Pope Benedict XVI just became the second pontiff in history to visit the Great Synagogue of Rome. His predecessor, John Paul II, had delivered a major address there in 1986, in which he stressed the spiritual ties between Judaism and Christianity. His remarks included these oft-quoted words: "The Jewish religion is not 'extrinsic' to us, but in a certain way is 'intrinsic' to our own religion. With Judaism therefore we have a relationship that we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers."
Benedict's visit was accompanied by considerable controversy because of a recent Vatican move to advance the candidacy for sainthood of wartime Pope Pius XII. Debates over his decisions during the Holocaust continue to rage, with many commentators — both Christian and Jewish — urging that no final action be taken until all the relevant historical evidence can be assessed.
Pope Benedict did not directly address this explosive topic at the synagogue. However, his comments were significant in ways that the casual reader might miss.
After New Testament times, Christians came to believe that the Sinai covenant between God and the Jewish people had ended or been emptied of meaning by the birth of the Church. The general attitude that permeated later Christendom was that rabbinic Judaism ought not to exist, since it was premised on the obsolete Torah covenant of Moses. This theological dismissal was accompanied by disdain for Jews and the restriction of their rights in Christian societies.
In addition to rejecting anti-Semitism, Vatican II reversed the previous contempt for Judaism by recalling the frequently overlooked words of St. Paul that God's gifts and calling are irrevocable. During John Paul II's long papacy, he went further, speaking of Jews as the "people of God of the Old Covenant, never revoked by God," as "the present-day people of the covenant concluded with Moses."
In 2000, in both St. Peter's Basilica and at the Western Wall, he committed the Catholic Church "to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant."
In his address at the Rome synagogue last month, Pope Benedict said that his "visit forms a part of the journey already begun, to confirm and deepen it." He went on to express his commitment to "the people of the covenant." He also expressed horror over the Nazi "extermination of the people of the covenant of Moses."
Why is this choice of words important? Because it makes it crystal-clear that Pope Benedict is serious about continuing his predecessor's theological perspectives; because God is ever-faithful, that the Sinai covenant continues to be a living and dynamic relationship between God and the Jewish people.
The pope described Jesus as "reaffirming" — not superseding — a central teaching of Moses, and urged Christians to have "a renewed respect for the Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament."
He next did something that perhaps no other pope has done: He quoted a rabbinic text as having inspirational value for Jews and Christians: " 'The world is founded on three things: the Torah, worship and acts of mercy.' In exercising justice and mercy, Jews and Christians are called to announce and to bear witness to the coming Kingdom of the Most High, for which we pray and work in hope each day."
If a rabbinic teaching is meaningful for Christians and Jews, and if Christians have a mission with Jews to witness to the Kingdom of God, then clearly Pope Benedict understands the rabbinic Jewish tradition as genuinely interacting with God and authentically encountering divine holiness.
Whatever other theological or historical disputes may arise, this perspective is fundamental for true friendship between the two communities. u
Philip A. Cunningham is professor of theology and director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia.