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Keys to the conclave: How will the new pope influence Catholic-Jewish relations?

Cardinals attend the Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice Mass

Cardinals attend the Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice Mass at St. Peter's Basilica before they enter the conclave to decide who the next pope will be at the Vatican. (March 12, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

Whatever else may be riding on the outcome of this conclave, the important gains in Catholic-Jewish relations that the past two popes achieved—brilliantly and theatrically in the case of John Paul II and more quietly and steadily under Benedict XVI—are not in danger.

Given the painful history of two millennia, it’s one of the good news non-stories of the conclave. There’s no cardinal in the Sistine Chapel who inspires fear among Jews, but they’re watching it with interest, along with much of the rest of the world—secure in the knowledge that the progress of recent decades isn’t going to melt away.

“This is an internal Catholic process,” said Rabbi Eric Greenberg, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League. “We do have a stake in Catholic-Jewish relations. We have a stake in this partnership. So, of course, we’re interested.”

Quite apart from the theological and historical dimensions of Catholic-Jewish relations, there’s the matter of the scarlet-tinged drama of solemn oaths sworn in Latin and huge doors closing around a secret that even 5,000 journalists can’t penetrate. “It’s such a fascinating spectacle,” said Rabbi James Rudin, the senior interreligious advisor to the American Jewish Committee. “You guys really know how to put on a pageant.”

Both rabbis have written recent books on the evolving relationship. Rudin’s include “Cushing, Spellman, O’Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations.” Greenberg completed the co-editing begun by the late Rabbi Leon Klenicki, along with Catholic scholar Eugene Fisher, for “The Saint for Shalom: How Pope John Paul II Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations.” But their feel for the breakthroughs of recent decades is personal, as well as literary.

They were both there, for example, during John Paul’s epochal 2000 pilgrimage to the Holy Land, which I covered for Newsday, along with Paul Moses and Matt McAllester. At the time, Greenberg was still a layman, writing for The Jewish Week. Rudin was there for the American Jewish Committee. And their personal relationships with Catholic dialogue partners—including some cardinals—have been strong. So it was comforting to hear that they both have a relaxed attitude toward the outcome, no real horse in the race, and a confidence that the work of both John Paul and Benedict, which has carried the relationship forward, despite momentary bumps and missteps, is not at risk.

“Nobody is going to repeal any of the reforms regarding Catholics and Jews,” Rudin said. “That’s not the problem. The problem is how will it be emphasized, and will it be put in the margins.” Rudin doesn’t seem at all concerned. “I don’t see any retrenchment.”

What Rudin does see, as a friendly observer of the papacy, is the challenge of keeping the church abreast with changing technology, to make sure the pope’s voice doesn’t get drowned out by all the other voices in the blogosphere. “The pope has to compete to be heard,” Rudin said. “He’s competing for the ears of the devout.”

Both rabbis spoke warmly of Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, whose brown-robed Franciscan simplicity and tough-minded reforms have people mentioning his name often. And Greenberg has worked closely with another American whose name keeps getting mentioned, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.

“We have a terrific relationship with Timothy Dolan, from the moment he arrived in New York,” Greenberg said. “Wherever Dolan is, I think there is going to be a terrific relationship between Catholics and Jews, whether he’s in New York, whether he’s in Rome.”

There’s been plenty of justifiable handwringing over some huge problems facing the church—from the sexual abuse scandal to the management of its clanking curial bureaucracy. But it’s important that there’s real trust, from those who should know, that this area of tremendous advances seems safe, no matter who eventually steps out on that iconic balcony, gives his blessing to the city and the world, and agrees to sit in the Chair of Peter.

While we wait for that moment, here’s a good analysis by John Thavis of the general way the conversations are likely to be going: