After John Paul's Historic Outreach, Hope - And Concern

By Rabbi Stephen Fuchs
April 24 2005

Cardinal Ratzinger helped draft some of Pope John Paul II's forward-looking statements about improving relations with the Jewish community, and that is a hopeful sign. "He has a passionate commitment to good relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people and an unquestionable commitment to Israel's well-being," said Rabbi David Rosen, head of the Inter-religious Affairs Department of the American Jewish Committee.

Also, despite a short-term compulsory membership in the Hitler Youth, the new pope had no apparent ties to the ideology of the Nazi regime. That, too, is cause for optimism.

Yet there are some causes for concern. The National Catholic Reporter of Oct. 6, 2000, quoted from Cardinal Ratzinger's recently published book: "We wait for the day when Israel will say yes to Christ." When asked if Jews should acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, Ratzinger answered, "We believe that." Ratzinger did add that "we should not force Christ upon them [the Jews]."

Compared with the positions taken by Pope John Paul II, the above statements are disturbing. It is now well known that one of only two people mentioned by the late pontiff in his will was the chief rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff. It is well remembered by Jews around the world how Pope John Paul II bounded out of his limousine to embrace the rabbi in the first-ever visit by a pope to a synagogue worship service.

In October 1987, it was my privilege to participate in the pope's meeting with Jewish leaders in Miami. The presence of every American cardinal testifies to the meeting's importance as the first stop on the pope's visit to the United States at that time. In his address, there was no hint that Jews had a need to accept Jesus. When I shook the pope's hand and looked into his eyes, I saw nothing but genuine friendship and acceptance.

Later, I was invited to address the sesquicentennial celebration of the Catholic Church in Tennessee - an extension of the late pope's policy toward Judaism. The warm public embrace I received from the presiding prelate, Bernard Cardinal Law, was a sign of the church's new attitude of mutuality with the Jewish people.

Once, our highest goal as Jews was that the rest of the world would stop persecuting us just because we were Jews. Beginning with Pope John XXIII's historic initiative Nostra Aetate and during the 26-year pontificate of John Paul II, we dared to hope that the Roman Catholic Church had turned a significant page. No longer were Jews in need of the salvation of the church; we became in their official eyes a religion worthy of tolerance, respect and affirmation.

Jews and Catholics had reached a point where we both could say: "My religion is right for me, but yours, though completely different in its theological stance, is totally right for you." That meant that when we shared such goals as concern for the poor and the hungry, we could cooperate with respect. Where we differed on theological matters - including the divinity of Jesus - we could disagree but with appreciation of each other.

These statements of Pope Benedict XVI threaten to turn back the clock. I hope clarification will come because Jews and Catholics have come too far to settle for mere tolerance. I also hope the future will bring more of what made Pope John Paul II such a revered figure in the Jewish world.

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs is the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford and a past chairman of the Central Conference of American Rabbis' Committee on Inter-religious Affairs.