The pope's Jewish dilemma
As he prepares to visit Israel, Pope Benedict faces an age-old dilemma over his church's relationship with JudaismJonathan Romain
guardian.co.uk, Friday 8 May 2009 08.00 BST
If you want to test how well Catholics know their faith, ask them what name their religious calendar gives to 1st January. When they reply, "New Year's Day", tell them they are wrong and that if they look it up in the lectionary, they will find it says "Feast of Circumcision".* Why? Because 1st January is eight days after 25th December (the birth of Jesus) and like all Jewish males he was circumcised on the eighth day as commanded in Genesis.Most Catholics – and indeed most Christians – are startled to think of their Lord being circumcised, but it indicates beyond all argument the Jewish origins of Jesus and the strong links between the two faiths.This could have led to Judaism and Christianity having an amicable relationship over the centuries, but unfortunately it took a very different, and bloody, path for much of the last 2000 years. It was not until 1962 that a religious revolution occurred through Vatican II. Suddenly, Jews were no longer deviants, but brothers. Interfaith dialogue replaced conversion attempts. But amid this rapprochement, there was still one major stumbling block: the Vatican refused to recognise the state of Israel and exchange ambassadors.Astonishingly, it took another 32 years before this occurred. The reason – which Benedict XVI will have to wrestle with on his travels over the next week – is that the rebirth of Israel presents a serious religious problem for Christianity. Traditional doctrine stated that the Jews had been forsaken by God, had been superseded by the church, and were sent into exile to wander the earth in a state of humiliation until they accepted the truth of the Gospels.The re-establishment of a Jewish national homeland is a theological slap in the face for that notion. Moreover, if rejecting Jesus no longer results in eternal damnation, does that mean that accepting Jesus does not carry eternal rewards either? What message does it give Christians (and potential Christians) about reward and punishment?There is another problem facing the pope. Vatican II may indeed have sought to develop a new theology, trying to cast away old assumptions about Christian supremacy and Jewish sinfulness, but it is undermined every day when believers read the text of the Gospels declaring that Jews are damned or that one can only come to the father through the son. Unless a new Vatican II version of the New Testament is printed, with difficult passages omitted or explained away, there will always be a huge gulf between what the scriptures teach and what the modern church claims to teach.It is this underlying tension that has never been properly addressed but which periodically surfaces in other guises – such as controversy over the proposed canonisation of the war-time Pope, Pius VI, or the reinstatement of the Tridentine mass, or the furore surrounding reconciliation with the Lefebvrist bishops. On the Catholic side, it is seen as claiming back aspects of the true faith; on the Jewish side, it is seen as sliding back to rejection of the Jews.This is the real conundrum that faces Benedict XVI on his visit to Israel, which begins on Monday – should he be loyal to the Gospels which claim that only acceptance of Christ can bring the messianic age, or should he endorse Vatican II which acknowledges that Jews (and members of other faiths) can find the kingdom of God via a different route? Should he look inwards or outwards, backwards or forwards? At the heart of the Pope's trip this week lies an unanswered religious mystery more powerful than anything Dan Brown can conjure up.
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