On Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI made his first visit to Rome's synagogue. Clouding the occasion was the feeling among many that the Vatican has yet to make an honest reckoning with its conduct in World War II, a failure epitomized in the process under way to beatify Pius XII. Despite a papal visit to Israel and meetings with Jewish leaders, Benedict has seemed surprisingly maladroit in his dealings with the Jewish community.
More is at work here than manners. For the Pope, a serious philosopher and intellectual, the truths of faith and the truths of reason are mutually reinforcing gifts of divine love. Speaking three years ago, he sought to foster a rapprochement between the two dispensations for the sake of rescuing Western society from moral relativism—and fortifying it in the mounting struggle with radical Islam. This same sense of looming struggle likely underpins his support of Catholic conservatives: he needs to secure his own ranks if he is to reassert the spiritual primacy of the Church as the means through which collective salvation is offered to the world.
Paradoxically, the Pope's doctrine of collective salvation is explicitly modeled on Jewish peoplehood. He inherited it from his mentor Henri de Lubac who, like Benedict today, took public stands against anti-Semitism while also defending the Church's wartime behavior. Given these and other complications, it is unlikely that the cloud over Catholic-Jewish relations will lift anytime soon. Meanwhile, as two Orthodox rabbis remind us, there is much the Church can do to build on the good already accomplished.
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