The one and only time I met Pope Benedict XVI was when he was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. The time was 1988, and the place was St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York. The occasion was a lecture by the cardinal arranged by Fr. (then Lutheran Pastor) Richard John Neuhaus. The occasion was memorable less for what the cardinal had to say (though it was typically learned, intelligent, and politically astute) than for the disruption of the lecture by a militant gay group, “Act-Up.” They were protesting what they claimed was the Catholic Church’s fault for the AIDS crisis by its designation of homoerotic acts as morally disordered. (Their “logic” then and now escapes me, since if most of those who have contracted AIDS followed the prohibition of homoerotic acts in the Hebrew Scriptures, which the Church accepted in its refusal to totally break with Judaism, there wouldn’t be an AIDS crisis at all.)
While most of the people at this lecture were too dumbfounded by this sacrilegious break-in to do or say anything, Cardinal Ratzinger “kept his cool” and (as I recall) he said (in perfect English like the lecture itself) in a clear, firm voice (and as one might say in his native German: mit brennender Sorge, i.e., “with burning concern,” the title of Pope Pius XI’s famous anti-Nazi encyclical of 1937): “We have now heard your voice; now listen to mine!” That, plus the quick arrival of NYPD, enabled us to hear the rest of the lecture. I greatly admired the way he stood up to these enemies of the Judeo-Christian moral tradition.
While Benedict has happily copied his great predecessor on the throne of Peter (Blessed John Paul II) in maintaining good relations with the Jewish people (including visiting the land of Israel and meeting with Israeli rabbis and statesmen), I best appreciate the great honor he has paid to Judaism by his insistence on the primacy of biblical teaching in Catholic theology. And, since there is nothing in the New Testament that is not rooted in the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures, Benedict’s biblicism is something that shows us Jews how astute Maimonides was when he ruled that Jews might, even should, study the Hebrew Scriptures with Christians, i.e., with those Christians who affirm that the Hebrew Scriptures are fully revealed by God. That is something that Jews can do with no other religious community in the world, which is especially important in the light of what the Pope said in his famous Regensburg lecture in 2006 about Christian-Muslim dialogue.
I have always hoped that during Benedict’s papacy some of us Jewish theologians might have the opportunity for an intensive (and private) conversation with this first-rate theologian. Perhaps such a conversation will still be possible, and probably more fruitful, with Joseph Ratzinger when he has more leisure, and when the heavy burdens of his papal office have been placed upon another head. With God and good human intentions, all things are possible.
After all, this praise of Joseph Ratzinger is, happily, not my eulogy for him. Instead, it is (I hope) a respectful audacious suggestion of something that could be good for us all. Unlike the members of “Act-up,” I would like to hear more of Joseph Ratzinger’s theological voice in person.
Rabbi David Novak holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair in Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. He has been closely associated with First Things since its inception.