A ‘genuine friend of the Jewish people’: Jewish-Catholic dialogue leaders remember Benedict

January 10, 2023

Pope Benedict XVI visits the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest prayer site, in the Old City of Jerusalem May 12, 2009. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the rabbi of the Western Wall, is pictured third from left. The pope left a written prayer for peace in a crevice of the wall. (CNS photo)

VATICAN CITY (OSV News) — Pope Benedict XVI is being remembered for his lifelong role in deepening Jewish-Catholic relations, bringing to life the dialogue called for by the Second Vatican Council, according to many leaders within the Jewish community who spoke with OSV News in recent days.

The late pope emeritus, who died Dec. 31 at age 95, was “a genuine friend of the Jewish people,” one who saw the Christian-Jewish relationship “in unique theological terms,” said Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in an email to OSV News.

Rabbi Burton Visotzky, director of the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue at the New York-based Jewish Theological Seminary, said, “Benedict held a special place in his heart for Jews and Judaism, whom he referred to as Catholics’ ‘fathers in faith.’”

Rabbi Noam Marans, AJC’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations, told OSV News Pope Benedict “helped to shape the theology of the Church with regard to the Jewish people.”

While Pope St. John Paul II “is often understood as the pope who most propelled Catholic-Jewish relations,” Marans said that Pope Benedict ensured that sustained engagement between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community became “what popes do” as a matter of course.
Philip Cunningham, professor of theology and co-director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, said that Pope Benedict “literally followed in the footsteps of John Paul II by also undertaking a pilgrimage to Israel and praying at the Western Wall (in Jerusalem),” adding that “he was welcomed at synagogues in Rome, Cologne and New York.”

Cunningham said the late pope was “visibly moved during his visit to the Auschwitz death camp” in May 2006, asking “startling questions for a pontiff” in his address, such as “where was God in those days? Why was God silent? How could God permit this endless slaughter, this triumph of evil?”

Having grown up under the Nazi regime — which had compelled him to join both the Hitler Youth and the Nazi military, the latter of which he deserted in 1945 — the young Joseph Ratzinger “understood the horrors of Nazism,” said John Cappucci, principal and vice chancellor of Assumption University in Windsor, Ontario, where he also holds the Stephen Jarislowsky Chair in Religion and Conflict. “Throughout his ministry, from priest to pope, (Benedict XVI) condemned Nazism.”

As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Ratzinger “helped clear the way for John Paul II” in the implementation of “Nostra Aetate,” the Second Vatican Council’s landmark document on the relationship between the Church and other religions, said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of global social action for the internationally based Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Speaking to OSV News by telephone from Israel, Rabbi Cooper — who also serves as vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom — described Pope Benedict as a kind of “theological shortstop for John Paul II,” one whose “quiet influence in the background was quite evident.”

“In many ways, (Pope Benedict) was one of the architects of the principles that shaped ‘Nostra Aetate’ at Vatican II,” said Arthur Urbano, professor of theology and chair of the Jewish-Catholic Theological Exchange Committee at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island.
At the same time, the German-born pope occasionally faltered in his relationship with the Jewish community, arousing criticism and concern. When he relaxed restrictions on the use of the 1962 Roman Missal, the older form of the Roman rite Mass, with his 2007 document “Summorum Pontificum,” controversy ensued over that rite’s Good Friday intercession for the Jews, which prior to Vatican II had called for their conversion without reference to their ongoing covenant with God. Pope Benedict composed a new prayer in response, “but many on both sides of the dialogue” still found it “did not reflect the new state of Jewish-Catholic relations,” said Urbano.

At the same time, Pope Benedict’s lifetime history of dialogue with the Jewish community — in person and in print — attested to what many saw as a “genuine engagement with the Jewish people,” said Edward Kessler, professor and founder of the Woolf Institute at Cambridge University, which promotes dialogue among the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. 

“He really took seriously the Jewish interpretation of Scripture and rabbinic thought,” said Kessler.

In the second volume of his “Jesus of Nazareth” trilogy, Pope Benedict provided “a detailed refutation of the deicide charge” — the charge that the Jewish people bore collective responsibility for Jesus Christ’s death, resulting in centuries of anti-Jewish persecution. As a result, Pope Benedict fleshed out “what Nostra Aetate stated but did not explain,” said Rabbi David Fox Sandmel, chair of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations at the New York-based Anti-Defamation League.

In that same volume, the late pope also “reflected substantively” on the work of Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner, who became a close friend of Pope Benedict, added Rabbi Sandmel.

“While there were tensions at times in the relationship, it is clear he was committed to the positive trajectory in Catholic-Jewish relations begun at the Second Vatican Council,” said Adam Gregerman, who is co-director alongside Cunningham at St. Joseph University’s Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations.

Cunnigham agreed, saying it is the late pope’s “stress on the importance of ongoing dialogue with Jews that will be his greatest legacy with regard to Catholic-Jewish relations.”