
Bishop Richard Williamson, second left, foreground, is escorted out of Heathrow Airport by police and security officers after arriving in London on a flight from Argentina February 25, 2009 (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
“What the Jews feared did not happen,” Korn said. “There was no resurgence of anti-Semitic theology, nor were the proclamations of Vatican II in any way undermined.”
“It was definitely a serious management error,” said Rosen, who said Benedict was too strict in the way information reached him, including about Williamson, “but it was not an expression of a lack of opposition on his part to anti-Semitism.” ”
cordiality and commitment
Rosen last saw Benedict in 2016, on the day Francis visited the synagogue in Rome.
“I had a private meeting with Pope Benedict at his retirement convent,” he recalled. “He was already very frail physically, but mentally he was very alert.”
People look at the body of the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI laid in state in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican January 2, 2023. (Andrew Medichini/AP)
Rosen summarizes Benedict’s contribution to Jewish-Catholic relations as a confirmation of the innovations of John Paul II and shows that they were not the personal project of an idiosyncratic pope.
But while he built on the work of John Paul, he could not match his predecessor’s hand in shaping Benedict’s legacy on Jewish relations.
“Unlike John Paul II,” Watson said, “Pope Benedict had not grown up with many close Jewish friends, and so at times his reflections on the Judeo-Christian relationship felt more theoretical and intellectual and less grounded in personal connections.
“But there was no denying his personal warmth and clear commitment to moving this conversation forward,” he continued. “He believed that there are many fruitful areas that still need to be explored and that real dialogue should be bold and honest in tackling even difficult issues, rather than avoiding them.”