Some reflections on the Pope’s visit to Israel
And the Future of Christianity
Benedict XVI is confused. He has a hard time with himself. He is sandwiched between the old Catholic teachings in which he was raised and the new Christianity which his great predecessor John Paul II initiated and of which he, Benedict, was partially the theologian without wanting to admit it. This gnaws at his conscience, especially now that he’s the pope and is visiting the Jews.
The late John Paul II was, in truth, an “apikores”, a Catholic heretic, although he may not have realized it. He was a man with broad shoulders, who sometimes ignored Catholic fundamentals and changed the rules of the papacy. He traveled his own way, literally and figuratively. This was possible, mainly because he was not the most profound or committed Catholic theologian. He was too great for that. He involved himself with too much “ad extra”, working outside the church, and too little “ad intra”, dealing with issues inside the Church itself, its dogmas and “facts” of faith.
Benedict, on the other hand, is a much greater theologian, with an incredible amount of knowledge and theological creativity. This, however, is his undoing. What does a man do with such brilliant new insights and the need to compress them into mainstream Catholicism and conservatism? In the end, he drowns in his own knowledge, and then discovers that he needs to wake up and start swimming in order to stay afloat, only to realize that his conservatism once again begins to gnaw at his conscience and pulls him under once again. (Sound familiar thinking of some of our own religious leaders?) This explains his dealings with the Holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson, as well as the reversal of the Good Friday prayer concerning the Jews, and the beatification of Pius XII whose failure to save (more) Jewish lives in the Holocaust is a large black stain on his life’s work. Benedict has a mission, but it is Mission Impossible.
John Paul II had no such problem. He was a Christian “Chabad-nick” (lehavdil) and started a worldwide ba’al teshuva movement, aiding the disintegration of Communism and bringing his mission to millions of people by traveling to all corners of the earth. But to do so effectively he knew he must bend the rules, and realized that novelty had to be his landmark. He simply suspended himself over the planet and landed wherever he wanted. Sure, sometimes he missed the runway, but he didn’t care too much. He just took his plane elsewhere and landed right on the mark. He inspired, had immense chutzpah and drew the flocks as no one else ever did in Catholic history. He was condemned for focusing too much on the messenger (himself) and not enough on the message. His teachings were the outgrowth of his personality; they depended on him and not on the long-running and constant tradition of the church. But he had good reasons for doing so. Not only did he have the ideal personality for this, but above all he realized that Catholicism had to be reshaped. It had to do away with its “theology of contempt” against the Jews, its hatred for anybody who did not believe in the canon of Catholicism. He knew that it needed a complete overhaul, that it had to admit to the “truth possibility” of other religions (first and foremost, of Judaism) and even forms of secularism. It had to become less messianic.
True, he did not accomplish all of this. He wasn’t ready to see it through to its conclusion, but it hovered over his very being and he felt it. Above all, his cardinals, including his most important Joseph Ratzinger, the present Pope, hindered him from traveling this road and taking it to the end.
A few more popes like him could pave the way and create a new, healthy Christianity of which the world is in great need, a Christianity which would draw closer and closer to Judaism, incorporating some of its healthy foundations (as long as our contemporary Rabbis keep it healthy, which sometimes appears to be a serious problem!). It would even deny that Jesus is the Messiah, and declare him to be just a great prophet or an inspiring figure, a kind of tzaddik – righteous man, even if we Jews would not agree.
True, it may no longer be Catholicism, but it might lead to a new monotheistic religion which would do away with much of the “meshugasen” with which it is still identified. But it is not yet to be. Benedict is not the man. Although he did shape some of these new foundations in his creative theology, he does not dare to carry them through. He lacks the chutzpah and courage of his predecessor. Although he calls the Jews his brothers and sisters, and even God’s people, he does not know how to fit that into his overall conservative theology which simultaneously bursts forth with new ideas and keen insights into the problematic situation of the Christian world.
That is why he feels uncomfortable and confused, and has not been able to “deliver the goods” during his visit in Israel, leaving ambivalent messages which make us Jews nervous. But we needn’t be. It is only logical. Ultimately, conservative Christianity will disintegrate and will one day disappear. It will undergo a metamorphosis and create something with which we Jews will feel comfortable. It will be built on some of the brilliant insights of Benedict and on the marvelous chutzpa of John Paul. But, more than anything, it needs a “Jewish” pope to make it happen.
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