The Catholic Church will continue to improve its relationship with the Jewish community, but interfaith ties under Pope Benedict XVI will probably not be as warm or as significant as under his predecessor, John Paul II.
That is the opinion of representatives of several prominent Jewish organizations following the election Tuesday of German-born Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the 265th pope. The early favorite to succeed Polish native John Paul II, Benedict XVI is the second non-Italian cardinal to lead the church in four-and-a-half centuries.
Benedict XVI, 78, who served for more than two decades as prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which defends Catholic dogma, earned the reputation as a theological conservative, a powerful Vatican insider known in some church circles as the “Panzercardinal” for his uncompromising stance on such issues as “liberation theology,” homosexuality, abortion and birth control.
Dealing primarily with Catholic issues, he had less direct involvement with Jews or Jewish topics than cardinals active in interreligious work, but earned praise for his dealing with Jews in Germany and at the Vatican.
“It is unprecedented that for the second time the leader of the Catholic Church is someone who personally experienced the horrors of Nazi oppression and prejudice, and has been an agent of reconciliation with the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” said David Elcott, the American Jewish Committee’s U.S. director of interreligious affairs. “This man, for his entire ministry, has been deeply sensitive to relations with the Jewish people. He is warm and open to the Jewish community.”
All the more impressive, some say, because he served in the Hitler Youth movement and as a German soldier during World War II, though he deserted and was later held in a POW camp.
Mark Weitzman, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s task force against hate and terrorism, said the papacy of Benedict XVI will favor “correct” relations with the Jewish community, but will relegate them to a lower priority.
“Is he going to push with the same fervor” as John Paul II for Jewish relations? Rabbi Arthur Schneier asked. “I don’t think so.”
Rabbi Schneier, a Holocaust survivor and president of the interfaith Appeal of Conscience Foundation, has maintained close contacts over the past few decades with high Vatican officials.
Some Jewish leaders doubted that the new pope, who has spoken of the supremacy of the Church over other Christian branches, would visit a synagogue, as Pope John Paul II did in Rome. They compared this to the refusal by some Orthodox rabbis to visit churches.
But the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations issued a warm statement congratulating the new pope and noting that in his previous posts at the Vatican, he “played an important role in promoting Catholic-Jewish relations and in the Vatican’s recognition of the State of Israel.” The statement also credited Benedict XVI for confronting the Shoah and acknowledging “the legitimacy of the Jewish wait for the messiah” in Vatican doctrines.
Benedict XVI will be “very progressive,” said Gary Krupp, the founder and president of the Pave the Way Foundation, an independent interfaith organization that sponsored a January meeting at the Vatican, where an international delegation of 160 Jewish leaders thanked John Paul II for his advocacy of Jewish interests.
Benedict XVI “was very interested in our audience,” said Krupp, who was knighted by John Paul II in 2000.
The new pope’s background as a member of the Nazi Youth organization and the German army during World War II drew attention in media profiles in recent weeks, but the Jewish spokesmen said Benedict XVI has shown no sympathy to Nazi teachings.
“It was the standard in the Hitler era that every teen was a member” of the Nazi Youth, often pressured into joining the organization, said Rabbi Schneier. “If anything, he will go out of his way to show that he is different from the [German] past.
“I would certainly give him the benefit of the doubt,” Rabbi Schneier said. “I’m not at all nervous.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a prepared statement, “Though as a teenager he was a member of the Hitler Youth, all his life Cardinal Ratzinger has atoned for the fact. In our years of working on improving Catholic-Jewish ties, ADL has had opportunities to work with Cardinal Ratzinger.
“Having lived through World War II, Cardinal Ratzinger has great sensitivity to Jewish history and the Holocaust. He has shown this sensitivity countless times, in meetings with Jewish leadership and in important statements condemning anti-Semitism and expressing profound sorrow for the Holocaust.”
But at least one Jewish scholar offered a cautionary note about the new pope, not because of the cleric’s wartime history but because of his ideological beliefs.
Jerome Chanes, who teaches Jewish history and sociology at Stern and Barnard colleges, described Benedict XVI as “an ideological hardliner” and attributed “troubling moments” during Pope John Paul II’s papacy –– such as the pope’s meeting with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim after his Nazi past had been revealed –– to the influence of Cardinal Ratzinger.
“The ambivalent aspects” of Pope John Paul II’s tenure, in terms of Vatican-Jewish relations, including “the absolution of Austrian and German churchmen for what they did during the war, had [Cardinal] Ratzinger’s fingerprints,” Chanes said.
Ratzinger, the son of a Bavarian policeman who quietly opposed the Nazis, at 14 was forced to join the Hitler Youth, according to a biographical background released by the Vatican, but never attended any meetings. According to Vatican records, he was later drafted into the German army at 16, did not fire a shot in uniform, deserted his unit, was captured by the U.S. Army and held as a prisoner of war.
If anything, said Rabbi Schneier, the new pope’s early experience with the Nazi regime “is going to make him more cognizant of Jewish concerns.”
“If there had been any bias or prejudice [expressed], John Paul would not have gotten engaged that closely” with Ratzinger, the rabbi said. “The higher you go” in the Vatican hierarchy, “the more visible you are” and the more known are possibly damaging facts of a clergyman’s background.
Rabbi Schneier called Benedict XVI “an intellectual … a deep thinker,” who will lead “an era of continuity.”
As a cardinal, Benedict XVI served as an adviser at the Second Vatican Council in 1962-65, which issued the Nostra Aetate declaration that redefined the Church’s relationship with the Jewish community, absolving Jews from collective responsibility for the death of Jesus.
John Paul II, who lived under Nazi occupation and lost many of his childhood Jewish friends in the Holocaust, carried out the policies of Vatican II with such gestures as establishing diplomatic ties with Israel, the Rome synagogue visit, and apologizing for Catholics’ role in fomenting anti-Semitism and turning a blind eye to the Holocaust.
Benedict XVI will also “follow the guidelines of Nostra Aetate,” Rabbi Schneier said. “There is a personal commitment to continue [John Paul II’s] legacy.”
Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, called Benedict XVI “the architect of the policy that John Paul II fulfilled with regard to relations with the Jews. He is the architect of the ideological policy to have full relations with Israel.”
In 2002, Cardinal Ratzinger authorized the publication of a Vatican report that stated “the Jewish messianic wait is not in vain,” and expressed regret that certain passages in the New Testament that condemn individual Jews had been used to justify anti-Semitism.”
Speaking of the Holocaust, he said, “It cannot be denied that a certain insufficient resistance by Christians to this atrocity is explained by the anti-Judaism present in the soul of more than a few Christians.”