Pope Benedict XVI & Jews

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk




The name Benedict is a direct translation of the Hebrew name Baruch. It means blessed in English, although literally translated from Latin it means good word. The great Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) is called Benedict Spinoza in Latin.

The current Pope, Benedict XVI, formerly known as Joseph Alois Ratzinger, was installed as Pope of the Roman Catholic Church on April 24, 2005. At that time he specifically mentioned the great shared spiritual heritage between Judaism and Christianity. On his election, a number of Jews who have known him for some time reacted positively. Rabbi David Rosen, the international director of inter-religious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said that the choice of Ratzinger would bring continuity to Catholic-Jewish relations. Said Rosen: "He has a deep commitment to this issue." Likewise, Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, called Ratzinger the architect of the ideological policy to recognize and have full relations with Israel. 

While still a Cardinal and assistant to Pope John Paul II, Ratzinger personally prepared a document entitled Memory and Reconciliation outlining the Roman Catholic Church's historical errors in its treatment of Jews.  In addition, Ratzinger authorized the publication in 2002 of The Jewish People and the Holy Scriptures. This document includes the statement, "the Jewish messianic wait is not in vain." This document furthermore condemns anti-Semitism and stresses the importance of the Torah for Christians. 

Abraham Foxman, Director of the Anti-Defamation League, said this about the new Pope: "we remember with great appreciation his Christmas reflection on December 29, 2000, when he memorably expressed remorse for the anti-Jewish attitudes that persisted through history." Numerous other expressions of regard for the Jewish people and for Israel have come from the writings and speeches of Pope Benedict the 16th. Included in these pronouncements has been the recent declaration on the part of the Roman Catholic cardinals' meeting in Argentina which declared that anti-Israel conduct is anti-Semitism and that no distinction exists. This is very important in light of the ridiculous effort on the part of Israel's enemies to make such a spurious distinction.

The new Pope expects to visit his homeland of Germany in August of this year. While in Cologne he will be visiting the main synagogue, thereby becoming the second Pope to do so. Pope John Paul II visited Rome's central synagogue in 1986. 

 An enormous gulf exists between the attitude of this Pope and most of his predecessors. Consider, for example, Pius IX, who was Pope from 1860-1904. During his rule of the Vatican the Jews living there were forced into a ghetto whose walls had at one time been taken down but were restored by this Pope. For Pius IX there was only one solution for the so-called “Jewish Question”, a phrase by no means invented by the Catholic Hitler but perpetuated by him. As far as Pius IX was concerned all Jews were obliged to convert to Catholic doctrines and beliefs. It was his view and the opinion of Catholics generally that the conversion of the infidels increased the glory of God and proved the truth of Christianity. Furthermore it was believed that the conversion of the Jews would hasten the return of Jesus. Therefore it was also believed that the failure of the Jews to convert prevented the return of Jesus, for which the Jews were held responsible and therefore justifiably persecuted. It should not be forgotten in this connection that the few Jews who converted to Catholicism were usually rewarded with a large sum of money and were frequently allowed to use the names of European nobility who had become their sponsors. 

One method by which the church increased the number of converts from Judaism to Christianity was to forcibly remove Jewish children from their parents and raise them as Christians. This was generally achieved by sprinkling some holy water on the forehead of the Jewish child. Anyone was allowed to do this with the consequence that nothing could be done to change the status of the child. The most famous of these child abductions occurred on the 23rd of June,1858, when a gang of Christian fanatics broke into the house of the Jewish merchant Momolo Mortara and seized the child Edgardo.

Pope Pius IX adopted the child, raised him as a Catholic, had him sent into a seminary and confirmed him as a priest. Mortara died in 1940.  

The end of the Rome ghetto did not come until 1870, when Italian troops tore down the walls and the Italian government abolished all anti-Jewish legislation in Italy. Despite this formal liberation, the 4500 Jews of Rome remained so impoverished that most of them remained in the ghetto area because they had no other shelter and no decent means of supporting themselves. It was there that the Germans found them in 1943 and sent them to the Auschwitz gas ovens. All this proceeded with the then Pope, Pius XIIth's, silent approval.

The distinction between the medieval horrors just described and the position of the current Pope is evidently enormous. The reason for the difference lies not only in remorse for Christian complicity in the mass murders of the Jews, but also in the fact that Israel has been restored as an independent Jewish state and that furthermore Christianity is threatened by Islam and needs all the help it can get, even from Jews, to defend itself against that menace.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Football & American Identity (2005) & Youth Culture and the Generation Gap with Dr. Ursula A. Falk.

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