Interview: Jack Bemporad
Catholic-Jewish ties are center stage, with a diplomatic flap between Israel and the Vatican and the pope’s scheduled synagogue visit in August. In July, prior to the headlines, Charley Levine met the rabbi who is arguably closer to Benedict XVI than any other: Jack Bemporad, professor at the Vatican’s Angelicum University and director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding in Rome.
Q. Why is so much energy devoted to Jewish-Catholic relations?
A. There are 1.1 billion Roman Catholics in the world. There are 1.3 billion Muslims. In 25 years, that will be 1.8 billion [Muslims]. And 11 million Jews. To not take seriously the sweeping changes [in recent decades in] the Catholic Church as they relate to [the Church’s] view of the Jewish people and religion is to miss taking advantage of it. At an international conference held not so long ago in Rome, Palestinians got up and said the most horrible things about Jews and Israel. A leading cardinal rose and said, ‘I’m sorry. We will not tolerate this kind of talk. We stand for Israel’s right to live in peace and to have a state of its own.’ Who is going to stand for us vis-à-vis the Muslims if not the Catholic Church?
Q. Pope Benedict XVI: Good or bad for the Jews?
A. He’s going to be very good for the Jews. There were some questions of a theological nature, but for me the telling moment came four years ago, when Cardinal [Joseph] Ratzinger, as he was called until recently, wrote a preface to a pontifical biblical statement on the Jewish people and their sacred Scriptures. He said that without the Hebrew Bible the New Testament is an indecipherable text, like a plant without roots that would wither and die. [He also said] the Jews have every right to anticipate the coming of the Messiah; in fact, in so doing they help the Catholics anticipate the Second Coming. And finally, Jews have every right to interpret their Bible in their own terms.
More than that. Without the truth of the Jews, you wouldn’t have Jesus Christ. We’re happy to get along with Jews, say Catholics, because Christianity is more complete. And the Jews certainly have more truth than any other religion. In other words, if you’re not going to be a Catholic, then the best thing to be is Jewish.
Q. Should Jews be disturbed by the image of a young Ratzinger in Nazi uniform?
A. No, that’s ridiculous. When I was a child in Italy, I was in the Fascist Youth! From the age of 4 you couldn’t go to school without joining. That was before many family members were killed in the Holocaust. Similarly, in Germany you just couldn’t escape being in the Nazi Youth. But the fact is he actually deserted from the German Army. He hated Hitler. He risked his life. And his family was vehemently anti-Nazi.
Q. How did the Holocaust shape his worldview?
A. One thinks of John Paul II’s childhood in Poland and his association with the Jewish people there, the consternation he experienced when his Jewish teachers were taken to extermination camps. It made a huge imprint on his conscience. I believe it was the same for Ratzinger.
Q. Debates still rage regarding the Church’s role in not acting forcefully to stop the extermination of European Jews. Will Benedict address this?
A. The central question revolves around Pope Pius XII. If you ask me if he was an anti-Semite, I believe the answer is no. If you ask me if his prime concern was for the Jews, the answer is also no. When Poland’s bishops and cardinals pleaded with him to speak out against the killing of nuns and priests in Poland, he refused. Obviously, he was timid, maybe even cowardly. Certain churches and monasteries took in Jews. There is no way they could have done that unless he [approved] it. No written documentation? There never would be, it would have been strictly word of mouth.
Q. Will Benedict take a different view of Pius XII?
A. I do not believe that Ratzinger will condemn Pius XII as some might want him to.
Q. Do Church policies have an impact on Israel?
A. Israel cannot take the Church for granted, nor do I think it can really ignore how important the Church can be for Israel. When you look at South American countries that are mostly Catholic, they’re not bad on Israel, and that is largely because of Catholic teaching and influence. I sense Israel has this incredible feeling that it is an island unto itself…able to do whatever it wants…with impunity. This makes no sense to me, and I am very pro-Israel.
Q. Since Pope John XXIII and Vatican II in 1965, the Church has made a historic about-face in Jewish relations. Does Rome no longer see itself as the physical and spiritual replacement of Jerusalem and Judaism?
A. Vatican II was a spiritual revolution. Tell me when any other religion said there were things we’ve done in the past which were wrong and we have to rectify them. I don’t see the Presbyterians or Episcopalians or Muslims or even Jews doing that. In Catholic eyes, the greatest thing in the entire world is to be “saved.” After millennia of denying the proposition, they changed and now say that Jews can, in fact, be saved. A Jew can be saved without accepting Jesus Christ. What more can one look for after centuries of being beaten over the head and accused as Christ-killers?
Q. Can the Vatican play a bridging role with Muslims?
A. I went to Iran [two years ago] and I was very distressed. The first thing was the real hatred of Israel and the U.S. I went to the University of Tehran. There were 100,000 men inside and 20,000 women outside screaming ‘Death to the United States, Death to Israel.’ They were talking about total destruction. It was broadcast all over the country via television, and it was scary business. Yet when we went to Qom, the holy city, I was amazed to see how really open the theologians were to dialogue. I didn’t imagine it possible to conduct Bible-based discussions because there are no common texts. For them the Koran is the truth, and the Christian and Jewish scriptures are distortions. But I asked why can’t we discuss medieval Jewish and Christian and Muslim philosophy, why don’t we talk about Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas? How did they all look at God, the world, creation, the soul. I discovered there is no reason why we can’t bring representatives of these faiths together. I don’t think you can do it with the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, but the Shiites of Iran are very different, much more open to dialogue. The new pope is very aware of this [and has] indicated his desire to hold theological dialogue with the Muslims.
Q. What significant breakthrough do you hope to see under the new papacy?
A. Here, again, it has a lot to do with what the Jews do. For 40 years, there has been one continuous process of reconciliation, reconsideration and positive affirmation of Judaism by the Church. In truth, there is an element in the Church that is sort of fed up with this, and there is plenty of pressure to say ‘enough.’ They ask what in the world have the Jews done to respond to all these efforts? I am getting together groups to prepare a document that will be a response to these 40 years of Catholic initiatives. We will prepare our own document to which the Church can respond. I hope this might lead to a pontifical commission for religious relations with the Jew, and an official document indicating the place of Jews in Judaism and Christian self-understanding with the equivalent of a papal introduction and endorsement.
Q. Why is this so vital?
A. I can cite dozens of cases, from the Dreyfus trial on down, in which Jewish civil rights were endangered because so many Christians were being taught that the Jews killed Christ. To them ours is a dead religion, and civil rights were held hostage to this outlook. Vatican II reversed this and gave Jews their religious rights. If the Church develops a theological statement which sees Judaism as a legitimate, authentic religion, that would do much good in reinforcing our civil rights through recognition of the largest Christian religion in the world.