00 5/8/2009 6:23 AM

Pope Benedict XVI and the Jews

Mar. 29, 2009

The writer, former chief rabbi of Ireland, heads the American Jewish Committee's Department of Interreligious Affairs and is also the chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Inter-Religious Consultations. He has met with Pope Benedict XVI several times in the past four years..

The recent controversy over the lifting of the excommunication ban on Richard Williamson and his fellow bishops of the Society of Saint Pius X generated the impression that there might be some backtracking in the Vatican concerning the latter's commitment to Catholic-Jewish relations and in particular to combating anti-Semitism.

The statements from the Vatican Secretariat of State and then by the Pope himself, most recently when he received the delegation of the bilateral committee of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Holy See's Commission for Religious Dialogue with Jewry, have clarified that nothing could be further from the truth.

The Vatican and the Pope have made it clear that the lifting of the excommunication ban is not a re-instatement of these bishops, who will not be accepted back into the Church until they affirm the teachings of the Second Vatican Council which include the positive teachings on Jews and Judaism.

But above all the Pope has not only reaffirmed the Church's unqualified repudiation of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, he has reiterated the importance of Holocaust education and he has especially repeated his own profound commitment to continuing the path of his predecessor in advancing Catholic-Jewish relations.

Those who are familiar with Pope Benedict XVI's record will not at all be surprised by this. [And yet Rosen made one of the most unfair rremarks about Benedict XVI shortly after the FSSPX excomrecall was announced.]

He was first pope to invite Jewish leaders both to the funeral of Pope John Paul II and, above all, to the celebration of his own ascension to the throne of St. Peter in 2005.

Little more than a month later he received a delegation of the International Jewish Committee for Inter-Rreligious Consultations. This roof body, embracing the principle Jewish advocacy organizations as well as the major streams of contemporary Judaism, is the official partner of the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with Jewry.

Notably he received this Jewish delegation almost immediately into his pontificate, before he had even received delegations from representative bodies of other branches of Christianity, let alone other religions.

At this meeting he declared, "In the years following the [Second Vatican Ecumenical] Council, my predecessors Pope Paul VI and in a special way, Pope John Paul II, took significant steps toward improving relations with the Jewish people. It is my intention to continue on this path."

Moreover, the first place of divine worship of another religious community visited by Pope Benedict XVI was the synagogue in Cologne, which he visited in August 2005 during his journey to Germany for the World Youth Day.

On that occasion, he referred to the above mentioned meeting stating that "Today I wish to reaffirm that I intend to continue with great vigor on the path toward improved relations and friendship with the Jewish people, following the decisive lead given by Pope John Paul II."

On both occasions he outlined more of his thinking on the nature and purpose of this relationship. While acknowledging the tragic past and deploring resurgent anti-Semitism, he asserted that "the 'spiritual patrimony' treasured by Christians and Jews is itself the source of the wisdom and inspiration capable of guiding us toward a future of hope in accordance with the divine plan."

"At the same time, remembrance of the past remains for both communities a moral imperative and a source of purification in our efforts to pray and work for reconciliation, justice, respect and human dignity, and for that peace which is ultimately a gift from the Lord Himself. Of its very nature, this importance must include a continued reflection on the profound historical moral and theological questions posited by the experience of the Shoah."

STILL IN THE FIRST year of his pontificate, Pope Benedict continued to meet with an array of Jewish organizations and leaders including the chief rabbis of Israel and the chief rabbi of Rome.

In receiving the latter he declared, "The Catholic Church is close and is a friend to you. Yes we love you and we cannot but love you, because of the Fathers: through them you are very dear and beloved brothers to us."

The Pope also expressed his gratitude for the divine protection of the Jewish people that has guaranteed its survival over the course of history: "The people of Israel have been delivered from the hands of enemies on frequent occasions and in the centuries of anti-Semitism and during the tragic moments of the Shoah, the hand of the Almighty sustained and guided them."

These ideas have been recurrent in the writings of Joseph Ratzinger. In December 2000 in an article entitled 'The Heritage of Abraham: The Gift of Christmas" published in L'Osservatore Romano, he wrote:

Abraham, father of the people of Israel, father of faith, has become the source of blessing, for in him 'all the families of the earth shall call themselves blessed.'

The task of the Chosen People is therefore to make a gift of their God - the one true God - to every other people.

