Advice From a Jew to Pope Benedict XVI


We Jews number about 13 million souls worldwide, as opposed to the Roman Catholic Church’s claim of 1.2 billion. One might argue that it is un-mitigated chutzpah for a rabbi to offer advice to the new pope as he begins his papacy. After all, what the church does is its own business. However, the pope, as the most influential religious leader in the world, affects me and the Jewish people, not to mention the rest of humanity, with his words and deeds. That being the case, there is much indeed that we Jews have the duty to share with the new pope and the Catholic church.

Before I weigh in, I want to express my deepest gratitude for the direction the church has taken in the past 40 years vis-รก-vis Judaism and the Jewish people, especially in light of the past 2,000 years, during which time the church brutalized and persecuted us. Our refusal to convert to Christianity and the Gospel slander of the crime of deicide gave rise to centuries of crusades, inquisitions, expulsions, thievery, pogroms, blood libels, murder, mayhem and the Holocaust.

All that began to change once Pope John XXIII convened Vatican II in the mid-1960s. John Paul II, in particular, exhibited early on his profound desire for Christian-Jewish reconciliation. He visited the Great Synagogue in Rome in 1986 and said: “You are our dearly beloved brothers and, in a certain way … you are our elder brothers.” Following in the spirit of Nostrae Aetate he repudiated Christian anti-Semitism as evil and contrary to Christianity. He repudiated the claim that Jews are “cursed” because we don’t accept Jesus as the Messiah and, quoting from Romans (11:28-29) he made his point that, in truth, the Jews are beloved of God.

Only 100 years ago, Pius IX refused Theodor Herzl’s request for assistance in securing the land of Israel for the Jewish people because we continued to refuse Jesus as Christ, and therefore, the pope insinuated, the ancient land no longer belonged to the Jewish people. Marking a 180-degree turnabout, John Paul II established diplomatic relations with the State of Israel in 1993; became the first sitting pope ever to visit the Holy Land in 2000, where he spoke tearfully at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in solidarity with Jewish suffering; and stood in prayer at the Kotel, where he asked Divine forgiveness for the sins Christians had committed against Jews throughout history (and especially during the Holocaust).

John Paul II called upon all Christians to recognize that because anti-Semitism has found a place in Christian thought and teaching there is a need for acts of teshuvah, or repentance. And he affirmed the spiritual bonds that exist between Jews and Christians going back to Abraham: “The Catholic faith is rooted in the eternal truths of the Hebrew Scriptures and in the irrevocable covenant made with Abraham.”

Under Pope John Paul the church argued passionately and forcefully on behalf of the victims of war and persecution, while condemning violence, war and terrorism. The church also advocated peace between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland and between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East. It helped bring down the tyranny of the former Soviet Union; criticized the excessive consumption, corporate greed and inherent inequity of unbridled and unchecked capitalism; advocated for the rights of workers to a decent wage, accessible health care, safe working conditions and retirement pensions; and condemned capital punishment as state evil.

Despite the church’s healing legacy to the Jewish people, and the strong moral progressive stands of John Paul II in recent years, the church’s record is mixed and troubling in other ways.

I would hope that Pope Benedict XVI does not repeat the Church’s past and will continue to develop understanding between the church and Judaism, as well as between the church and Islam. There is some indication that this will be the case, based upon a 210-page document published three years ago titled, “The Jewish People and the Holy Scriptures in the Christian Bible” by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, which was authorized by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s chief theologian. The document contains an apology to the Jewish people for anti-Semitic passages contained in the Christian Bible, and also stresses the continuing importance of the Torah for Christians. On the other hand, Ratzinger alarmed Jewish leaders the year before when he declared that the Church was waiting for the moment when Jews will “say yes to Christ.”

In another slim volume titled “Many Religions — One Covenant” the future pope wrote of reconciliation, of the ongoing role of the Jewish people and of the Torah’s value. All this seems positive.

Benedict XVI’s role during the Nazi period, however, will have to be more fully vetted in the coming days. Despite his theological openness to Jews and his close working relationship with John Paul II, we Jews cannot help but be unnerved by the fact that Ratzinger was a member of Hitler Youth before being drafted into the German army. My first piece of advice to the new pope is to explain your past.

Otherwise, my advice to the new pope is to reassess the church’s rigidity and its cruel moral stances concerning women, family planning, homosexuality and dissent. The church should acknowledge that its record on women has been abysmal. Quoting Frances Kissling, the American president of Catholics for Free Choice, “The man who exhorted world leaders to extend democracy and human rights in the world used every means at his disposal to deny Catholics that freedom in the church. He told us women in the global north that we were selfish and individualistic…. He told those who were at risk of HIV/AIDS that death is better than sex with condoms.”

The church’s “culture of life” and strict adherence to conservative Catholic doctrine against birth control, the use of condoms and a woman’s right to choose to end a pregnancy have all encouraged the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa, and resulted in greater poverty in third-world nations and misery in countries already burdened by overpopulation.

Although an internal problem, the church’s lack of sympathy toward homosexuals and its rigid rejection of divorce has turned hundreds of thousands of faithful Catholics away from the church.

Most egregiously, the church has been far too passive, too slow and too late in applying a no-tolerance position to priests who sexually abused children, and to church officials, including bishops and cardinals, who protected the abusers.

Given this new pope’s staunch conservatism, the church is likely not to reconsider the issue of priestly celibacy and marriage, as well as the right of women to become priests, although I am aware of no prohibition against either anywhere in the Christian Bible. For that matter, the sea of mostly white male faces among the cardinals in Rome was an eerie throwback. This wanton exclusion of half the Catholic world’s population from leadership of the church robs Catholicism of the talent, wisdom, compassion and moral sensibility of people who could bring about great advances in the lives of people throughout the developing nations.

Benedict XVI’s insistence that modernism has nothing to offer the church is an ominous signal that moral progressivism is not going to be part of the church’s agenda.

Though the church in recent years has been a strong advocate for freedom and democracy around the world, it is likely that the new pope, like his predecessor, will continue to squash internal church dissent and publicly humiliate bishops and theologians whenever they deviate from papal orthodoxies and question the pope’s interpretation of moral theology.

I pray that I am wrong. The church desperately needs reform in order to truly fulfill its own mission of bringing faith and compassion to millions of people around the world.

As Jews, we have every right to critique the church even as we critique ourselves and our own tradition. I pray that this new pope does so, and may God bless his efforts.