The vice president for Mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University presented the annual Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding address on Wednesday, November 17, in the University’s Schine Auditorium. Dr. Higgins called the pontificate of Benedict XVI both “luminous and vexed” and argued that his impressive accomplishments as pope have been overshadowed or even contradicted by surprising lapses of judgment or bungling by Vatican officials.
In a wide-ranging assessment of the German-born pontiff, Dr. Higgins noted that while reconciliation with the Jews was a hallmark of Pope John Paul II’s leadership, Benedict’s overtures have also been substantial if more subtle. “Pope Benedict’s exceptional encyclicals, if anything, exceed those of John Paul II, and he has put into place significant and lasting changes in Church policy regarding the Jewish people.” Still, he acknowledged, Pope Benedict suffers from bad press – some of it brought on by momentary lapses in judgment or a kind of “tone deafness” to certain sensitivities – and some of it simply the result of vicious personal attacks on the Holy Father.
The ongoing controversy over the possible canonization of Pope Pius XII colors many aspects of Pope Benedict’s papacy for the Jews. Pope Pius XII is accused of "silence" concerning the atrocities in Nazi Germany. While Dr. Higgins acknowledged there are powerful – and often surprising – voices on both sides of the debate, he explained that the release of the Vatican archives for the period of World War II should help illuminate this vexing period. This proved to be the case for Pope Pius’s immediate predecessor, Pope Pius XI, who is now held in a much more favorable light by many Jewish scholars.
Dr. Higgins lamented the fact that Pope Benedict has been forced to consume so much energy addressing scandals in the Catholic Church and hoped that he would be able to rise above these crises both for the Jewish people and the Church itself. He noted that Pope Benedict has rightly judged the threat to contemporary religious life not as coming from other faith traditions, but from what was once called liberalism and has evolved into relativism – a sense that religion is at best a personal concern and has no place in the commerce of ideas. In this and so many related issues, he shares common ground with serious thinkers on all sides of the religious spectrum.