In his new book, Pope Benedict XVI reiterates the Second Vatican Council teaching that Jews are not collectively guilty for the death of Jesus (see story, Page 18). His words prompted major media interest, a letter of thanks from Israel’s prime minister and praise from prominent Jewish groups in the United States like the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
The level of interest had some Catholics scratching their heads. Strictly speaking, the pope’s words aren’t “new.” So is this a big deal or not?
Looking at the words alone, Pope Benedict has added very little to the teaching of the groundbreaking 1965 council document Nostra Aetate, which definitively repudiated the idea of collective Jewish guilt, or of a curse somehow brought upon Jews by Jesus’ death. What he does bring is a layer of reflection on the scriptural account of Jesus’ trial, and the shouts of the “whole people” to “crucify him” and that “his blood be on us and on our children.” Not only is it clear, the pope says, that the crowd doesn’t represent the Jewish people as a whole, but read through the eyes of faith, the blood of Jesus is no curse.
Jesus’ blood “does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it brings reconciliation,” the pope writes. “It is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all.”
Not exactly earth-shattering statements, especially for anyone familiar with Vatican II or the Catechism of the Catholic Church (see especially Nos. 595-598).
At the same time, they unfortunately continue to need to be said, not just by pontiffs but by ordinary Catholics, too. While most Catholics hearing readings of Jesus’ passion wouldn’t think of imputing blame to modern-day Jews, anti-Semitism persists, even in some quarters of the Church. (Witness the debacle over the lifting of excommunication from traditionalist Bishop Richard Williamson, who has cast doubt on the historicity of the Holocaust; Pope Benedict said earlier this year he would have blocked the lifting had he known the prelate’s views.)
And it is undeniable that the concept of collective guilt was used for centuries to justify the killing and persecution of Jews in Christian Europe. While Nazism was an anti-Christian ideology as well, its anti-Semitism did draw on Europe’s long history of Jewish persecution, leading to the systematic slaughter of 6 million Jews.
In an editorial praising the pope, The Los Angeles Times ends with a bit of hyperbole, but the sentiment is not misplaced: “It’s not possible for Catholic leaders to speak out against this often enough.”
Both Pope Benedict and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, have taken huge strides to repair relations with Jews. They are the first popes in centuries to visit synagogues, and both prayed at the Holocaust memorial in Israel. Pope Benedict has met on numerous occasions with rabbis.
There have been bumps in the road. Many Jewish groups continue to take offense at Pope Benedict’s high praise of Pope Pius XII, saying the wartime pope should have spoken out more forcefully against Adolf Hitler (even though he opposed Nazi ideology from the beginning and behind the scenes is estimated to have saved many tens of thousands of Jews from death camps).
For some Catholics, the sense that their Church is always on trial and held uniquely responsible for all anti-Semitism is frustrating: When will Jewish-Catholic dialogue move beyond rehashing the same old (often historical) issues? How many times do we have to apologize for the sins of our fathers?
As Pope Benedict seems to be saying, without a hint of impatience, the answer is: as long as it takes.