In evaluating the interfaith legacy of non-Jewish religious leaders, Jews sometimes forget that the main allegiance of these leaders is to their own faith. Keeping that in mind, the interfaith legacy of Pope Benedict XVI, at least in relation to the Jewish people, is outstanding.
Before entering the interfaith arena, we must remark on the valiant lesson Pope Benedict XVI left for people of all faiths and, indeed, for people of no faith: There is no shame in doing what is right, even when that highlights one’s weakness. In resigning, the Pope reflected honesty and humanity. What a pope’s resignation says for the spiritual status of a pope in Catholic Christianity is not for us to say. What we can say is that the admission of the inability to perform a very high status job is admirable. In this sense, the Pope goes out on top.
That Pope Benedict XVI innovated little in Jewish-Catholic relations is of little consequence. We see the Pope’s strength in his sustaining the most important outreach of his predecessor. The fact that he, too, acknowledged the Vatican’s diplomatic relations with Israel is momentous. This single act sends a strong message to the world’s one billion Catholics: Jews are not to be persecuted. Jews have a right to their own identity. Jews have the right to life. That, alas, is what centuries of popes denied. Pope Benedict XVI, like his predecessor, rejected the centuries-old anti-Jewish teachings of the Church, to which we say, dayenu.
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Pope Benedict XVI sustained the teachings that began with Vatican II in 1965 that neither individual Jews nor the Jewish people as a whole were, or are, responsible for the death of Jesus. The Pope innovated nothing here, but the fact that he sustained this watershed change in the Church is huge. The Pope’s predecessor broke with Catholic tradition of millennia by visiting one synagogue. Pope Benedict XVI visited more than one. He condemned anti-Semitism; he condemned the Holocaust — surely it would be foolish for the Jewish people to take for granted such things just because Pope Benedict XVI was not the first pope to do them. These condemnations reversed Catholic policy held for millennia. The Pope went to Israel, he went to Auschwitz, he went to Yad Vashem, he met with Holocaust survivors. No small things — not a single one of them.
We are not pleased with the Pope’s push to beatify the Holocaust-era pope, Pius XII. It seems unjustified by what, at best, may be considered Pius’ XII’s mixed record during the Holocaust. If ever there were a time in history that called for morally unambiguous leadership, the Holocaust period was it. Yet, we are not Catholic. We shall never apprehend, precisely, what sainthood means in the Catholic religion. If we have to choose between a Catholic Church that, in the here and now, accepts Israel and also beatifies a pope of the past, and between a Church that does not beatify Pius XII and also does not recognize Israel, we unhesitantly choose the Church the way it is now.
Pope Benedict XVI de-excommunicated leaders of a traditionalist Catholic group, and one of them turned out to be a Holocaust denier. This was a bad move. But to judge Pope Benedict XVI on this basis, not on the totality of his very positive record, would be akin to judging Judaism on the basis of the rampage of Baruch Goldstein. Bad actors reflect on their respective religions; religions cannot credibly disclaim responsibility for those who act in their name. But against the saturated trail of blood spilled in the name of Christianity from antiquity to medieval times on through the Inquisition to the Holocaust, we salute and thank Pope Benedict XVI for his friendship to the Jewish people.
May his successor sustain it. Dayenu.
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