By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published May 12, 2005
Rabbi David Blumenthal of Emory University believes that Pope Benedict XVI will continue the work for peace and reconciliation in Catholic-Jewish relations of Pope John Paul II, who took many historic steps forward, including welcoming Jewish visitors often, recognizing Israel as the legitimate Jewish homeland, and praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
The late pope also brought the Holocaust to the center of church consciousness, as he asked forgiveness for the role played by individual Catholics, held a memorial concert and visited Auschwitz.
Rabbi Blumenthal, the Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies at Emory, commended the German-born pope’s first gesture of reconciliation to the world.
“Pope Benedict went out of his way to invite the rabbi of Rome to his installation. The rabbi couldn’t come because it was the first day of Passover, but he went out of his way (to extend the invitation). He’s doing all the things that one would expect a pope of the 21st century to do.”
He believes that Pope Benedict will continue healing “a long memory” in the Jewish community “of pretty bad centuries of Jewish-Catholic relations” and foster dialogue and understanding. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger worked closely with Pope John Paul II on all his predecessor’s teachings on the subject and is “too solid a theologian” to change any church stance, the rabbi said.
Pope John Paul II had continued and expanded upon the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 document “Nostra Aetate” in renewing relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish faith; the document clarifies that the Jewish people are not guilty of deicide, that there is no supersession of Judaism by Christianity but an ongoing covenant between God and the Jewish people and that the Jews are not to be targeted for evangelization.
One of the documents that Pope Benedict approved by the Pontifical Biblical Commission was released in late 2001 on the subject of “The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible.” In the forward, then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote about the importance of such a document in the wake of the lessons of the Holocaust, stating “the Biblical Commission could not ignore the contemporary context, where the shock of the Shoah [Holocaust] has put the whole question under a new light.”
The document affirms the Jews as “elder brothers,” gives them “a unique place among all other religions” and declares that
“Jewish messianic expectation is not in vain.”
While Pope Benedict may be perceived as less affirming of other faiths than his predecessor, Rabbi Blumenthal, who was the second Jew in history to be invited to teach at the Gregorian Pontifical Institute in Rome, believes that he will be especially sensitive to Jewish relations with the international media scrutinizing his forced membership in the Hitler Youth as a child and being drafted into the German army before later deserting. The rabbi added that he has no concern the new pope ever held any anti-Semitic beliefs while growing up in Nazi Germany.
Pope John Paul II, who suffered under Nazism and communism in Poland, went to unprecedented lengths as pope to reach out to the Jewish community. While Pope Benedict XVI might not be as passionate about interfaith relations, his role now as universal shepherd of the church will draw out his concern in this important arena, Rabbi Blumenthal said.
“When you’re in the job you’ve got to do what is right. Independent of what this pope (feels personally) the fact that he’s in the office will send a different kind of message from him, and I think he’s going to respond fine,” said the professor. “I just think we should give him a little time.”
Rabbi Blumenthal is not bothered by the pope’s firm reassertion as prefect of the doctrinal congregation that the Catholic Church is the only church with the fullness of truth of divine revelation or the document stating the “exclusive, universal and absolute” value of Jesus Christ and his church for salvation.
“He is going to maintain that the Catholic faith is the one and only true faith. What do you want the pope to do?” the rabbi asked.
Rabbi Blumenthal said that his only concern would be that Catholics not try to impose that belief on others who do not agree. For himself, he said, “I think the Jewish faith is the one and only true faith.”
But while he is not expected to change the teachings set forth in the Second Vatican Council and strengthened by Pope John Paul, Jews will be watching whether he embraces them, the rabbi said.
Pope Benedict XVI must “energetically enforce these teachings (of ‘Nostra Aetate’) through education and church discipline, otherwise Vatican II will become a blip in Catholic history and Jewish-Catholic relations will regress,” he said. “To be sure, the church’s fight against anti-Semitism will need to be pursued with a great deal of energy in a world where its recrudescence is seen in Europe and new excrescences are seen in the Middle East and elsewhere.”
The professor hopes that Pope Benedict will keep not only the Holocaust in the forefront of consciousness, but also all the genocides of the 20th century, including that of Armenians in Turkey—which the Turkish government denies—through an act such as holding an international conference.
“Genocide in the 20th century is a problem that a man of his stature should address.”
He is also concerned about the cause for beatification of Pope Pius XII, particularly when the Vatican has not fully opened its archives from the period of World War II. Rabbi Blumenthal said he believes it would only strengthen the church to fully open the archives and allow debate before bestowing sainthood on the pope, who has been criticized by many in the Jewish community for not doing enough to denounce the Holocaust.
“He may not have been as bad as everybody says he was … Maybe he should have been more protective of the Jews and gypsies … but when the record comes out (I think) we’re going to find out he was a human being walking the middle of the road and that requires compromise,” he said. “I’m worried about (the beatification of) Pope Pius XII. It has a kind of momentum going. If Pope Benedict is smart, he’ll slow down that process and make sure the records are open.”
Rabbi Blumenthal also wonders whether more liberal Catholic theologians will be more restricted in teaching complex theological issues subject to debate and whether students on Catholic campuses will have less freedom of expression.
Jews would welcome any work by the new pope for peace in the Middle East but not at the expense of the Jewish state, he said. Pope John Paul II recognized the state of Israel as the legitimate homeland of the Jewish people, which was a major step forward from the Jewish perspective, even as he also affirmed a similar right for the Palestinians. For Jews, the new pope “will need to accompany all his efforts in this matter with an unshakeable commitment to the safety and continued security of the Jewish people within the State of Israel.”
Finally, he reflected on the meaning of “Nostra Aetate” 40 years later for those seeking theological and spiritual dialogue.
“It means that we must ask the indulgence of, and count on the understanding of, our Catholic partners when we return again and again to the matters that are closest to our heart, those that touch on our survival as a people, namely, the security of the State of Israel and the recrudescence of anti-Semitism in the Christian world,” he said. “These do matter to us; they are crucial. The ability of our Catholic partners to back us up on these matters, even if we disagree on some specific issues, is crucial.”
He also spoke of the possibility of common spiritual expressions by Catholics and Jews.
“In the spirit of ‘Nostra Aetate,’ we must affirm jointly the holy and the good. We must affirm our belief in a Creator and Legislator who, through various means, makes it clear that we are in God’s world and not that God is in our world.”