Dialogue, not symbolism

As Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Israel ­today, he will call for ­reconciliation between Christians and Jews. Since the beginning of his ­papacy he has consistently expressed a desire to follow in the footsteps of John Paul II, but it is a tough act to live up to. His predecessor's pontificate saw more progress in ­Catholic–Jewish relations than had occurred during the reign of any other pope.

There is no question that Pope Benedict has a personal affection for Jews and Judaism and that he hopes for a positive relationship with Jews, especially those groups who share his conservative perspectives on issues like abortion. But, unlike John Paul II, he seems to have brought no major developments at the theological level.

In 2000, when John Paul II made his pilgrimage, Israelis met a Polish pope who had been the first to visit a synagogue and pray with its congregation (1986); the first to exchange ambassadors with the state of Israel (1994); and the first to visit the Western Wall and place a prayer of atonement for the sins of Christians against Jews.

Pope Benedict likewise expresses a deep-seated opposition to antisemitism and is profoundly sensitive to the horrors of the Holocaust but he and his closest advisors lack an adequate grasp of the depth of Christian complicity in its execution, including Catholic ­institutional complicity.

On the theological level, while pledging support for the teachings of Vatican II, Benedict has not contributed anything constructive to the development of a new theological understanding of the church's relationship with the Jewish people. His new Good Friday prayer in fact moves the theology of the Christian-Jewish relationship some steps backwards, as did the decision to bring back a Holocaust-denying bishop into the bosom of the church. Perhaps the best we can hope for is no further backward steps.

The central problem for Pope Benedict resides in his vision of the Catholic church. He sees it as a totally completed institution that does not need to learn anything new theologically from dialogue with other Christians or other religious groups. Consequently, interfaith relations are reduced to symbolic conversation rather than genuine dialogue.

The impact of John Paul's papacy lay in his combination of powerful symbolism with substantive theological development. If Benedict is to contribute significantly to Catholic-Jewish reconciliation, his meetings with Jewish leaders in Israel should not only be positive in tone but should also address substantive questions. He should seek to reinvigorate Catholic-Jewish relations at a senior level where momentum has ground to a halt. Reducing dialogue to the occasional photo-opportunity may offer symbolic value but it lacks substance.

If Pope Benedict is to deepen the relationship between Catholics and Jews, he must engage in a serious attempt to understand Judaism as a living faith because real dialogue involves a respect that takes the other as seriously as one demands to be taken oneself.

The crucial theological question of Christian-Jewish dialogue today is whether Christians can view Judaism as a valid religion in its own terms (and vice versa). For Christians, the question of the validity of Judaism challenges some of the proclamations of Christian triumphalism. The issue is whether Christianity can differentiate itself from Judaism without asserting itself as either opposed to Judaism or simply as the replacement of Judaism.

Ed Kessler