History will not forget the remarkable difference Pope John Paul made in relations with the Jewish community. His visit to a synagogue in Rome was a first and signaled genuine change. During his tenure as Pope, John Paul made highly important changes in how 1 billion Roman Catholics viewed Jews. Anti- Semitism and supersessionism (the idea that Christianity supersedes Judaism) were rejected. Moreover, the Vatican established diplomatic relations with Israel. Because of his own experience with both the Nazis and the Communists, John Paul recognized the enormous price Jews had paid before and during World War II for no other reason that being Jews. Much of the hatred that boiled over during this period was washed away by the Pope’s efforts.
Pope Benedict’s tenure proved to be different.
While he continued John Paul’s positions, Benedict make significant mistakes in relating to Israel and Jews. Both he and John Paul made Holy Land tours, but Benedict left the impression that he was avoiding statements about his background as a member of the Hitler Youth movement and his position on the Holocaust. He was drawn into controversy over the Holocaust because he lifted the excommunication of a bishop who had publically stated that historical evidence disproved 6 million Jews were gassed. The bishop claimed only 200,000 to 300,000 were killed and that gas chambers were a fiction. Benedict’s support of such a man was highly troubling to many.
Further problems arose from his failure to reject a statement by a Lebanese clergyman who suggested that Catholic theology had rejected the idea of a Promised Land for Jews because the Kingdom of God was open to everyone. Greek Melkite Archbishop Cyril Salim Busros had made this claim while participating in a Vatican Synod whose purpose had been to investigate injustices practiced against Christians in the Middle East.
With his German background and the issues arising out of World War II including then Joseph Ratzinger’s participation in the Nazi army, one would have expected a vigorous effort to clarify these issues. While it can be argued that the rapid decline of Catholicism in Germany might have affected his lack of a response, this argument fails to recognize that German rejection of the church is tied to secularism and the sexual scandals racking the priesthood. His lack of response certainly did not go unnoticed in Israel.
More tension arose from the impression Benedict left that he was attempting to advance the cause for sainthood for Pius XII. The debate still boils over Pius’s lack of response and silence when Jews were hauled away right under his nose. The Vatican has squirmed, attempting to offer various explanations, but the stigma remains. Obviously, Pius XII did nothing heroic and bold. The burning question was the issue of duplicity. Benedict did not beatify Pius which would have moved him along toward sainthood. Nevertheless, when Benedict signed a document describing Pius’s virtues, he further distanced himself from the Jewish community.
Unfortunately, as Benedict retires, he leaves marks in the negative column with the Jewish community. Israel had little to say about his departure, but the problems remain.