There are mixed reviews of Pope Benedict XVI's contribution to Christian-Jewish relations. As with various other groups over the past eight years, the now-retired Pope touched several raw nerves in the Jewish world during his papacy. Two unpleasant incidents drew the strongest public attention: lifting the excommunication of the ultra-conservative holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson, and reviving the old version of the Good Friday Prayer for the Conversion of the Jews.
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Beyond these regrettable occurrences, Benedict didn’t seem to be overly enthusiastic about promoting Christian-Jewish relations, at least not to the degree that his legendary predecessor, John Paul II, took them. He did everything that was expected of him: Like John Paul II, Benedict visited Yad Vashem, and he placed a note into the cracks of the Western Wall. Yet the personal grace and passion that had been displayed by John Paul II seemed to be lacking. Benedict gave the impression of being duty-bound to preserve his predecessor's legacy, without any special eagerness to promote it further.
Yet like in numerous other matters, the true contribution of Benedict XVI to Christian-Jewish relations wasn't in his papal speeches or historical gestures, but in his theological work. Long before he became Pope, Joseph Ratzinger was one of the most prominent Catholic theologians of the 20th century. As the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger navigated the Church in a wild sea of opinions – he was the one to determine the shape and borders of Catholic doctrine, distinguishing between right (in Catholic standards) and wrong. As a prominent theologian, as head of the Congregation, and then as Pope, Ratzinger developed a systematic theological attitude towards Judaism which remains highly authoritative within Catholicism.
In order to understand Ratzinger's importance for Christian-Jewish relations, the historical context in which he was acting should be considered. After the Holocaust, the Catholic approach to Jews and Judaism had been standing at the heart of the Church's agenda. The Church emphasized the importance of Christian-Jewish dialogue, and made an effort to re-educate its members with regards to Judaism. On the theological level, many prominent theologians were ready to make doctrinal changes in order to purge Christianity of its long-standing anti-Jewish positions. In the 1965 Second Vatican Council declaration Nostra Aetate (In Our Age), the Church renounced some of its traditional derogatory doctrines regarding Judaism and resolved to rethink its relations with the Jewish people.
Joseph Ratzinger, who participated in the Council as a counseling theologian, was profoundly committed to the legacy of Nostra Aetate. While pre-Holocaust Catholic theology tended to emphasize the rupture between Judaism and Christianity and present the Christian message as antithetical to that of Judaism, Ratzinger depicted the relations between Judaism and Christianity rather differently. As opposed to traditional doctrine, he stressed the Jewish ground on which the Christian message was generated. In his trilogy on the life of Jesus, Ratzinger emphasized the Jewishness of Jesus' biography, placing him in Jewish landscapes. He also emphasized that not all Jews pressed for the death of Jesus, thus following Nostra Aetate in relieving the Jews of the guilt of Deicide.
Ratzinger also showed a great deal of respect towards Jewish intellectuals, as his lengthy and surprising homage to the Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner shows, or his mentioning of Martin Buber's impact on him in the same breath as he speaks of Augustine's Confessions.
The crucial point in his theology of Judaism, however, is his concept of the biblical covenant. Ratzinger sees the covenant between God and humanity as evolving through history, abiding in the divine election of Israel, and then being opened to the rest of humanity and brought to completion in the blood of Jesus. The New Testament, in other words, is the fulfillment of the Old.
This theological analysis does diminish the gap between Christianity and Judaism; however, many Jews and Christians found it still too conservative. At the end of the day, they argued, Ratzinger's theological position merely treats Judaism as a half-way religion that has to be fulfilled by Christianity and isn't self-sufficient, at least not in terms of salvation. This is no more than a milder rephrasing of the traditional vision of Judaism as something that needs to be replaced by a new version of itself, i.e. Christianity.
Ratzinger's conservatism with regards to Judaism coexisted with his theological originality and firm commitment to clearing Catholic doctrine of its anti-Jewish overtones. He was willing to think Judaism over, but did not believe that the Catholic doctrine should radically change its basic assumptions to this end. The retired pope is far from being anti-Jewish, but he isn't a radical philo-semite either.
In a way, Ratzinger's approach represents a broader transformation in Christian-Jewish relations, which is likely to continue in the near future. The memory of the Second World War and the Cold War is becoming distant, and the new challenges that the Church confronts are slowly removing the Jews from their central position on the Catholic agenda. The growing power of Islam makes Muslim-Catholic relations a more pressing matter than Christian-Jewish dialogue; Catholic congregations are growing and prospering where Jewish communities are small and insignificant, so that the need to relate is less crucial; great theological efforts are now dedicated to contending with the vast secularization of the West and the concept of relativism, to some extent marginalizing inter-faith issues. Judaism, it seems, is no longer the significant Other of Catholicism, but only one among others.
Karma Ben Johanan is a PhD candidate at the Tel Aviv University School of History. She is writing on reciprocal perceptions of Christians and Jews in contemporary theology.