Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world with his announcement that he will step down at the end of February. Though resignations are permitted by a little known paragraph of canon law, no pope has submitted one in six centuries. Historians will now begin asking about Benedict’s legacy.
In the field of Jewish-Christian relations he will not be remembered as having enjoyed success. Most of his initiatives involved a gaffe of one sort or other. From a visit he made to Auschwitz we recall that he conspicuously avoided any statement of repentance for the church’s history of teaching anti-Semitism.
Later, he attempted to reconcile the church with reactionaries who deny the reforms of Vatican II, where, among other things the church renounced the theological sources of hatred of the Jews, sometimes called anti-Judaism, above all the idea that Jews lived under a curse for killing God. These extremists have refused the Vatican’s overtures, perhaps saving the pope further embarrassment. Among their number are Holocaust deniers.
Perhaps most troubling, in the spring of 2008 Benedict announced a Good Friday Prayer for the Jews “that God our Lord should illuminate their hearts, so that they will recognize Jesus Christ, the Savior of all men.” This seemed to presage a return to the practice of trying to convert Jews and denying—against the teaching of Vatican II—that Jews stand in a covenantal relation with God.
Some people who care about relations between Christians and Jews may breathe a sigh of relief at Benedict’s resignation. Others will see it as a mixed blessing. After all, he and his conservative predecessor John Paul II have appointed the overwhelming majority of the Cardinals who will vote on his successor.
Call me an optimist, but I see little reason for alarm. For one thing, there is no necessary relation between “conservatism” and acceptance of Vatican II teachings on the Jews. Though reviled in liberal quarters for his views on birth control and the ordination of women, John Paul II had a keen sense for the Church’s new approach to the Jews, and went beyond the Vatican II language, calling Jews Christians’ “older brothers,” who lived under a covenant “never revoked by God.”