Benedict’s most recent foray into the headlines—occasioned by the early March release of excerpts from his new book, Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two (released a week later)—likewise saw one of the most intriguing passages ignored. Benedict quotes Francis Collins, the devout evangelical Protestant who led the Human Genome Project, that “the language of God was revealed” when the genome was unveiled. “In the magnificent mathematics of creation,” Benedict continues, “which today we can read in the human genetic code, we do recognize the language of God. The functional truth about man has been discovered.” As Collins notes in his own book, The Language of God, to understand the genome is to grasp the inescapable fact of evolution, the “functional truth” of creation, and there can be little doubt that Benedict—however obliquely he states it—does so as well. In the same way he dealt with the condom issue—rejecting either/or thinking to reconcile faith (opposition to birth control) and reason (care for the health of a partner)—Benedict bridged his Church’s belief about humanity’s true spiritual nature with science’s revelations about our physical nature.
What understandably obscured the evolution passage was Benedict’s exoneration of Jews from the ancient accusation of being Christ-killers—the heart of two millennia of at times murderous Catholic antagonism toward them. “Now we must ask,” the Pope wrote, “Who exactly were Jesus’s accusers? Who insisted that he be condemned to death? According to [the Gospel of] John it was simply ‘the Jews.’ But John’s use of this expression does not in any way indicate—as the modern reader might suppose—the people of Israel in general, even less is it ‘racist’ in character. In John’s Gospel this word has a precise and clearly defined meaning: the Temple aristocracy.” The words caused an immediate stir because a Pope wrote them, because he identified the roots of his theology in speciﬁc Gospel passages—thereby essentially instructing the faithful in how to read those verses—and because the media (not to mention numerous Catholics) seemed to have forgotten that the Church as a whole said much the same, in much the same words, 46 years ago at the Second Vatican Council.
Pope watchers, who hadn’t forgotten, therefore obsessed over the question, why draw attention to those particular passages at this particular time? Judaism is Catholicism’s most important theological relationship, even if Islam is its most geopolitically significant. After the 2006 speech in which Benedict quoted the anti-Muhammad remarks of a Byzantine emperor, setting off violent protests in the Islamic world, he devoted considerable time to mending fences with Muslims. He travelled to Turkey and Jordan and has constantly expressed his openness to Islam as an anti-secular “friend speaking from within a shared space of common religious concern,” in John Allen’s words. That increased attention may, suggest some observers, have contributed to recent bumps in the road in the Jewish relationship.
Even so, in part those bumps were inevitable: for the Jewish world, John Paul II was the most highly regarded pope it ever encountered, or is likely to. “His personal biography, his enduring friendship with Jews from his earliest childhood, his wartime record, on occasion risking his life to save Jews,” sums up Joseph Weiler, a New York University Law School professor and an Orthodox Jew. All that, Weiler adds, “gave huge credibility to John Paul’s outstretched hand to his ‘elder brothers,’ as he memorably explained in his historic visit to the Rome synagogue when he, personally blameless, had no hesitation in expressing profound regret and apology for Christian wrongdoing toward the Jews.” Any successor would have a hard time following that; Benedict, cool and cerebral in temperament, and, not to forget, a one-time (if unwilling) member of the Hitler Youth, is not just any successor.
Then there is the controversy over wartime pope Pius XII, a half-century-old canker that won’t heal. Immediately after the Second World War, Pius was praised by many Jewish leaders for his efforts on behalf of Jews during the Holocaust, but since Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 play, The Deputy, debate has raged over whether he did enough, given his failure to openly denounce the Nazi genocide. Many liberal Catholics feel the same unease as most Jewish commentators about Pius’s inexorable canonization process. The official Church, however, which venerates Pius for his “heroic virtues” as a Christian, is far more inclined to believe the pontiff did more than could be expected under Nazi occupation. Coren calls him “a righteous Gentile, a righteous Pope, a righteous Roman Catholic, a righteous man.” In this, author and Pope are on the same page: a year after he raised Pius to the status of venerable in late 2009—the first stop on the road to sainthood—Benedict stated that Pius was “one of the great righteous men who saved more Jews than anyone.”
If Pius is an old sore, Benedict’s restoration—from a schismatic order of traditionalist Catholics—of a Holocaust-denying bishop has been a flashpoint. Richard Williamson is one of four men consecrated as bishops in 1988 by breakaway archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who objected to the reforms of Vatican II. The “bishops,” along with Lefebvre (who died in 1991), were all automatically excommunicated for ordaining without papal permission. Benedict, who has long wanted to mend fences with the traditionalists, lifted the excommunications on Jan. 21, 2009—a welcoming hand extended to prodigal sons much like the one he offered Anglican communities unhappy with their Church’s ordination of women and openness to same-sex unions. On the same day, however, a Swedish TV show broadcast an interview in which Williamson stated, “I think that 200,000 to 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, none of them in gas chambers.”
Benedict felt blindsided amid the immediate uproar. Prosecutors in Germany, where the interview was recorded and Holocaust denial is a crime, announced an investigation (Williamson was later fined $20,000), and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel suspended contacts with the Church. The Vatican responded forcefully, declaring that, if he wished to be a functioning bishop within the Church, Williamson “will have to take his distance, in an absolutely unequivocal and public fashion, from his position on the Shoah, which the Holy Father was not aware of when the excommunication was lifted.” So far, the papacy has rejected Williamson’s half-hearted apologies and he has not reconciled with Benedict.
A final factor colouring Catholic-Jewish relations is that Jewish disquiet is starting to be matched by Catholic exasperation. In the wake of the excerpts, some angry posters to Jewish websites denounced Benedict for having the chutzpah, so to speak, to “forgive” Jews for killing Christ. (An understandable reaction, if that was what Benedict had actually done, but to state that the Jews are innocent of the charge of murdering Jesus is not the same as pardoning them for their non-existent crime.) And after Benedict, following in John Paul’s footsteps, visited the Israeli Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem, the Pope drew loud criticism when his speech did not express regret over Williamson, even though he had done so many other times. Some Church leaders, John Allen reported in his 2009 book, The Future Church, resent that their overtures are not “matched by a similar spirit” on the Jewish side. After Yad Vashem, Cardinal Walter Kasper, chief Vatican official for Jewish relations, said, “There seems to be an attitude of, ‘That’s good, but it’s not enough.’ ”
Still, Benedict has every reason to be pleased with the generally positive Jewish response to the deicide passage, including a letter from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressing appreciation for the Pope’s “clarity and courage.” It would be only the smallest of ironies if a passage Benedict wrote, in all probability, before becoming head of the Church does more to cement Catholic-Jewish relations than anything since John Paul’s moving visit to the synagogue in Rome.
Allen recalls in his wide-ranging survey of future trends in the Church that many Catholics used to joke that the 1967 Beatles tune, The Fool on the Hill, perfectly captured the irrelevance of Pope Paul VI in the 1970s, with its lines, “Nobody ever hears him / or the sound he appears to make / and he never seems to notice…” No one would have dreamed of saying that after John Paul II’s 1978 arrival on Vatican Hill. And whatever might have been expected of the surprising Benedict XVI, it can’t be said now.