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Marans: New pope will set tone for Catholic-Jewish relations

Pope Benedict XVI places a note in the

Pope Benedict XVI places a note in the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City. Photo Credit: AP

As the Catholic world focuses on the papal conclave, Jews will be paying attention as well. Popes oversaw centuries of Catholic hostility toward Jews and, more recently, the positive transformation in Catholic-Jewish relations. The pope sets the tone in this once troubled relationship.

In elementary school in the mid-1960s, my wife recalls, a Catholic classmate declared to her, "You killed our God." The 1965 Second Vatican Council's positive revolution in Catholic understanding of Judaism had not yet trickled down fully to the pews. There were still some Catholics who perpetuated the Christ-killer charge and impressionable young people who heard, internalized and repeated the calumny.

Sharing my wife's story in synagogue recently evoked memories. Several congregants related personal tales of a generation ago, including stories of anti-Jewish violence. One told about the righteous Catholics who cared for him as a hidden child in France during the Holocaust.

Today, most Jews take positive Catholic-Jewish relations for granted. Younger people have no memory of the pre-Vatican II era. Further, 85 percent of world Jewry lives in Israel and the United States. Few Israelis have any significant interaction with Christians. Young American Jews live side by side with Christians in an overwhelmingly Christian country where anti-Semitism is rare.

For nearly two millennia, popes have had significant influence in first sustaining anti-Jewish animus and then reversing it. Before the modern era, dozens of popes emulated Gregory I's (590-604) ambivalence toward Jews. Papal-Jewish relations had some positive moments -- such as Clement VI (1342-52), who protected Jews against blood libels -- but many negative ones, including Paul IV (1555-59), who initiated the ghetto for Roman Jewry. Overall, Catholic antipathy toward Judaism evoked contempt for Jews, legislation limiting Jewish economic options and violence against Jews, engendering an environment that would allow the Holocaust.

The turning point was John XXIII (1958-1963). During the Holocaust, first as the Vatican's diplomatic representative to Turkey and Greece and then as ambassador to France, this future pope saved thousands of Jews, even issuing false baptismal papers for Jewish children.

It is not surprising that John XXIII convened Vatican II in 1962 to "throw open the windows of the Church and let the fresh air of the Spirit blow through." He did not live to see the result: the 1965 promulgation by Paul VI of "Nostra Aetate," or "In Our Time," the Catholic document that rejected the deicide charge, the accursedness of the Jews and anti-Semitism, while affirming God's eternal covenant with the Jewish people.

Other Christian denominations followed the church, reflecting systematically on the implications of their theology, education and liturgy for Christian-Jewish relations.

The current papal transition is a moment for Jewish recognition of the recent good that has been done. Benedict XVI generally followed the path of John Paul II. Like his predecessor, he gave visual life to "Nostra Aetate" and subsequent theological and educational guidelines that revolutionized Catholic attitudes toward Jews. He displayed his affection for the Jewish people, as did John Paul II, through visits to synagogues, a state visit to Israel, and pilgrimages to Holocaust sites. These are powerful images. More than 1 billion Catholics and billions of others look to the pope as an exemplar.

The papacy matters for Jews. Catholic-Jewish relations changed as a result of papal leadership. It is a garden that is flourishing, but one that needs to be tended by Jews and Catholics alike. Scholars and religious leaders who have dedicated a good part of their lives to enhancing Catholic-Jewish relations will continue to take the lead in resolving the lingering gaps that must be bridged. But all Catholics and Jews can play a role by understanding the history of this troubled relationship, the new path it has traveled in the last 50 years and a future that is promising -- yet requires our vigilance.

Rabbi Noam E. Marans is the American Jewish Committee's director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations.