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Those who study history have good reason to fear that progress may be reversed. But Benedict’s record in Jewish-Christian affairs shows the limited impact even a tone deaf Pope can have. When in the person of Cardinal Kasper the Church had to face the world, he was drawn toward the Vatican II teaching with a force like gravity. The pope’s new prayer was not only not defended: it was forgotten. Only a miniscule proportion ever heard it any case, because it is prayed in Latin, which is used at a tiny fraction of Catholic parishes.
Yet history also teaches that complacency serves no one. Theologians may share a consensus about passages in the New Testament, but that does not mean the new teaching has reached Christians in the pews, who often shy away from theology as a matter best left to experts. But theology is too important to be left to the experts. One does not need to read the original Greek to understand the issues involved; they are well explained in accessible works, for example books on the Gospels and Paul by the Boston College Jesuit Daniel Harrington. In my view, Harrington should become a household name.
We also know from history that it is a good thing that Jews take an interest in Christian scripture. Jules Isaac’s book stimulated a generation of Christian theologians, for example the young Augustinian Gregory Baum, who helped draft the Vatican II statement. But that statement would never have been imagined had it not been for a direct, personal appeal by Isaac to Pope John XXIII in the summer of 1960. He implored this sympathetic pope (who had helped Jews during the Holocaust) to do something to put an end to a history of contempt.
Without Isaac there would have been no statement on the Jews, but without John XXIII there would have been no council to begin with: the charge was to bring the church “up to date.” It’s worth recalling in these hours that John XXIII, elected in 1958 after nineteen years of monarchical rule under Pius XII, seemed to contemporaries a complete surprise, a blast of fresh air with no evident origin, elected by cardinals who had been chosen by a pope who tried to shield the Church from history.
John Connelly is professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “From Enemy to Brother: the Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933-1965,” (Harvard University Press,2012).