In reality, as Christians we are the inheritors of their faith in the one God. Our gratitude therefore must be extended to our Jewish brothers and sisters who, despite the hardships of their own history, have held on to faith in this God right up to the present and who witness to it...

In this same article, the then Cardinal Ratzinger addressed the question of anti-Semitism and the degree to which Christianity has been associated with it. He stated:

Down through the history of Christianity, already strained relations deteriorated further, even giving birth in many cases to anti-Jewish attitudes which throughout history have led to deplorable acts of violence.

Even if the most recent loathsome experience of the Shoah was perpetuated in the name of an anti-Christian ideology which tried to strike the Christian faith at its Abrahamic roots in the people of Israel, it cannot be denied that a certain insufficient resistance to this atrocity on the part of Christians can be explained by an inherited anti-Judaism present in the hearts of not a few Christians.

THIS CONDEMNATION of anti-Semitism includes a description of Nazism that not everyone would share. The Pope repeated this idea when he visited the site of the extermination camps in Auschwitz-Birkenau in May 2006.

In describing the intentions of Nazism, he declared:

Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down the principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are eternally valid.

If this people, by its very existence, was a witness to the God who spoke to humanity and took us to Himself, then that God finally had to die and power had to belong to man alone - to the men who thought that by force they had made themselves masters of the world.

By destroying Israel, by the Shoah, they ultimately wanted to tear out the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention...

While many would argue with Pope Benedict XVI's analysis, there surely can be no more powerful an argument for Christians to avoid all anti-Semitic prejudice than the one he provides in these statements.

It is significant to condemn anti-Semitism as evil and it is remarkable to condemn it as "a sin against God and man" as did Pope John Paul II (words that have been reiterated by Pope Benedict XVI himself).

However to describe anti-Semitism as an assault against the very roots of Christianity means that for a Christian to harbor such sentiment is to attack and betray his or her own faith - a message of enormous pedagogical importance in the struggle against hatred directed toward Jews and Judaism.

AS ALREADY INDICATED, Benedict XVI sees the Church as having a special - indeed unique - relationship with the Jewish people. This inevitably must take into account the central affirmations of the Jewish faith and of contemporary Jewish identity.

In this regard the Pope has a profound understanding of the significance of the State of Israel for the Jewish people. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he was on the Special Committee of the Holy See that reviewed and authorized the establishment of full relations between Israel and the Vatican.

Among his close friends in Israel of many years standing (which included the late mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek) is Prof. Zwi Werblowsky, one of the Jewish Israeli pioneers of interfaith dialogue.

The then Cardinal Ratzinger phoned Werblowsky in Jerusalem to express his joy over this development, describing it as the fruit of the work of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council.

Not everyone in the Church has appreciated the central role that Israel plays in contemporary as well as historic Jewish identity. Pope Benedict XVI does, and he fully realizes that the relationship between the Vatican and the State of Israel is inextricably bound up with the relationship between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church.

Of course this is not without its complications both in terms of the interests of the local Church in Israel and the Palestinian territories and the Holy See's interests within and in relation to the Arab world and Muslim society as a whole. These often conflicting interests are obviously substantially affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Here's a companion piece to David Rosen's piece two posts above.

Benedict XVI and the State of Israel
By David P. Goldman

Monday, March 30, 2009

May 14 is Israel’s Independence Day (celebrated according to the Jewish rather than the Gregorian calendar), recalling the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948.

For Palestinian Arabs the following day, May 15, is a day of mourning, “Disaster (Naqba) Day.” It has gone unmentioned that Pope Benedict’s Holy Land pilgrimage falls on just these days. On May 15, the final day of his visit, the Pope will share a podium in Israel’s capital Jerusalem with Israeli President Shimon Peres.

The Pope’s appearance in Jerusalem with Israel’s head of state on Naqba Day underscores his commitment to the State of Israel. From the founding of the State of Israel to 1993, when the Vatican at length established diplomatic relations with the Jewish State, the Holy See has had to balance its commitment to Middle Eastern Christians with its efforts to improve relations with the Jewish people.

Christians endured in the birthplace of their religion under Muslim rule as a dhimmi, or subject people, anxious to avoid giving offense to the far more powerful majority.

With the advent of the State of Israel and the hostile Muslim response, dhimmitude became less viable. It is estimated that thirty-five percent of the Christians in the West Bank and Gaza have emigrated since the 1967 war, mostly in response to harassment by radical Islamists.

