Could the pope of Rome ever be Jewish?

ELIZABETH ASKS: Isn’t it possible for the Pope to be Jewish? And if the Catholic Church someday elected a Jewish pope would that most likely help or harm Catholic-Jewish relations?


Timely topic one year after the breakthrough election of the first Western Hemisphere pope, Francis of Argentina, who succeeded the first two non-Italian popes in centuries.

The questioner notes a bit by Jay Leno, late of “The Tonight Show,” who told passersby the new pope was Jewish to trick them into giving false reactions. Gags aside, yes, it’s absolutely possible to have a pope who’s Jewish in ethnic identity and appreciation of that heritage -- so long as he affirms those aspects of the Christian religion that differ from Judaism. Jesus’ apostle Peter was Jewish, after all, and he’s Catholicism’s first pope. Not only that. In the 2005 papal election one feasible candidate was Jewish. More on him below.

Jewish popes have long been the stuff of legend. Orthodox Rabbi Berel Wein’s history blog says Jews even made the incredible claim that Peter abandoned Christianity and reverted to Judaism. Seven other stories:

* Pope Zosimus (who reigned in A.D. 417-418) was Greek but there were unsubstantiated reports he was also an ethnic Jew, perhaps because his father was named Abram.

* Pope Gregory VI (1045-1046), who abdicated soon after his election, supposedly came from Rome’s Pierleoni family of prominent Jewish converts to Christianity.

* Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) or Hildebrand, considered a great church reformer, was also possibly from the Pierleoni line.

* Pope Anacletus II (1130-1138), named Pietro Pierleoni, was unquestionably from that Jewish clan. Ah, but he was never actually a pope, according to the Catholic Church. In a hastily called election he won the support of a majority of cardinals while another faction that considered him corrupt met the same day to elect Innocent II (1130-1143), who migrated to France. Innocent is on the church’s official list of popes while Anacletus is branded a schismatic “antipope.”

* Pope Alexander III (1159-1181) might have been Jewish, according to unsubstantiated reports stirred by his amiable policy toward Jews.

* “Pope Andreas” was a figure of Jewish medieval folklore not found on the list of actual pontiffs. The story, first printed in Yiddish in 1602, claimed that Christians kidnapped him as a boy and he rose through the church ranks to the papacy while remaining a religious Jew at heart. Rabbi Wein says this tale “has had remarkable staying power in the Jewish world and is recounted in many books.” The legend most likely originated with an actual case of such repellent religious kidnapping in Germany.

And more recently:

* The Blessed Pope John Paul II? His 1978 election provoked stray chatter that his mother, Emilia Kaczorowska (pictured above with the future pope), was a Jew originally named “Emilia Katz.” (In Judaism, the child of a Jewish mother would automatically count as Jewish.) A Muslim Web site figured this “alleged” factor might explain irritating papal sympathy for the “Zionist entity” (the nation of Israel). A Jewish Web site said the rumor seemed plausible because the future pope was so friendly with Jews as a boy in Wadowice, Poland, and later as a priest and bishop.

Legends and distant Vatican intrigue aside, here are the facts about that 2005 Jewish candidate for pope, whose career raised Elizabeth’s question about Catholic-Jewish relations.

Aaron Lustiger was the son of Polish Jews who moved to Paris. When anti-Jewish Nazis occupied France in 1940, Aaron and his sister were sent for protection to live with Catholics in Orleans. The Nazis later murdered their mother at Auschwitz-Birkenau. In Orleans the lad studied Christianity, was baptized as a convert at age 13, became a priest, and changed his first name to Jean-Marie. A posthumous biography in 2012 claimed that Lustiger’s parents were also baptized but he kept this a secret.

In 1981, John Paul II appointed Lustiger the archbishop of Paris and then a cardinal, making him eligible to become pope. When John Paul died, Lustiger had just retired and was perhaps too old, although the winning Pope Benedict was just a year younger. Lustiger appeared on many media lists of papal possibilities and bookmakers at Ireland’s Paddy Power rated him third most likely to win.

From the Catholic side, his Jewishness was never any barrier to election. But Lustiger’s career was a problem for some Jews, whose reactions say something about current Jewish-Catholic relations. An article in the Jewish Daily Forward said his appointment as archbishop “was an outrage to some -- especially Jews -- and a paradox to others.” The chief rabbi of Paris declared that “one cannot be both a Christian and a Jew,” a common view among Jews.

However, Lustiger always insisted on that dual identification and sought improved church relations with Jews. When he visited Israel, the Ashkenazic chief rabbi, a concentration camp survivor, charged that the cardinal “betrayed his people and his faith” by becoming a Christian. Lustiger responded, “I am as Jewish as all the other members of my family who were butchered in Auschwitz or in the other camps.”

Strong Jewish feelings against Christian conversions are understandable, and history shows they often stemmed from social pressure rather than religious conviction.

Lustiger is not the only Jewish convert who has worked to improve ties between the two faiths. In particular, a number played key roles advising bishops at the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council, which rejected the collective ”deicide” slur against Jews and denounced persecution, anti-Semitism, and forced conversions. Prominent among these Catholic theologians was Monsignor John Oesterreicher, a Jewish exile from Nazi Germany who founded Seton Hall University’s Institute for Judaeo-Christian Studies.

Click here for the Vatican II decree on non-Christian religions.

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