Despite some missteps, Benedict XVI was a committed friend to the Jews

The German traditionalist pope, buried Thursday, is often remembered as icy and aloof, but those who knew him say Ratzinger was a warm man who moved Catholic-Jewish ties forward

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

File: In this May 28, 2006 photo, then-pope Benedict XVI walks through the gate of the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland. (AP Photo/Diether Endlicher, File)
File: In this May 28, 2006 photo, then-pope Benedict XVI walks through the gate of the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland. (AP Photo/Diether Endlicher, File)

The 2019 film “The Two Popes” presents Francis as a warm, avuncular man of the people.

His predecessor Benedict XVI, the pope emeritus who was laid to rest in the Vatican on Thursday, couldn’t be more different, at least in the movie’s telling. He is portrayed as a cold, harsh pontiff, out of step with the pastoral needs of the modern world.

While the film offered a faithful representation of Francis, it missed the mark on Benedict, said Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s international director of interreligious affairs. “I think it was unfair to Benedict precisely because it did not capture his humor and warmth.”

It wasn’t only in Hollywood where Benedict’s image was at odds with reality.

From the beginning of his pontificate, Benedict — born in Germany in 1927 as Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger — was viewed by many Jews with some suspicion. He had been drafted as a teen into the Hitler Youth and then into the German army, and though he was from an anti-Nazi family and avoided active participation, his past certainly didn’t endear him to those involved in Jewish-Catholic relations.

He also had a tough act to follow. Pope John Paul II, whom he succeeded, was a trailblazer in the church’s ties with Jews and the State of Israel.

Pope John Paul II meets Israeli chief rabbis Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron. March 23 2000. (Flash90)

“There were certainly a lot of questions back in April 2005 when he was elected,” recalled Murray Watson, co-founder of the Center for Jewish-Catholic-Muslim Learning at Ontario’s Western University.

As Cardinal Ratzinger, he had not been a leading figure in Jewish-Christian dialogue. However, those who paid close attention could see encouraging signs.

Ratzinger had been on the Vatican commission that endorsed the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel in the 1990s.

Rosen said Ratzinger’s close friend Jehudah Zwi Werblowsky, a Hebrew University religion professor, received a phone call from Ratzinger after diplomatic ties were established in 1993. The cardinal expressed his joy at the development, calling it the culmination of the 1965 Nostra Aetate document that revolutionized the Church’s relationship with Jews.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, left, of Munich, Germany, in Vatican City during the installation of five new cardinals by Pope Paul VI, June 27, 1977. (AP Photo/Massimo Sambucetti)

In 2000, Ratzinger wrote an אhe Heritage of Abraham: The Gift of Christmas “The Heritage of Abraham: The Gift of Christmas,” in which he spoke about the gratitude Christians must feel toward Jews for protecting the gift of faith in one true God. He wrote that dialogue between the two faiths “must begin with a prayer to our God, first of all, that he might grant to us Christians a greater esteem and love for that people, the people of Israel.”

He was also head of the Pontifical Biblical Commission when it published a groundbreaking 2002 document called “The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible,” which affirmed Jewish “ownership” and interpretations of the Hebrew Bible.

“All of these things gave us a great deal of hope for his pontificate as he took on that role — in his own particular way — and we were certainly not disappointed,” said Watson.

Steps forward

In many ways, Benedict XVI quietly built upon the efforts of John Paul II in the Church’s ties with Jews.

Benedict’s first official piece of correspondence as pontiff was a letter to Rome’s Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff on the occasion of his 90th birthday. He was also the first pope to invite Jewish representatives to his coronation and to the funeral of his predecessor.

Elio Toaff in Rome, circa 1985 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/indeciso42 Free Document)

And while John Paul II broke ground by being the first pope to visit a synagogue since St. Peter — his only synagogue visit in his 27 years on the papal throne — Benedict visited three during his eight-year pontificate. His 2005 visit to Cologne’s Roonstrasse Synagogue was his first visit to a house of worship outside the Vatican.

In his 2007 book on Jesus, the pope emphasized the influence American-Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner had on his own thinking on the Jewishness of Christ.

“This was probably the first time that a pope had publicly acknowledged learning from a rabbi,” said Watson, “which, for a theologian of Pope Benedict’s caliber, was a profound statement, and one that he clearly hoped would inspire other Christians to take seriously what Judaism has to teach us about Jesus’s life and message.”

Rosen had many conversations with Benedict, and said he always left impressed. “What a remarkable friend of the Jewish people he was,” recalled Rosen. “If you look at his writings, his commitment to the Jewish people, to the Christian-Jewish relationship, his view of the Jewish people and Judaism is remarkable.”

An ‘image problem’

Despite the important steps he took, Benedict is often remembered as a controversial figure for his attitude toward Jews.

Pope Francis, left, embraces Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, at the Vatican, June 28, 2017. (L’Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)

“The problem that Benedict really had was an image problem,” Rosen said.

As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger had been responsible for enforcing Orthodox Catholic teaching against heresy, a position that didn’t endear him to secular journalists.

More importantly, he was a German academic with very little pastoral experience, and he lacked the popular touch that his predecessor and successor both had. Media outlets presented him as rigid and aloof.

That disconnect was on display during his May 2009 visit to Israel, during which Benedict visited the Western Wall and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. But there was something missing for many Israelis. “What they wanted was some kind of emotional outpouring,” said Rosen. “They wanted to hear some kind of expression of atonement. They wanted a more emotional connection and that was never there.”

Rabbi David Rosen, talks during a press conference following the general audience in the Vatican press center, October 28, 2015. (AP/Alessandra Tarantino)

“John Paul II’s trip to Israel made an enormous impact,” said Rabbi Eugene Korn, a scholar of Jewish-Christian relations, “because he did and said all the right things. He was very, very warm to Israelis, and Benedict was the opposite.”

But beyond the image problems, there were also serious missteps.

In an important 2006 address at Auschwitz, in which he defined Nazism as an attack against Christianity, Benedict also portrayed the Nazis as a group of thugs who exploited the democratic process to take over Germany and victimized the country. The first German pope never discussed the collective responsibility of his countrymen for the crime of the Holocaust.

The pope also lifted many restrictions on the older Tridentine form of the Mass, whose Good Friday prayers spoke very negatively of Jewish people, including a plea for their conversion. He did later personally rewrite the prayer to render it more respectful.

Another controversy arose around Pius XII, the controversial wartime pope that Jewish organizations accuse of failing to condemn Nazism or the murder of Jews.  In 2009, Benedict moved Pius’s sainthood process forward by declaring his“heroic virtue.” Quite predictably, the move sparked outrage in the Jewish community.

Men, women and soldiers gather around Pope Pius XII, his arms outstretched, on Oct. 15, 1943, during his inspection tour of Rome, Italy, after an Aug. 13 American air raid in World War II. (AP)

A more serious problem arose in 2009, when Benedict lifted the excommunication on a traditionalist British bishop named Richard Williamson, part of the Society of Saint Pius X group that rejects the modernizations that had taken place in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.

It was soon discovered that Williamson had publicly denied the extent of the Holocaust on multiple occasions. Jewish leaders were stunned and the Vatican apologized.

Rosen argued that the media put undue blame on Benedict for the fiasco. “John Paul II was the one who already tried to bring the Society back into the fold and even gave permission for the recitation of a limited Latin mass.”

Benedict’s motivation was to heal the rift in the church, explained Korn, not to legitimize their teachings.

Moreover, Benedict did not bring SSPX back into the fold but instead conditioned their return on the acceptance of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, including those on the Jews.

Bishop Richard Williamson, second from left in foreground, is escorted out of Heathrow airport by police and security officers after arriving on a flight from Argentina, in London, Feb. 25, 2009 (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

“What Jews were worried about didn’t happen,” said Korn. “There was no resurgence of antisemitic theology, nor were Second Vatican Council proclamations undermined in any way.”

“It was definitely a serious error of management,” said Rosen, who said Benedict was too rigid in the way information reached him, including on Williamson, “but it wasn’t a reflection of any lack of opposition on his part to antisemitism.”

Warmth and commitment

Rosen last saw Benedict in 2016, on the day Francis visited the synagogue in Rome.

“I had a private meeting with Pope Benedict in his retirement monastery,” he recalled. “He was already very frail physically, but mentally he was very alert.”

People look at the body of late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI laid out in state inside St. Peter’s Basilica at The Vatican, January 2, 2023. (Andrew Medichini/AP)

Rosen sums up Benedict’s contribution to Jewish-Catholic relations as confirming John Paul II’s innovations, showing that they weren’t the personal project of an idiosyncratic pope.

But even though he built on John Paul’s work, he couldn’t match his predecessor’s touch, which has colored Benedict’s legacy on Jewish relations.

“Unlike John Paul II,” Watson said, “Pope Benedict had not grown up with a lot of close Jewish friends, and so his reflections on the Jewish-Christian relationship sometimes felt more theoretical and intellectual, and less grounded in personal relationships.

“But there was no denying his personal warmth, and his definite commitment to advancing that conversation,” he continued. “He felt that there were many fruitful areas that still needed exploration, and believed that genuine dialogue should engage even difficult issues with courage and honesty, rather than avoiding them.”

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