Papal Visit

The Pope is coming to the U.S. for the first time next week, making stops in Washington, D.C., and New York on his five-day trip. What does this mean for interfaith families?

Like his predecessor John Paul II (and really, like any mainstream Catholic official), Benedict XVI is pro-life, anti-death penalty, anti-birth control and anti-homosexuality. He also follows the recent trend in papal politics of decrying the excesses and abuses of capitalism and protesting American use of force. Also like his predecessor, he sees moral relativism as an insidious force that sustains evil in secular society. In terms of substance, his views are little different than that of John Paul II–why then is John Paul II viewed as the lovable uniter and Benedict XVI as the reactionary divider?

The difference is mainly one of style and emphasis. Both popes believe fervently that Catholicism is the only true path to salvation. However, where John Paul II sought to emphasize the common ground between religions and the need for interfaith dialogue, Benedict XVI’s most quoted statements have been about the differences between Christianity and Islam. He is infamous for a speech in Germany where he said, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached,” and “[Allah’s] will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.” This address, coupled with his public baptism of a former Muslim, has led to widespread criticism and protests in the Muslim world. Pope John Paul II, who wrote extensively about interreligious dialogue, understood the limits of such dialogue but sought to downplay them; Benedict XVI, on the other hand, seeks to highlight them.

Among Jews, his record is a bit spotty. The controversy over his childhood membership in a Nazi youth group has died down since his election in 2005. Since then he has engaged in a public conversation with Rabbi Jacob Neusner, a Jewish theologian who shares the Pope’s preference for defining the limits of interreligious conversation before undertaking dialogue. At the same time, he has also maintained quiet over the reintroduction of a prayer that calls for the conversion of the Jews (although it is unclear whether this prayer is even used anywhere).

On his visit to the States, he will meet with representatives of many of the world’s major religions at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., on April 17. The following evening, he will participate in a prayer service with leaders from other Christian denominations at St. Joseph’s Church in New York. Simply maintaining a posture of graciousness and offering a message of togetherness at these events will go a long way towards dissolving any anger non-Catholic Americans feel towards the Pope. (The same cannot be said of his reception among Muslims from other parts of the world.)

Regardless of the controversies, the Pope’s visit is a great occasion, I think, for Jewish-Catholic couples to engage in their own interreligious dialogue. Many Catholics (and most that intermarry, I’m guessing) are not as dogmatic as the Pope and probably finds points of agreement and disagreement with his faith and politics. Modern Catholic response to the Pope is often one of ambivalence: a respect and emotional attachment to his office but a rejection of his socially conservative politics and distaste for the position’s authoritarian flavor.

Jews, on the other hand, typically know little about the Pope and Catholicism, and want to know less. The Pope’s visit can serve as an opportunity for Jewish partners in Jewish-Catholic relationships to learn more about Catholicism. Every question one asks about the Pope is ultimately a question about the Catholic Church; there is no way to disentangle learning about one from learning about the other. Indeed, while the Catholic Church rightfully has a dogmatic reputation, the subtle differences between Benedict XVI and John Paul II (as well as earlier popes) highlight the narrow but robust room for debate within the Catholic tradition.

By understanding your Catholic partner’s relationship to the Pope, you will better understand his or her relationship to Catholicism–and ultimately to you and your religion.

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One thought on “Papal Visit

  1. There are many conservative Jews such as myself who like the Pope’s views on the sanctity of life. Not all Jews are liberal!

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