That was my immediate reaction when Joseph Ratzinger, a highly conservative theologian, was first named as the pope of the Catholics. Now, two years later a New York Times Easter Sunday article on the pope has me reflecting on how my opinion has changed since then.
Some have expressed confusion to me that I – a rabbi – who even care at all whom another faith chooses as its leader. But Catholicism has always played a special place for me. Not because I share its theological beliefs. But, rather, because of what it is that I see that Catholics do. It has always amazed me for example to hear some of my dearest friends complain bitterly about the strictness and contradictions of the Catholic education in which they were raised (which, for my older friends, most certainly included corporal punishment); it amazes me because it was always also clear to me that this education, for all of its negative aspects, had succeeded in inculcating in my friends some of the values (the love of justice, the determination to fight oppression, the refusal to make earning money the most important thing in their lives) that I admired in them most. That is, I know Catholicism – no matter how much I might disagree with some of its official policies (on birth control, for example) – as an overall force for good in the world. It influences its people towards more ethical and caring behavior. It gave me a sense of hope to see the influence this pope’s globetrotting predecessor – John Paul II – had on people around the world. And now, despite my initial reaction, I am starting to feel some hope seeing this pope – Pope Benedict – at work.
The Times article touches on some of the reasons why I find hope looking at Catholicism and at Benedict in particular. So much of my world view is shaped by the Holocaust. I understand religion (and, in my theology, Jewish law – הלכה – in particular) as the primary guard we have against letting the apparently rational claims of totalitarian belief systems (whether it be Nazism or Communism) lead us into the kind of unimaginable mass evils committed in the name of those belief systems in the 20th century.
Benedict, who was a teen in Bavaria when the war started, has a very similar view, according to the Times article:
Throughout the Nazi experience, his father guided him to see it as an outgrowth of modern godlessness. The effect was to reinforce the idea of the church as a bulwark against darkness — against secularism and rationality run amok.
That is, where I see Jewish law (הלכה) as a bulwark against rationality run amok Benedict sees the Catholic church.
Of course, nowadays, we tend to be more afraid of mass evil from the other side – that is, in a post-9/11 world we are less afraid of rationality run amok than we are of fanatical/fundamentalist faith – especially Islam – run amok. This concern of faith run amok was at the center of this pope’s most famous address – the September 12, 2006 address he made at the University of Regensburg. The address is best known for the controversy that arose from the pope’s highly undiplomatic quoting in that speech of a 14th century author who appeared to be condemning Islam as a fundamentally violent faith.
But a close reading shows Benedict was trying to make a more subtle point, a point that reveals a core part of his theology: his elevation of reason to an ultimate religious value. That is, Benedict was issuing a challenge to Islam. He was saying that we (that is, Catholics) have moderated and elevated our faith through hundreds of years of forcing it to stand up to the tests of reason – can or will you do the same?
Here, Benedict’s theology departs some from mine. I have much more doubt than he does about the power and value of reason. My faith is more deeply routed in a sense of mystery and in a sense of the importance of action. That is, I don’t think we can think our way to God as is implied by a reason-dominated theology. For me, the route(s) to God is much more deeply routed in actions. We find our way to God by trying to walk in God’s ways (see Devarim/Deut. 13:5, and the midrash on that verse in Sotah 14a). We find our way to God also by our efforts, through things like prayer, to experience God and how truly great and awesome – how completely beyond us – God truly is.
But I agree with Benedict that the true path is somewhere between a reason-only (secularism, toltalitarianism) based belief and one that is has only faith (religious fundamentalism). The path for peace in this world lies in finding the way between these two poles. Catholicism has earned my respect through the very hard work it has done since the evils of the Spanish Inquisition and of the expulsions of Jews from Spain in 1492 to find a way between these poles. Benedict has earned my respect by speaking out for all people to find a way between these poles.
On this day when both Christians and Jews are observing perhaps the most important holidays in their faith, my prayer is that we will find a way soon to the peace and wholeness that lies behind these two poles. May it come speedily and in our days.