Pope Benedict XVI is likely to reaffirm all the positions of his predecessor unequivocally. Many of these will not meet with favor in some circles, but one of the few issues on which virtually the whole Catholic Church from left to right is in accord is the importance of the Catholic-Jewish relationship, which Pope John Paul II described as "unique and incomparable to any other because the Jewish People and its Faith are the very roots of Christianity."
Is there any good reason for the Jewish community to expect the new pope who as the official guardian of Catholic orthodoxy during the last pontificate declared the theological supremacy of the Roman Catholic faith and belonged to Hitler Youth as a boy in Nazi Germany would be particularly positively disposed to the Jewish people and our religion? There is a good deal of strong evidence for reaching precisely this conclusion.
As Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI confirmed this view in an important article titled "Abraham Our Father" that appeared in the Vatican publication Osservatore Romano. He wrote it in the wake of widespread Jewish discomfort over his declaration "Dominus Iesus" affirming the theological supremacy of the Catholic Church. In the article, Cardinal Ratzinger sought to emphasize the unique relationship that the Church has with Judaism, and in a private conversation with me in Jerusalem some 15 years ago he told me, "Everything that has religious significance for you must have religious significance for me because you are our roots."
But he has a further commitment to this relationship, which is influenced by his own personal background. In 1994, Ratzinger was the keynote speaker at an impressive international Jewish-Christian conference in Jerusalem (of some 300 Christian and Jewish leaders from around the world) that I was privileged to chair.
He commenced his address with the words, "The history of relations between Israel and Christianity is filled with blood and tears. After Auschwitz, the mission of reconciliation and acceptance cannot be delayed."
This sentiment was also reflected in his introduction to one of the most important documents to have come out of the Vatican in recent years relevant to the Christian-Jewish relationship: the publication of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on the subject of "The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible" that was released at the end of 2001 under the imprimatur of Cardinal Ratzinger (as Prefect of the Council for Doctrine and Faith.)
In his warm forward, he affirmed the importance of such a document in the wake of the lessons of the Holocaust, stating, "the Biblical Commission could not ignore the contemporary context, where the shock of the Shoah has put the whole question [of the relationship with the Jewish People and its Scriptures] under a new light."
Moreover, in addition to affirming the Jewish people's special status as "elder brother" (using Pope John Paul II 's phrase), giving them a "unique place among all other religions," the document included a remarkable clause in the passage dealing with eschatological expectations, declaring that "the Jewish messianic expectation is not in vain." In this statement, the Roman Catholic Church validates the Jewish people's messianic expectation as having importance for the divine plan for universal human salvation, despite what it represents as a rejection of the Christian identification of this expectation with the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
When I saw Cardinal Ratzinger at the World Day of Prayer for Peace convened by Pope John Paul II in Assisi in 2002 and expressed my appreciation for this document, he was clearly very happy that it had been so well received. His support and authority for such a text reveals his profound commitment to continuing the work of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation and understanding, which he fully appreciates is a work in progress. As he said to me, "We have not yet fully understood all the theological implications of 'Nostra Aetate' " (the historic document of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council that revolutionized the Church's teaching regarding the Jewish people and Judaism.)
Indeed, as far as the Christian-Jewish relationship is concerned, not only may we be assured of a reaffirmation of the positions taken by Pope John Paul II, we may look forward to continued positive developments during the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI.