As we mark the traditional “first 100 days” in the papacy of Benedict XVI on July 27, there’s one question that can easily be answered: Is he good for the Jews? The answer is yes. The facts on the ground are all that’s needed to see that this assessment is accurate and that the improvement of relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Jews — begun 40 years ago with the Second Vatican Council and a major legacy of Pope John Paul II — will continue during the tenure of the new pontiff.
Since the outset of his papacy, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has made a series of important gestures toward the Jewish community — including, most recently, his first official meeting with community representatives at the Vatican.
There, in a June 9 meeting with 25 representatives from the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, the official Jewish communal body for relations with the Holy See, the new pope asserted that Catholic-Jewish relations would remain one of his top priorities.
When he greeted this group of Jewish leaders from around the world, Benedict entered a room filled with friends who had known him as a cardinal and had already developed a respect for his thoughtful and considered approach to dialogue.
None of this was surprising. It was clear from the outset of his papacy that Benedict was committed to the reforms of Vatican II and the legacies of his predecessors — Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI and especially Pope John Paul II — concerning the Catholic Church’s relationship with the Jewish people.
The high level of respect for the former Cardinal Ratzinger dates to 1999, when he published the document “Dominus Iesus” that many read as an attack on those who stood outside the Catholic Church.
Concerned that his words might be misunderstood by the Jewish community, Ratzinger published a letter on December 29, 2000, in the official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, in which he expressed remorse for the anti-Jewish attitudes that had persisted throughout history, leading to “deplorable acts of violence” and the Holocaust. His statement recognized that the church’s “insufficient resistance to this atrocity can be explained by an inherited anti-Judaism present in the hearts of not a few Christians.”
Yet at the same time, Ratzinger demonstrated a profound understanding of and respect for Jewish religious traditions and teaching. Then as now, he showed himself to be a scholar and a theologian ready to engage in a dialogue of substance and meaning.
During the inaugural mass, the new pope stated that he would reach out to “my brothers and sisters of the Jewish people, to whom we are joined by a great shared spiritual heritage, one rooted in God’s irrevocable promises.”
On May 9, Benedict sent birthday greetings to the former chief rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff, who greeted Pope John Paul II during his historic visit to the city’s central synagogue. Benedict thanked Toaff for his work in helping to foster good relations between Catholics and Jews — a sure promise that this would continue into the new papacy.
The pope’s prepared remarks to officials of Jewish organizations at the June 9 meeting hit all the right notes. He appropriately noted that this year marks the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and Nostra Aetate, the landmark declaration against church-sponsored anti-Semitism.
He also made an important statement: “At the very beginning of my pontificate, I wish to assure you that the church remains firmly committed, in her catechesis and in every aspect of her life, to implementing this decisive teaching.”
What stands out is that he answered one of the major concerns of our community — that Nostra Aetate must be taught in all corners of the Catholic Church and not just remain an interesting historical document, but one that is lived and permeates church teaching.
Benedict also acknowledged the burdens of the past and of history and spoke of the “moral imperative” of addressing the questions raised by the Holocaust. At a time when there are those inside and outside the church who say the Jewish community should stop dwelling on the past, this pope knows that the only way to address the sins of the past is to expose them, study them and continue to be disturbed by them.
Finally, he spoke of the progress of dialogue and made reference to the pragmatic suggestions of the most recent meeting, held in Buenos Aires last summer, between the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations and the Holy See’s Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews. In that statement, Benedict pointed us back to the importance of working together in “building a reconciled world.”
Then, uncharacteristically for a pope, he stood up and spent several moments in quiet and private conversation with each and every Jewish representative.
There will be many challenges ahead. Jewish organizations have expressed dismay and concern about the Vatican’s pending beatifications of Spain’s Queen Isabella and Pope Pius XII. But Benedict has shown he is willing to listen to our concerns, demonstrated most recently by his decision to postpone the beatification of Father Leo John Dehon, a 19th-century priest, so that the church can allow for a serious study of his anti-Semitic writings.
This gesture, among others, is characteristic of a man who has devoted himself to maintaining close ties with the Jewish community, based on mutual understanding and respect.
Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, the director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, met recently with Pope Benedict XVI as a member of an official Jewish delegation to the Vatican.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.