Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Pope Benedict, The Jews and The State of Israel

In "Pope Benedict and the Jews" (Jerusalem Post March 29, 2009), Rabbi David Rosen seeks to alleviate concerns resulting from the lifting of the excommunications of Bishop Richard Williamson and his fellow bishops of the SSPX:
The Vatican and the pope have made it clear that the lifting of the excommunication ban is not a reinstatement of these bishops, who will not be accepted back into the church until they affirm the teachings of the Second Vatican Council which include the positive teachings on Jews and Judaism. But above all the pope has not only reaffirmed the Church's unqualified repudiation of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, he has reiterated the importance of Holocaust education and he has especially repeated his own profound commitment to continuing the path of his predecessor in advancing Catholic-Jewish relations.

Those who are familiar with Pope Benedict XVI's record will not at all be surprised by this.

Rosen then runs through a list of notable facts concerning Pope Benedict and his relationshiop to the Jewish people:
  • Benedict was the first pope to invite Jewish leaders both to the funeral of Pope John Paul II and, above all, to the celebration of his own ascension to the throne of St. Peter in 2005.
  • Less than a month into his pontificate, he received a delegation of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, reaffirming his intent to continue upon "improved relations and friendship with the Jewish people" in the steps of his beloved predecessor, John Paul II.
  • Visiting the extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in May 2006, Benedict characterized anti-Semitism as an assault against the very roots of Christianity, implying that "a Christian to harbor such sentiment is to attack and betray his or her own faith":
    "those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down the principles to serve as a guide for mankind ... By destroying Israel, by the Shoah, they ultimately wanted to tear out the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention."
  • As Cardinal Ratzinger, he was on the Special Committee of the Holy See that reviewed and authorized the establishment of full relations between Israel and the Vatican -- upon which he phoned Prof. Zwi Werblowsky, one of the Jewish Israeli pioneers of interfaith dialogue, "to express his joy over this development, describing it as the fruit of the work of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council."
Pope Benedict XVI greets Jewish delegation leader Rabbi David Rosen (C) at the Vatican October 30, 2008. Source: Reuters

In Benedict XVI and the State of Israel (First Things), David P. Goldman (who writes under the pseudonymn "Spengler") examines the Pope's theological perspectives on Israel's founding. According to Goldman, it is notable (though largely unmentioned in the press) that the Pope's visit will overlap with Israel's Independence Day (celebrated on May 14, 2009, according to the Jewish rather than the Gregorian calendar), recalling the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948 -- and that on May 15, designated by Palestinians as a day of mourning ("Disaster (Naqba) Day"), he will share a podium in Israel's capital Jerusalem with Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Simply a coincidence? -- consider:

Well before the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel in 1993, then Cardinal Ratzinger repeatedly explained to Jewish representatives that the delay in diplomatic recognition solely reflected the concern of the Holy See for the vulnerable Arab Christian communities. His pilgrimage this May devotes considerable time to pastoral meetings with the Arab Christian community. Nonetheless, Benedict has made clear that his concern for Arab Christians is embedded within an unwavering commitment to the Jewish community in the Holy Land.

It is hard not to see an evolution in Vatican policy towards Israel, from a pragmatic approach to the problems of religious constituencies, to explicit theological sympathy for the Jewish State. Benedict XVI is first of all a theologian, and he views the Jewish presence in the Holy Land as a theological matter.

In 2008, on the fiftieth anniversary of Israel's independence, Benedict XVI told Israel's ambassador to the Holy See, "The Holy See is united with you and thanks God for the full realization of the Jewish people's aspirations to live in its homeland, the land of its forefathers." Meeting with the Israeli rabbinate on March 12, the Pope affirmed the election of the Jewish people "to communicate to the whole human family knowledge of and fidelity to the one, true and unique God."

Goldman concedes that "The Magisterium of the Church does not take an explicit position on the question of Jewish statehood"; in fact, the "Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church" (1985) specifically states:
"The existence of the State of Israel and its political options should be envisaged not in a perspective which is in itself religious, but in their reference to the common principles of international law."
Yet, as Goldman notes, this assertion stands almost in tension with the very next sentence, which draws from Pope John Paul II's recognition of the theological significance of Jewish survival:
"The permanence of Israel (while so many ancient peoples have disappeared without trace) is a historic fact and a sign to be interpreted within God's design. . . . It remains a chosen people, "the pure olive on which were grafted the branches of the wild olive which are the gentiles."
Indeed, in 1994, explaining the establishment of diplomatic relations with the State of Israel, Pope John Paul II asserted:
It must be understood that Jews, who for 2,000 years were dispersed among the nations of the world, had decided to return to the land of their ancestors. This is their right."
As Goldman remarks:
Theologically it is difficult to separate the election of the people from the promise of the land, and Benedict's commitment to Israel seems strongly grounded in theology.
Not to characterize Benedict as a card-carrying Zionist (a loaded term), but at the very least I think one could acknowledge that this pope is cognisant of the place of Israel in the hearts of the contemporary Jewish people -- and, like his predecessor, supportive of their right of return.

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See also:

On John Paul II and the Jews

As indicated, Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Israel and the Holy Land will retrace the steps taken by his predecessor. In 2001, SIDIC - Service International de Documentation Judéo-Chrétienne (International Service of Jewish-Christian Documentation -- published a series of reflections on Pope John Paul II's pilgramage, including Pope John Paul II: A Retrospective, by George L. Spectre and Catholics, Jews and the Papal Pilgrimage -- a dialogue between two friends, Msgr. Robert I, Stern and the late Rabbi Leon Klenicki.