The Pope's knight

August 15, 1994|By A. M. Rosenthal

WAIT, WAIT as long as you can before you write a word. It is an important story and lots of people will be touchy about it -- you are already. So give yourself plenty of time. Then see if you still think it is important and upsetting.

Journalists often say they wish they had that luxury, but poor us, we have to rush into print.

Now, because of travel and vacation, I have had plenty of time to think and inquire into the decision by Pope John Paul II to give a papal knighthood to Kurt Waldheim. Then I decided to think a couple of weeks more.

The result is, I find myself more and more sickened at what I think is one of the more callous personal decisions made by a respected world leader in years. It is contemptuous of historical reality. It is insulting to the opinions and emotions of the living and to the memory of the dead.

Yes, I know about the efforts this pope has made to improve Catholic-Jewish relations, his recent recognition of Israel and his appearances at Holocaust ceremonials. Like other Jews, I rush to acknowledge them.

Thank you, thank you. But the pope now forces us to realize that his previous honors to Kurt Waldheim -- receiving him officially when most other heads of state wouldn't -- was not simply a matter of mistaken diplomatic nicety.

The papal knighthood makes it inescapably clear that the pope's purpose has been to rescue Mr. Waldheim from his own past.

Mr. Waldheim was an insignificant U.N. secretary general and an insignificant Austrian officer in the German army. But he served as an intelligence officer in that army during its Balkan massacres. He knew what was going on. He was put on the war criminal list soon after the war.

He was never apprehended -- because he lied industriously to conceal his record.

Even after his record was revealed, he was elected president of Austria. He is hardly a persecuted refugee needing papal succor and honor.

The Vatican declines to discuss motive. Forgiveness? Shouldn't that come after contrition? If Mr. Waldheim has expressed contrition the world should know.

Why did the pope do this bad thing? Does it matter much? It could have been simply arrogance. He wanted it, so he did it.

I hope and believe that this will not destroy attempts to build bridges between Catholics and Jews. Too many Jews long for it. Too many Catholics love their religion enough to honor it by seeking amity with other faiths.

Then what is the damage in what the pope did? Why should Jews and non-Jews refuse to pass it over? Why should the heart be heavy? The reason is in the terrible ordinariness of Mr. Waldheim.

Kurt Waldheim was just one more member of the German war machine, military and civilian, who knew what was going on. For every Schindler there were millions of Germans, Austrians and other Europeans who also understood what was happening and did nothing.

The world does not pursue those people or even know their names. Too late, too many. Some, like Mr. Waldheim, escaped by lying. But he was discovered, trapped by his own prominence.

That's why what the pope did is staggering. He honored the one man who had come to be known throughout the world as symbolizing all the informed, participating, unpunished witnesses.

These days it is becoming uncouth to talk about things like witnessing and participating. The pope's honor to Kurt Waldheim is part of that wall of politesse being built around the past. I do not think the pope has any moral right to grant civil pardon and honor to the participating witnesses, to waive at least public contrition.

Christians have no moral right to say it is a matter for the Jews to protest. Jews have no right to say, as some do, hush, not so loud.

A. M. Rosenthal is a syndicated columnist.

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