Pope Benedict XVI's surprising and historic announcement that he will retire at the end of the month has generated much speculation.
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His declared reason is that he is no longer physically capable of handling the demands of the position. Having met with him three times in the course of the last year, I can attest to his growing frailty.
However, while the conclave that elects the pope is a jealously closed gathering, Benedict XVI as a living former incumbent could have a significant influence on the choice of a successor something historically unique in itself. As someone who sees himself as a bulwark of theological truth facing a tidal wave of secular relativism, he would want the next pope to continue this conservative line.
While many liberals within and outside the Church will be hoping for a successor with a very different outlook, those who care about the future of Catholic-Jewish relations and who know Pope Benedict XVI's record will be concerned that the next pope might not have the same commitment as his predecessors.
Benedict XVI has been a true follower, in word and deed, of John Paul II regarding the Church's relationship with the Jews. In fact, in many ways he consolidated the latter's steps. One might have considered John Paul II's visit to the synagogue in Rome or his pilgrimage to Israel, paying respects to the state's highest elected political and religious leaders, to be the atypical actions of a pope who had had a unique personal connection with Jews since childhood. The fact that Benedict did the same confirmed these gestures as belonging to the Church as much as to individuals, and potentially made them a template for his successors.
Benedict XVI was the first pope to ever invite Jewish leaders both to the funeral of a pope and, even more significantly, to the celebration of his own ascension. Little more than a month later, he received a delegation of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, the body that represents the principal Jewish advocacy organizations as well as the major streams of contemporary Judaism. Notably, he received this Jewish delegation before delegations from representative bodies of other branches of Christianity, let alone other religions. At this meeting he declared his commitment to continuing the path of his predecessor in deepening relations with the Jewish people.
Moreover, his first visit to a place of religious worship of another faith community was to the synagogue in Cologne, where he said: "I intend to continue with great vigor on the path toward improved relations and friendship with the Jewish people, following the decisive lead given by Pope John Paul II."
Both at the meeting and on the synagogue visit he acknowledged the tragic past history of Catholic conduct toward the Jewish people, called for "a continued reflection on the profound historical moral and theological questions posited by the experience of the Shoah," and deplored resurgent anti-Semitism.
There were two incidents that cast a shadow over Catholic-Jewish relations during his pontificate, although these had more to do with poor communications and public relations than with substance. The first concerned the expanded use of the Latin liturgy that included an offensive Easter prayer for the conversion of the Jews. Pursuant to Benedict's permit for the wider use of the Latin liturgy, he reformulated the prayer without the offensive language, but it still envisioned Jewish acceptance of Jesus. After indignant reactions from the Jewish community, the Pope explained that this was in no way a permit for proselytizing, which the Church opposes. The text in question, he indicated, is but a prayer to the Almighty that at the end of days He will somehow mysteriously resolve the seemingly irresolvable differences between the faiths.
The second incident related to the Vatican's negotiations to restore ties with the Society of Saint Pius X, which had broken away from the Church. When the Vatican announced that it was lifting its excommunication, the fact that the group included a Holocaust denier evoked outrage in the Jewish community. In reply to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the Vatican explained that lifting the excommunication did not mean bringing the dissidents back into the Church. For this they would have to accept all the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, including the changed positive relationship with Judaism and the Jewish People.
Moreover, Benedict went out of his way to emphasize his intolerance for Holocaust denial and his commitment to fighting anti-Semitism.
There are some who believe that Pope Benedict XVI sought to advance the cause of sainthood of Pope Pius XII, the World War II-era pope. But while he signed the document declaring the spiritual virtues of Pius XII, he did not beatify him, which would have been a step toward ultimate sainthood. I think a fair person can only conclude that Benedict was showing sensitivity to Jewish concerns.
However, as much as he was a true successor to John Paul II, they were extremely different personalities. John Paul II was an extrovert, a supreme communicator and master of grand gestures, while Benedict XVI is an introvert who never lost his professorial manner, and has little patience for public relations. This has sometimes led to a less favorable perception of the man in some Jewish circles.
The fact remains, though, that Pope Benedict XVI has been true to his declared commitment at the beginning of his papacy to continue the path of his predecessor in advancing Catholic-Jewish relations. Whether the same will be said of his successor remains to be seen.
Rabbi David Rosen is the American Jewish Committee's International Director of Interreligious Affairs and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel’s Honorary Advisor on Interfaith Relations. He is a past chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations.