Pope Benedict Leaves Behind Mixed Record of Relations With Jews

Stood by Vatican II But Brought Traditionalists Into Fold

Double-Edged Sword: Pope Benedict was in many ways a contradictory figure who moved the church forward in some ways and took it back in others.
getty images
Double-Edged Sword: Pope Benedict was in many ways a contradictory figure who moved the church forward in some ways and took it back in others.

By Ruth Langer

Published February 12, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

With his resignation announced this week, Pope Benedict XVI opened the door both to reflection on his contributions to Catholic-Jewish relations and to concerns about where his unknown successor will lead the church. Benedict brought to his position a formidable intellect — one, however, most inclined to focus on complex theological ideas. This has shaped many of his dealings with the Jewish community.

While his words and actions toward Jews were generally positive, he did not always foresee how his stances on internal Catholic issues would impact Catholic-Jewish relations. His papacy made it clear that its new teachings about Jews still pose deep challenges to Catholic self-understanding. This points to the need for ongoing dialogue between our communities.

On the one hand, Benedict walked in the enormous footsteps of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, making numerous gestures of deep symbolic meaning for the Jewish community. He visited Israel, also praying in Jewish fashion at the Western Wall, inserting a prayer, this time for peace, into its cracks. This acknowledgment of the holiest Jewish site helped undo the Christian attempt, beginning in the fourth century, to negate its Jewish past by moving Jerusalem’s holiest site westward to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and converting the Temple Mount into a garbage dump.

Benedict met with and deepened dialogue with Israel’s chief rabbis. The Holocaust remained on his agenda as well; he visited Yad Vashem while in Israel and Auschwitz earlier in his papacy. There he recalled his predecessor’s visit, but also spoke explicitly of his own German roots.

He also made sure to visit numerous synagogues, received many delegations from the Jewish community, and pledged repeatedly to uphold the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 teachings about Jews and Judaism that had opened the door to today’s positive relations between the two communities. These include his explicit affirmation that the Church must not actively concern herself with the conversion of the Jews today, something obviously of vital concern to Jews (and a precondition for dialogue), and his regular references to Jews as the Chosen People, affirming that their covenantal relationship with God remains intact. He also went much further than John Paul in affirming the validity of Jewish approaches to the Bible and the need for Catholics to learn them.

On the other hand, some issues on Benedict’s agenda led to actions and statements that generated deep criticism and discomfort from the Jewish community. One of his stated goals as pope was to foster Christian unity. In this capacity, in 2007 he reached out to conservative factions by broadening permission for Catholics to celebrate mass in Latin, using the 1962 pre-Vatican II text that contains a prayer for Good Friday titled “for the conversion of the Jews.” This describes Jews as having veiled hearts and being blind and in darkness.

In contrast, the 1970 text is a prayer “for the Jews,” which petitions God to help Jews become better Jews.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.