- - Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI’s sudden decision to step down Feb. 28 because of health concerns reverberated around the globe. The eyes of the world surely will be focused on the impending meeting of the conclave and the election of a new pope.

For Catholics, this is understandably a time of great sadness and reflection. The love and respect they have for the 85-year-old pontiff is clear. The feeling of personal heartbreak is genuine.

Yet this outpouring of support isn’t reserved to those of the Catholic faith. Many non-Catholics — and even non-Christians — have long admired Pope Benedict, I among them.

For years, I’ve had a real appreciation for Pope Benedict’s teachings, prolific writings and vast historical knowledge. His academic credentials included university tenures at Bonn, Munster, Tubingen and Regensburg. He has written an impressive 66 books, including three volumes on Jesus’ life and teachings, liturgy, theology, Catholic history and even Christmas.

The admiration goes much deeper than that.

Pope Benedict, along with Pope John Paul II, helped improve Catholic-Jewish relations and brought these two religious groups closer than ever before. An agnostic Jew for 30 years, I’ve always had great respect for individuals who believe in building bridges to repair historical religious divides. This pontiff helped not only in designing the bridge, but also putting down just the right amount of bricks and mortar.

He strongly supports Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate document, which states, “Neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed” involving Jesus’ death. (Pope Benedict was applauded by Jewish groups for his powerful defense of this position in his book “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week.”) He has professed his belief that Jews and Christians are “joined by a great shared spiritual heritage, one rooted in God’s irrevocable promises.” He called for “continued reflection on the profound historical, moral and theological questions presented by the experience of the Shoah [Holocaust].” Moreover, he became the second pope — after John Paul II — to visit Israel and meet with Jewish leaders.

It’s a formidable record of success. That is why left-leaning former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres said, “Under his leadership, the Vatican has been a clear voice against racism and anti-Semitism and a clear voice for peace. Relations between Israel and the Vatican are the best they have ever been.” Right-leaning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote, “I thank you for courageously defending Judeo-Christian values and the roots of our common civilization during your time as pontiff.”

Alas, some individuals have treated his accomplishments with either skepticism or scorn. They rehash the tiresome tale of Joseph Ratzinger’s brief, compulsory sojourn in the Hitler Youth, long before he became a cardinal and was elected pope. Some detractors enjoy sharpening their claws and calling him a “Nazi pope.” Britain’s Sunday Times once had the nerve to declare Pope Benedict a “theological anti-Semite.”

What rubbish. The pontiff has repeatedly written and stated that he was not a willing participant in Nazi Germany. He did not hate Jews, and he certainly didn’t agree with Adolf Hitler’s politics of savagery and hate. The same goes for his family, including his father, who many critics conveniently forget was an anti-Nazi policeman.

Rather, Pope Benedict joined the Hitler Youth because it was mandatory. In December 1939, the Nazis enacted a law stating that all 14-year-old Germans must join this group. If not, they faced possible consequences such as arrest, torture or death. In his 1997 autobiography, “Salt of the Earth,” the pope wrote, “As a seminarian I was registered in the Hitler Youth. As soon as I was out of the seminary, I never went back. And that was difficult because the tuition reduction, which I really needed, was tied to proof of attendance at the Hitler Youth.”

It makes sense, when you think about it. Pope Benedict wouldn’t have spent nearly a lifetime improving Catholic-Jewish relations if he truly had hatred in his heart. Only the most jaded of individuals would suggest it was because of ulterior motives or a path to redemption or legacy-building. He did it for two selfless reasons: He knew it was right and that it would help forge a lasting bond between these two important world religions.

There is little doubt that the next pope will have large shoes to fill. Fortunately, the red shoes of Joseph Ratzinger will still be in the Vatican for help and guidance. May his impending retirement be filled with peace and tranquility.

Michael Taube is a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a columnist with The Washington Times.