Papal legacy

Tue, Feb 12, 2013, 00:00

How other faiths see Benedict's reign

Archbishop Michael Jackson: Benedict has been a pope of dedication, humility and service

I share with people throughout the world a real surprise at the news of the decision of Pope Benedict XVI to relinquish office at the end of this month. At the same time, we must all – of whatever Christian tradition – wish him well and pray every blessing of God for him in the future that awaits him beyond his tenure of the See of Rome.

We should in addition express a warm gratitude for the example of total dedication, humility and service that Pope Benedict displayed throughout his ministry. A scholar of great intelligence and learning, he was also a deeply self-effacing and spiritual human being. His clear devotion to the Lordship of Jesus Christ shines out in his prolific literary heritage to us.

Having just returned from an annual ecumenical meeting of bishops in Rome that I have attended for the past 10 years, one brief incident springs immediately to mind. A couple of days ago, the bishops – gathered in Rome from all over the world by the Sant’ Egidio Community (iti.ms/WeSwXR) – watched a DVD of the pope on a recent visit to an old people’s home run by the community in that city.

Pope Benedict at one point said to the old people, quietly and with no theatrical intent: “I am here not only as your bishop, but as an old man in the company of other old people.” This comment now seems somehow prophetic.

On the only occasion on which I met Pope Benedict – one to one so to speak – I was overwhelmed by the gentleness and sense of focus on the individual that he conveyed. One had no sense that he was waiting for the next person to speak to, as can so often be the impression with busy people who live a demanding life.

Although certainly regarded as a stern watchdog for orthodoxy in his previous position as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it seemed to me that there was a greater openness to discussion and debate when he became pope, particular in areas where there was a genuinely theological dimension.

In saluting the pope for his humility and sanctified practicality in making this decision, we again thank him for his faithfulness to God’s calling, and wish for him every blessing of the God whom he has served so consistently through his life.


Rev Michael Jackson is Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin

Ed Kessler: Benedict had good personal relations with Jews but aspects of his theology looked back, not forward

The papacy of Benedict XVI has been a challenging time for Catholic-Jewish relations. Having met him in 2011, there is no question in my mind that Benedict has a personal affection for Jews and Judaism, and that he sought a positive relationship with Jewish communities around the world.

However, Pope Benedict has not contributed anything constructive to the development of a new theological understanding of the church’s relationship with the Jewish people. His revised 2008 Good Friday prayer in fact moved the theology of the relationship some steps backwards.

There have been other controversies during his pontificate, such as the proposed canonisation of wartime Pope Pius XII, which he supported but due to criticism from inside and outside the church is currently postponed; the attempted readmittance of four excommunicated bishops from the Society of St Pius X, including Holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson; and tensions between the Vatican and the state of Israel.

Like his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI has been forceful in his rejection of anti-Semitism in all forms, but he differs regarding the origins of the Holocaust.

Benedict presents it primarily as a neo-pagan phenomenon with no roots in Christianity, even though the Holocaust succeeded in a Christian culture and much of the Nazi anti-Jewish legislation replicated laws against Jews created in medieval Christendom.

For Benedict, the Holocaust constituted a challenge to all religious belief and he made no mention of the contribution of the church. This is because of his tendency to view the church as unaffected by human history (which may also lie behind his description of the child abuse scandals as examples of “human frailty”).

Good Friday prayer

The 2008 reformulated Good Friday prayer also leaves Catholic-Jewish relations uncertain: if the church accepts that the Jewish people are still in a covenantal relationship with God, as expressed in Nostra Aetate, there seems a less pressing need to convert Jews to Christianity. Yet Benedict reached out to traditionalists, the more radical of whom oppose Vatican II.

The new prayer demonstrates two divergent theologies: The first argues that the Catholic Church alone is the verus Israel, the true Israel; the second that Jews are still the elect of God, part of the one People of God which is presently broken apart.

As for the state of Israel, Benedict XVI has successfully walked a tightrope, although he could not match the accomplishments of John Paul II, who ensured the Vatican recognised the state of Israel in 1994 and made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2000.

Benedict’s visit in 2009 struck a balance between acknowledging the need for greater justice for the Palestinians, including their own state, and legitimate concerns of Israel for security.

For the future, two challenges appear on the horizon:

1) If peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians begin, as part of US president Barack Obama’s forthcoming peace initiative, the Holy See will need to react publicly to the process. How such a reaction is eventually worded will affect attitudes towards the Vatican on all sides.

2) The vision of the Christian-Jewish relationship launched at Vatican II represents a fundamental challenge to Catholic theological identity. My aspiration is for the next pope to declare that its teachings are not optional; that they represent the true spirit of the church.


Dr Ed Kessler MBE is executive director of the Woolf Institute, based at Cambridge University, which seeks to promote inter-faith dialogue