Ratzinger, the Jewish People and Israel

Ratzinger, the Jewish People and Israel

Lisa Billig-Palmieri in Vatican Insider
Vatican Insider
Lisa Billig-Palmieri
February 14, 2013

My initial and lasting impressions of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, dating back to the early 1990s when he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, are that of a kind, cordial, refined, sensitive, reflective man who listens attentively, with a smile, and replies thoughtfully looking one straight in the eyes. At the time, he granted me his first and perhaps only interview with a Jewish journalist regarding Catholic theology.

Entitled “Jews and Judaism in the Universal Catechism”( and recorded partially in German), it appeared in “Midstream” for American Jewish readers and in “Studi Cattolici” for Italians. He displayed special sensitivity to the avoidance of any vestiges of anti-Judaic references in the text of the new catechism, especially regarding the Pharisees, and stressed that the roots of Jesus’ message were to be sought in the Jewish tradition, study of the Torah.

Ever thereafter, I always received a warm greeting whenever we chanced to meet on Vatican grounds. Once, accompanied by his then secretary Msgr. Josef Clemens, spotting me outside the Vatican Press Room, he quickly crossed Via della Conciliazione just to say hello.

Joseph Ratzinger preserved this special quality of unassuming old-world courtesy right through his papacy, along with his special regard for relations with Jews. Soon after his election, even before inviting delegates of fraternal Christian Churches, he received a delegation of representatives of world Jewry. There, as in our encounter at the Congregation years earlier, he displayed the same modesty and talent for personal communication. Instead of sitting on his throne with visitors lined up to meet him, he walked from one person to another, shaking hands, engaging each in unhurried conversation. He always looked deeply into the eyes he met, never through them.

As Cardinal and then Pope, Joseph Ratzinger’s familiarity with the Jewish tradition and People grew. His early theological treatises, including a speech he gave as Cardinal at a Jerusalem conference organized by Rabbi David Rosen (the American Jewish Committee’s International Director of Interreligious Relations) on “Religious Leadership in a Secular Society”, were rather stiff and removed from the realities of contemporary, living Judaism. But during that trip he made a statement later to be echoed by John Paul II that, “The Jewish People have a right to live in the land of Israel.”

Regarding the Jewish religion, Benedict XVIth’s papacy was characterized by great empathy, by fidelity to the precepts of “Nostra Aetate” and by a sense of the theological and moral imperative to heal historic wounds caused by the Shoah and by centuries of the Christian teaching of contempt for Jews as “Christ-killers”. In his second and most recent book on Jesus, his theological research led him to once more exonerate Jews from all responsibility for the death of Christ.

His papacy was not without hurdles with respect to interreligious relations – especially regarding Buddhism and Islam, with which the Church still faces serious confrontations. Within the Catholic-Jewish dialogue, issues arose when he moved Pius XII closer to sainthood by recognizing his “Heroic Virtues” (but not moving beyond this) just before his visit to the Rome Synagogue. Another crisis broke out with Benedict XVIth’s attempts at bringing the more traditionalist wing of the Church, including the excommunicated Lefebvrian priests of the Society of Pius X (SSPX) back into the fold, leading him unwittingly to include the Holocaust-denying bishop Richard Williamson. And ongoing conversations between the Secretariat of State and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel were necessary to settle the upset over Pope Ratzinger’s resuscitating the Good Friday prayer “For the Conversion of the Jews” of the pre-Vatican II Latin mass.

Yet one of Benedict XVIth’s most praiseworthy attributes has been his propensity to admit errors, apologize and try to set things right. Benedict XVIth publicly admitted to not having been aware of “bishop” Williamson’s positions. He forthwith ordered his collaborators to improve their media and internet work and communicate more assiduously with him.

Strict guidelines were issued regarding conditions for full readmission of the SSPX members to the Church, entailing full acceptance of Vatican II – conditions that have to date not been realized (and may never be, also because of their underlying anti-Semitism still evident on SSPX international internet sites and blogs). The Good Friday prayer was rewritten by the Pope himself and, although the title still reads “For the Conversion of the Jews” (an error to be rectified in the next edition, we are told) the most offensive passages of the original have disappeared.

Following faithfully in the trail blazed by the blessed Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVIth from the very beginning and repeatedly thereafter decried the horrors of the Nazi era in his native Germany and warned against anti-Semitism. His first trip outside Italy included a visit to the Grand Synagogue of Cologne. In time, this was followed by his pilgrimage to Israel and visit to the Grand Synagogue of Rome. These gestures, and his many meetings with international Jewish delegations in Rome and during his travels were in clear and sincere continuity with his great predecessor. His words and deeds have had clear intent.

The large majority of Jewish leaders the world over have expressed feelings of appreciation and friendship for Joseph Ratzinger, and are wishing him a peaceful, healthy transition into his later years, hoping he will continue to contribute his valuable theological insights with further publications. By the same token, they are hoping that his successor will continue to bear the torch of dialogue, respect, and cooperation first lit by John XXIII and Vatican II, and carried, with increasing impetus, throughout the subsequent papacies.