April 22, 2005

Good for the Jews?

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

Almost as soon as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger stepped out onto the balcony at Vatican City to make his first public appearance as Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday, the Jews of the diaspora were asking the quintessential Jewish question of this latest development in the Catholic Church: Is it good for the Jews?

Several days of pontification followed.

In the American Jewish world, the usual suspects issued their formulaic public declarations congratulating the new pope on his election and welcoming his efforts on Catholic-Jewish relations. A few lone voices brought up Ratzinger's wartime membership in the Hitler Youth, an indiscretion dismissed by most familiar with Ratzinger as a mostly meaningless gesture required of German youth at the time.

Amidst all the hype and media scrutiny, the basic fact remained that the Jews, just like everybody else, will have to wait and see how this new pope turns out.

But the speculation about the new pope is more than just guesswork. Though Ratzinger is new to the diplomacy of the papacy, he is not new to its theology. Indeed, as some Jews familiar with Ratzinger told the Jerusalem Post this week, the new pope helped shape the theology of the late pope, John Paul II, particularly on issues relating to Jews and Judaism.

"Ratzinger created the theological underpinnings for the entire change in relations between Jews and Catholics," said Michael Wyschogrod, a philosophy professor from the City University of New York who had several private audiences with Ratzinger during the 1980s. At the time, Wyschogrod was with the American Jewish Congress' Institute for Jewish-Christian Relations.

"He is a theologian, and the relationship with the Jewish people is a matter of theological significance for him," Wyschogrod said of the new pope.

Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress and chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, said Ratzinger formulated along with Pope John Paul II the change in the Catholic position on the Jews and Israel.

"Ratziger and the pope created this theological policy together," Singer said. As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church office responsible for maintaining the orthodoxy of the faith and rooting out heresy, Ratzinger "was in charge of the doctrines of the faith," Singer explained. Ratzinger "was the keeper of the theological keys; he was the authority."

Like his predecessor, the new pope is known as a conservative who is unlikely to change the church's positions on such basic issues as divorce, women in the priesthood, birth control or homosexuality. Despite John Paul II's strong conservativism, however, the late pope was quite reform-minded when it came to Jewish issues, apologizing for Christian anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, establishing diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Israel, and visiting the Jewish state.

"He really broke new ground, and he dragged Ratzinger along with him," Wyschogrod said. Ratzinger's approach toward Jews has been shaped both by his proximity to the late pope and by his own theological position affirming Judaism's unique relationship with Christianity, Wyschogrod said.

If Wyschogrod's analysis is correct and the conservative Benedict XVI maintains John Paul II's unorthodox approach toward Jewish issues, the old pope's Jewish reforms will be cemented even among the conservative wing of the Catholic Church.

"The Jewish-Christian dialogue needs the conservatives in the Catholic Church, because if it becomes strictly a project of the liberals in the church, then it will leave a big part of the church behind," Wyschogrod said. "So we need a conservative dedicated to changing Jewish-Christian relations, and I think that might well be Ratzinger."

Furthermore, despite concerns among some about Ratzinger's past involvement with Nazism-from which Ratzinger has taken pains to disassociate himself-Wyschogrod said the new pope's German background likely will play to the Jews' benefit.

"I think his German background is an asset, because it makes it very difficult for him to relegate the Jewish issue to the background," Wyschogrod said. "Jewish history has got to be in the forefront of his mind, in my opinion."

While historically there is more than ample reason for Jews to be concerned whenever there is change in the Catholic Church's leadership, there may be some benefit at this point for optimism-at least in public.

As Wyschogrod pointed out, "I think the Jewish community at this point should speak positively about him because we're going to have to live with him."