Although Arab Christians have suffered at the hands of Muslim militants who oppose the existence of the Jewish State, many of them blame the Jews for rousing the Muslim militants in the first place.

Well before the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel in 1993, then Cardinal Ratzinger repeatedly explained to Jewish representatives that the delay in diplomatic recognition solely reflected the concern of the Holy See for the vulnerable Arab Christian communities.

His pilgrimage this May devotes considerable time to pastoral meetings with the Arab Christian community. Nonetheless, Benedict has made clear that his concern for Arab Christians is embedded within an unwavering commitment to the Jewish community in the Holy Land.

It is hard not to see an evolution in Vatican policy towards Israel, from a pragmatic approach to the problems of religious constituencies, to explicit theological sympathy for the Jewish State. Benedict XVI is first of all a theologian, and he views the Jewish presence in the Holy Land as a theological matter.

In 2008, on the fiftieth anniversary of Israel’s independence, Benedict XVI told Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See, “The Holy See is united with you and thanks God for the full realization of the Jewish people’s aspirations to live in its homeland, the land of its forefathers.”

Meeting with the Israeli rabbinate on March 12, the Pope affirmed the election of the Jewish people “to communicate to the whole human family knowledge of and fidelity to the one, true and unique God.”

Theologically it is difficult to separate the election of the people from the promise of the land, and Benedict’s commitment to Israel seems strongly grounded in theology.

The Magisterium of the Church does not take an explicit position on the question of Jewish statehood. Officially, the Catholic Church instructs, “The existence of the State of Israel and its political options should be envisaged not in a perspective which is in itself religious, but in their reference to the common principles of international law,” in the formula given in “Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church” (1985).

But the Church also knows that Israel is more than just another small country like Finland or Ecuador, for the very next sentence of the 1985 document cites John Paul II’s recognition of the theological significance of Jewish survival:

The permanence of Israel (while so many ancient peoples have disappeared without trace) is a historic fact and a sign to be interpreted within God’s design. . . . It remains a chosen people, ‘the pure olive on which were grafted the branches of the wild olive which are the gentiles.’

Middle Eastern Christians remain an important constituency opposing Vatican support for the Jewish State. Their position is difficult.

On March 25, the Holy See expressed “profound concern” about Middle Eastern Christians in the Middle East in the wake of the Israeli incursion into Gaza.

Cardinal Leonardo Sandri and Archbishop Antonio Maria Franco emphasized the pastoral function of the Pope’s visit, nothing that he

constantly comforts Christians, and all the inhabitants of the Holy Land, with special words and gestures, coupled with his desire to make a pilgrimage in the historical footsteps of Jesus . . . The wounds opened by violence make the problem of emigration more acute, inexorably depriving the Christian minority of its best resources for the future . . . The land that was the cradle of Christianity risks ending up without Christians.”

That is not quite true, for although Arab Christians are indeed leaving areas controlled by Muslims, Christians are immigrating to Israel itself, whose Christian community has doubled in size in the past fifteen years.

Nearly 300,000 Eastern European immigrants are Christians, as well as many Filipinos and others who came as guest workers and have settled in Israel. Hebrew-speaking Israeli Christians are becoming a more numerous constituency than Arab-speaking Palestinian Christians.

The retirement in 2008 of Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, a vocal critic of the Jewish State, was symbolic of the generational change that shifted the balance of Christian life to Hebrew-speaking Israelis. Patriarch Sabbah belonged to an older generation that blamed Israel for the disruption of Christian life in the Holy Land.

The most important issues outstanding between the State of Israel and the Holy See involve the practical life of Church institutions ministering to Catholic citizens of the Jewish State, including taxation, the status of Church property, and so forth.

It is possible to look forward to a happy day in which the most important source of antagonism between Catholics and Jews will be tax treatment of Church propertyc—cprovided, of course, that the Holy Father’s theological sympathy for the existence of the Israeli state prevails in the Church.

His predecessor John Paul II transformed Catholic–Jewish relations during his pilgrimage nine years ago, and the image of the Pope praying at the Western Wall did more to persuade Jews of Christian goodwill than all the conference resolutions in history.

Benedict’s presentation of the theology of election adds an inestimably important dimension to the story. But nothing strengthens the bond between the Church and the Jews as plainly as the Pope’s appearance in Israel on the anniversary of its independence.

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 5/8/2009 6:33 AM]