The following opinion article by World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder was published by the leading Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera on the eve of Pope Benedict’s visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome.
Time for a few illuminating words
When a Catholic bishop visits the main synagogue in his diocese it is first and foremost a mark of friendship and an expression of the good relationship between the two local religious communities. Things are somewhat different when such a visit occurs in Rome, as the Bishop of Rome is also pontiff of the Catholic Church, representing more than a billion Catholics world-wide.
It is therefore important to Jews around the world what Pope Benedict XVI has to say this Sunday in Rome’s main synagogue on the Jewish-Catholic relationship and on a number of sensitive issues has already caused a sensation during his pontificate thus far.
Benedict XVI has often emphasized how important good relations to Judaism are to him. Through his trips to Israel, to Auschwitz, and his visits to synagogues in Cologne and New York, he has proved that he is sincere.
The German-born Pope has always been an outstanding theologian and a sharp-witted thinker. And yet, sometimes we see another Benedict, one who surprises us with decisions that – even for the well-meaning amongst us – are difficult to comprehend.
We Jews are generally very sensitive folk; some would say over-sensitive – although history has given us enough reason to be vigilant, given that anti-Semitism was very widespread and deeply rooted in the higher echelons of the Christian churches until a few decades ago.
Moreover, we Jews are an emotional people, and in public life we don’t always judge a statement or a decision made by the Pope by purely rational or intellectual criteria which perhaps are the hallmarks of a theological seminary. We pay close attention to gestures and symbols, especially from a Pope of German origin.
And we are quick to interpret his decisions in a certain way, even when they do not appear entirely obvious to us, because we always fear that others will deliberately interpret them in a way that one could regard as offensive to us.
All of this wouldn’t matter much had not dissent and controversies between our religions often served as justification for exclusion, persecution, and even violence. We need to make sure that we overcome former divisions and do not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Certain reasoning and decision-making by the Pope that is perfectly logical within the framework of Catholic theology and teaching can have a completely different meaning for the outside world (the same also applies to Jewish thinking), hence the need to explain and communicate these decisions in a comprehensible fashion.
When the Pope allows the use of the Good Friday Prayer of the old Tridentine liturgy, which calls for Jews to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Savior of all men, some of us are deeply hurt.
When the Pope decides to lift the excommunication of bishops of the ultra-conservative and anti-Semitic Society of St. Pius X, among them a notorious Holocaust denier, we are upset.
When we have the impression that the beatification process of Pope Pius XII is being rushed through before all the documentation kept by the Vatican on this pontificate is revealed, many of us are disturbed. During that Pope’s pontificate, six million Jews in Europe were murdered by the Nazis, and there is an on-going debate about whether Pius XII really did all in his power to save at least some of them.
Holocaust survivors in particular feel upset when “heroic virtues” are accorded to Pius XII, even though that may make perfect sense within the inner-Catholic framework and may have nothing to do with his actions during World War II. To be clear: is it neither up to us Jews, nor to other outsiders, to decide who should be declared a hero or a saint of the Catholic Church. I also do not presume to be in a position to render a final judgment on Pius’ actions – or inaction – during World War II.
Yet those who view Pius XII and his behavior during that period critically – among them many historians – should be heard before irreversible decisions are taken hastily. Until all papers relating to Pius XII during the crucial period are accessible, the Vatican would be well advised to pause for a moment. Otherwise, even Catholics might have great trouble in recognizing the “heroic virtues” of Pius XII, and the reputation of the present Pope would consequently also suffer some damage.
Despite all these differences in opinion between Catholics and Jews – and it is only normal that they exist – the relationship between Jews and the Vatican is based on a solid foundation. We have managed, since the 1965 Declaration Nostra Aetate, to maintain a dialogue based on mutual trust. This dialogue is much more advanced than that with other Christian denominations, or with Islam.
I harbor no doubts whatever about the positive attitude and open-mindedness of Pope Benedict XVI vis-à-vis the Jews. He is more than welcome in our synagogues and I hope there will be many more such important occasions in the future.
However, on Sunday, when he pays a visit to Rome’s main synagogue on the invitation of the local Jewish community, we would welcome a few illuminating answers to some of the questions I outlined above. That could help dispel some of the irritations of the past months that have unnecessarily strained Jewish-Catholic relations.
Many Jews would recognize that as a small “heroic virtue” of the Pope.