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Where The Pope Missed An Opening

This column was written by Mary C. Boys, Skinner and McAlpin Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary


The shadows of history-many of them ominous-overlay Pope Benedict XVI's journey to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories this week. History is always on the table, given the animosity and violence that have too often characterized the Catholic Church's relationship with Jews and Muslims. Against the backdrop of the complex politics of the Middle East, this papal trip has involved monumental challenges.

But another shadow trails this pope: his predecessor, John Paul II, who went to Israel in March 2003. Like Benedict, he gave an address in the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to victims of the Holocaust. Place their remarks side-by-side, or compare the videos: Benedict's speech is dispassionate and detached, his predecessor's personal, even visceral.

The charisma of John Paul eclipsed the professorial Benedict. Numerous commentators have weighed in on Pope Benedict's May 11 speech at Yad Vashem, criticizing his cerebral tone, and taking him to task for what they judge he should have done differently: condemn antisemitism (though he had denounced it on numerous occasions and reiterated the denunciation in his farewell speech at Ben Gurion Airport on May 15), speak more candidly as a German on whose home soil Nazism had arisen, and confess the church's complicity in the Holocaust. Many judged that he had let a teachable moment dissipate.

I share this disappointment, even as am I deeply sympathetic for this 82-year old pope as he has traveled a terrain so filled with religious, political and cultural landmines. His previous interreligious flare-ups suggest that he is not at ease in the interreligious sphere.

How to account for this uneasiness? Many will point to his traditional theological views as evident in the declaration Dominus Iesus, promulgated under his signature in 2000. Its sub-title, "On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church," provides a clue to its thesis and tone. Others suggest that his personal reserve disadvantages him on the world stage, especially in the shadow of John Paul II.

All this may be true. To add my own conjecture: It is probable that Benedict would have learned relatively little about other religions in his theological studies. In the course of studying theology, Benedict would have absorbed understandings about Judaism, because one cannot comprehend Christianity without knowledge of Judaism. Yet in his years as a seminarian and graduate student-the late 1940s and early 1950s--Christian scholarship on Judaism was seriously flawed. The past 40 years, thankfully, have witnessed significant advances in this scholarship, but Benedict does not appear to be drawn to it.

Another speculation: It is likely that he has never had a deep friendship with a person from another faith. Certainly, as one of the most powerful figures in the Catholic Church, including 24 years as the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before his election to the papacy in April 2005, he would have had occasion to meet with leaders of other religious traditions. But the exchange of formalities between high-ranking officials does not constitute dialogue, which requires sustained exchange and trust. And it seems improbable that he has ever lingered late over a Shabbat dinner with Jewish friends or studied texts with them. Or, as did Pope John Paul II, mourn the loss of his Jewish classmates in Wadowice, Poland, murdered by the Nazis.

I have often thought that John Paul's childhood friendships with Jews, and his long friendship with Jerzy Kluger, were vital to his sensitivity to Jewish concerns. Recently, a colleague mentioned that while John Paul had been so impressive on the interreligious front during his trip to Israel in 2003, he had been less so during a trip to India in 1999. One explanation: he had no Hindu friends, and thus little entrée into Hinduism.

I hope Benedict's successor will be learned about other religious traditions. Even more, I hope he will have made friendships across religious boundaries.

By Mary Boys
Special to CBSNews.com