Skip To Content

Support the Forward

Funded by readers like you DonateSubscribe

A Few Sour Notes Emerge Amid Cheers For New Pope

After the death of Pope John Paul II, many interfaith experts lamented that there would never again be a pontiff forged by a personal confrontation with the Holocaust.

They were dead wrong.

In tapping Joseph Ratzinger to be the 265th pope since the advent of Christianity two millennia ago, his 115 fellow cardinals selected a German raised in Bavaria under Nazi rule. But the wartime experience of Ratzinger was quite different than that of the late Karol Wojtyla, who as a young Polish actor hid underground from the Nazis and watched as his Jewish friends were sent to death camps.

The Roman Catholic Church’s newest pope, who has selected the title Benedict XVI, says that he was forced at the age of 14 to become a member of Hitler’s youth movement and later was drafted into the German military. Ratzinger repeatedly has insisted that his family opposed Nazi rule — though adding that public resistance was futile — and said that he risked execution by deserting the Germany army in 1944.

For the most part, Jewish organizations and communal leaders rushed to congratulate the new pope, and many described him as closely aligned with John Paul’s work to repair relations with Jews.

The chorus of compliments and hopeful statements, however, have been interrupted by some Jewish and Catholic voices.

Some observers, especially in Israel, have raised various concerns about Ratzinger’s wartime background. “We are very concerned,” Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, a veteran ultra-Orthodox Knesset member told The Associated Press. “I don’t know to what extent his participation in the Hitler Youth left an imprint of animosity toward the Jewish people.”

But the main issue worrying some Jewish and Catholic interfaith experts is the belief that Ratzinger thinks that Jews still need to go through Jesus for salvation. Prior to his elevation this week, Ratzinger headed the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the same office that carried out the Spanish Inquisition against Jews in the 15th Century.

“If [as Pope] he stresses Jesus is the only way of salvation then we are in trouble,” said Rabbi Leon Klenicki, former director of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League. “If he’s going to relate to the world Jewish community and others, he will have to work to reconsider his previous positions, especially vis a vis Jews and Judaism. Otherwise he is going to be a pope of the Middle Ages when he has to face the 21st century.”

While serving at ADL, Klenicki criticized Ratzinger’s September 2000 document Dominus Iesus [The Dominion of Jesus], which advocated the missionizing of non-Catholics and declared that joining the Roman Catholic Church is the only way to salvation. At about the same time that Dominus Iesus was issued, Ratzinger also published a book called “Many Religions — One Covenant: Israel, the Church and the World.” In it he wrote that the Catholic Church hopes Jews would embrace Christianity, prompting Jewish officials to issue public alarms.

In an unusually bold public rebuke, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s chief representative to the Jewish people, criticized Dominus Iesus during an international Jewish-Catholic summit in Manhattan in 2001.

“[The document] is painful for Jews and I express my profound regret for the pain. It is my pain, too,” Kasper said. He admitted that dealing with the negative interfaith implications of Ratzinger’s document was a “challenge.”

Kasper tried to calm Jewish concerns by saying that Dominus Iesus, which advocates missionizing non-Catholics, did not apply to Jews. But at the same time, he underlined that Dominus is an official Vatican document with the pope’s blessing.

Consequently, Rev. John T. Pawlikowski, president of the International Council of Christians and Jews, called on Ratzinger and the Vatican to clarify whether it believed Jews could attain salvation through Judaism, and whether the Church has completely abandoned its doctrine of proselytizing to Jews.

“We still have among major Church leaders… strong assertions that all salvation has to be said as coming through Christ,” Pawlikowski said, adding, “I don’t think we can make the affirmation ‘There is no mission to the Jews,’ unless we really confront some of these realities head on — otherwise our Jewish friends will hear almost conflicting messages.”

Many critics of Dominus Iesus say their concerns have not been addressed.

On Tuesday, as Ratzinger was being elevated to pope, Klenicki called the new pontiff’s approach to Jews “complicated, problematic and ambiguous.”

“On one hand, [Ratzinger] stresses that the new [Christian] covenant [with God] fulfills the expectation of Mt. Sinai, which is classical supercessionism,” Klenicki said. “But at the same time he proposes an ongoing discussion with the Jewish people which he considers unique in the history of salvation.”

Michael J. Cook, a professor of Judeo-Christian studies at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said Tuesday that the new pope’s prior writings “render uncertain whether renewed progress in Vatican-Jewish relations is viable.”

