Quite a lot of Jewish ink has been spilled over the last few weeks analyzing the pontificate of the now retired Benedict XVI, prognosticating on who might be his successor, and, once announced, reporting every detail of Francis’ history with the Jewish community. This Jewish interest with the papacy must be seen in light of the history of Jewish-Christian relations over the centuries, and, more recently, both ongoing changes in Roman Catholic Church and the specific actions and statements of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Beginning with the Second Vatican Council (1963-1965) and Nostra Aetate, the Roman Catholic Church rejected the teaching of contempt for Jews and Judaism and embarked on a remarkable effort to articulate a new understanding of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. It repudiated deicide (the charge that the Jews are guilty for the death of Jesus), affirmed the ongoing significance of the Jewish covenant, acknowledged the role of Christianity and Christians in the Holocaust, established diplomatic relations with the State of Israel, and called on Catholics to understand Jews as they understand themselves.
John Paul II was the first pope ever to visit a synagogue. His trip to Israel in 2000 produced two iconic images. The first his placement in the Western Wall of a prayer of apology and affirmation of the Jews as a “People of the Covenant.” The second is his greeting six Holocaust survivors, at Yad Vashem, including a concentration camp survivor who credited him with saving her life.
Benedict XVI also visited Israel and spoke in a number of synagogues around the world. In his book, Jesus of Nazareth – Part II, he provides a detailed refutation of the deicide charge, adding substance to what Nostra Aetate stated but did not explain. He spoke at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he called the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews an attempt “to kill the God” to whom “Israel was a witness.”
John XXIII and Paul VI laid the foundation for the new era in the relationship between Judaism and the Roman Catholic Church by convening the Second Vatican Council and insisting that, as part of the Council, the relationship with the Jews had to be addressed. John Paul II and Benedict XVI built on that foundation with the dramatic public moments described above in ways that demonstrated that the words of Vatican documents have an ongoing life within the Church.
In ways that the popes could not imagine, and may not fully appreciate, they have become the most prominent public representatives for the new relationship not only between Jews and Catholics, but also between Jews and Christians. Thus, every positive pronouncement and action by a pope is heralded in the Jewish community as another example of this new era. Every misstep or misunderstanding that arises (these are inevitable; they have and will continue to occur) is seen to shake the very foundation of the new relationship and threaten to allow the evil genie of historic Christian anti-Judaism out of the bottle. So when a new pope is to be elected, the Jewish community feels it has much at stake.
It is at this point that other changes in the Church come into play. Over the past several generations, the center of Catholic life has shifted from Europe and the Northern hemisphere to South America, Africa and Asia. And with this change came the expectation that a new pope would come from one of these communities. Indeed, this was already the case after the death of John Paul II; before Benedict XVI, a German, was elected, a non-European pope was a distinct possibility. For Jews, the idea of a non-European pope brought with it the fear that such a pope would not have a record of experience with the Jewish community and would not be as committed to promoting positive Jewish-Catholic relations as his predecessors.
Therefore, when the white smoke went up and the name of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was announced, the Jewish world immediately wanted to know his about his relationship with the Jewish community. And, as it turns out, he has a strong history of engagement, including having co-written a book with a rabbi. In other words, this pope knows us.
The interest of the Jewish community in the pope’s commitment to Jewish-Christian relations reflects an understandable wariness among Jews. After all, as wonderful as new Christian attitude to Jews and Judaism is, it is still quite young, especially when compared to the centuries of history that preceded it. Indeed, there are some voices both outside the Church and within it that question whether the changes of Second Vatican Council are irrevocably enshrined. It is also the case that Christian anti-Judaism is still found among some in the Catholic Church and in other parts of the Christian world. Therefore, a pope for whom relations with the Jews are a priority, and who demonstrates that in word and deed, is clearly in the best interest of Jewish community.
At the same time, almost 50 years after the promulgation of Nostra Aetate, it does seem that the changes brought about by that momentous declaration have become institutionalized within the Catholic Church. It would be a significant deviation from the current trajectory of the Church for it to repudiate Nostra Aetate and once again to teach contempt for Jews and Judaism. When (not if!) Pope Francis visits both Israel and the synagogue in Rome, it will no longer be a revolutionary act, but rather the continuation of an emerging papal tradition that future popes will likely routinely follow. If this is so, then the question of whether a new pope will be good for the Jews may not be as crucial as it once was.