Jerome Chanes, an interfaith expert and professor at Barnard College, advised caution about celebrating Benedict XVI, suggesting that many of the flashpoints between Jews and the Vatican during John Paul’s papacy could be traced back to his chief theologian, Ratzinger.

Among other things, Chanes cited John Paul’s close relationship with former Austrian president Kurt Waldheim, who was exposed as a Nazi soldier.

But several Jewish communal leaders defended Ratzinger and painted him as a key ally of John Paul II.

Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, said that the new pope was “the architect of the [Vatican’s] ideological policy to recognize, to have full relations with Israel” and “provided the theological underpinning for many of the major advances in Jewish-Catholic relations in the past quarter century.”

Experts noted that Ratzinger authorized the publication of a landmark report in December 2001 that marked the first time the Vatican officially endorsed as valid the Jewish interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.

The report, titled “The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible,” was issued by the Vatican’s Pontifical Biblical Commission.

“It may be asked whether Christians should be blamed for having monopolized the Jewish Bible and reading there what no Jew has found,” the report stated. “Christians can and ought to admit that the Jewish reading of the Bible is a possible one, in continuity with the Jewish Sacred Scriptures from the Second Temple period. Jewish messianic expectation is not in vain,” implying that both Jews and Catholics are waiting for a similar messiah, a radical theological concept.

Philip Cunningham, director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College, said that the report’s recognition of the spiritual legitimacy of rabbinic Judaism is of great theological importance.

“It contradicts centuries of Christian polemic that decried rabbinic Judaism as an illegitimate deformation of biblical Judaism,” Cunningham said. “It seeks to discard the Christian practice of using [the Hebrew Bible] as ‘proof texts’ for Jesus.”

Less than a year after the report was released, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement declaring that campaigns targeting Jews for conversion “are no longer theologically acceptable in the Catholic Church.”

Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee, said that Ratzinger’s support for the “Sacred Scriptures” document “reveals his profound commitment to continuing the work of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation and understanding, which he fully appreciates is a work in progress.

Rosen downplayed the controversy over Dominus Iesus, noting that in the wake of discomfort over the document Ratzinger wrote an article titled “Abraham Our Father” that sought to emphasize the unique relationship that the Church has with Judaism.

“In a private conversation with me in Jerusalem some 15 years ago, [Ratzinger] told me ‘everything that has religious significance for you must have religious significance for me because you are our roots,’” Rosen told the Forward Wednesday.

Regarding Ratzinger’s German upbringing, some Jewish observers stressed that the new pope has confronted the Holocaust, calling it a defining moment in history and apologizing for the atrocities perpetrated against Jews. Ratzinger is the first German pope since the 11th Century.

In a statement, the national director of the ADL, Abraham Foxman, declared that “all his life Cardinal Ratzinger has atoned for” his membership in Hitler’s youth movement.

In a December 29, 2000, address cited by Foxman, Ratzinger expressed remorse for the anti-Jewish attitudes that persisted throughout history, leading to “deplorable acts of violence” and the Holocaust.

Ratzinger said: “Even if the most recent, loathsome experience of the [Holocaust] was perpetrated in the name of an anti-Christian ideology, which tried to strike the Christian faith at its Abrahamic roots in the people of Israel, it cannot be denied that a certain insufficient resistance to this atrocity on the part of Christians can be explained by an inherited anti-Judaism present in the hearts of not a few Christians.”

Rosen recalled that in 1994 Ratzinger commenced a keynote address at an international Jewish-Christian conference with the words: “The history of relations between Israel and Christianity is filled with blood and tears. After Auschwitz, the mission of reconciliation and acceptance cannot be delayed.”

In contrast to efforts to downplay Ratzinger’s past, some Jewish observers suggested that his German background accounted for several controversial aspects of his career.

As head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger enforced a variety of conservative positions on issues including birth control, women in the priesthood, the role of gays, and stem-cell research

Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the progressive Jewish magazine Tikkun, circulated an article on the Internet blaming his wartime experiences for his conservative, theological rigidity on several fronts. Lerner wrote that though Ratzinger “apparently” served the Nazi government against his will, he appeared to absorb “the deep patriarchal and authoritarian character structure that the fascists did so much to foster in youth.”

Lerner stated, “Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has distinguished himself as a man who can be counted on to side with the most anti-humane and repressive forces, in opposition to those who seek to give primacy to a world of peace and justice.”


Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.