Mixed signal beatifying good pope, bad pope

September 03, 2000|By Ruth Ellen Gruber

VATICAN CITY -- Pope John Paul II today will beatify two of his papal predecessors, John XXIII and Pius IX. It's a pairing that James Walston, a professor of political science at the American University in Rome, calls "appallingly dishonest."

John XXIII, who died in 1963, was a genuinely beloved figure. The Second Vatican Council, which he convened in 1962, opened the Catholic Church to the modern world. Its 1965 Nostra Aetate decree enabled Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

But 19th century Pope Pius IX has a record that British church historian Owen Chadwick says "verges on the criminal." The last pope to wield temporal power, he rejected progress, championed the concept of papal infallibility and became infamous for the 1858 kidnap of a young Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara, who had been baptized forcibly as a baby.

Said the Catholic weekly the Tablet, "two popes of a more different temper would be hard to find."

Jews have been especially vocal in expressing concern.

The beatification of the fiercely anti-Semitic Pius IX, the last pope to confine Jews to the ghetto, doesn't square with repeated recent church apologies for past anti-Semitism, which culminated in John Paul's emotional personal prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in March.

"It must be made clear that the decision to beatify Pius IX will have consequences on our relations with the Vatican," Amos Luzzatto, Italy's chief Jewish lay leader, said this summer. "The openly anti-Judaic attitudes of that pope have left a wound that is still open."

"If saintliness is seen as the goodness, wisdom and courage to behave righteously and right wrongs regardless of when they occur, then Pius IX's conduct falls far short of saintliness," Seymour Reich, chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, wrote to the Vatican in July. "His papal role stands in sharp contrast to that of the saintly Pope John XXIII and John Paul II, who recognized the wrongs of the past and sought to rectify them."

The Edgardo Mortara affair epitomizes Pius IX's policy.

Edgardo, 7, was seized from his home in Bologna on the pope's orders after a servant told a priest that she secretly baptized the boy when he was a baby. He was brought to Rome, where he was virtually adopted by Pius IX and brought up as a Catholic.

The incident sparked outrage and international protests. Emperors Franz Joseph of Austria and Napoleon III of France urged the pope to give up the child, but he remained adamant. Edgardo eventually became a priest and died in 1940.

The case, said B'nai B'rith International President Richard D. Heideman, "demonstrated a fundamental disrespect and disdain for Jews, for Jewish feelings, and indeed for basic, God-given human rights."

Jews, however, are not the only ones to raise the alarm.

Liberal-minded Catholics also are concerned at the implicit message in twinning beatification of Pius IX and John XXIII.

"The joint ceremony will form a coded warning that liberalism can only operate within strict limits," wrote Rupert Shortt, a former assistant editor of The Tablet.

Beatification is the next to last step before sainthood.

Honoring John XXIII and Pius IX together is a case of eccelesiatical "good cop, bad cop" that sends profoundly mixed messages as the Church heads into its third millennium.

It puts these very different two popes, and their very different teachings, on the same plane.

As Mr. Walston put it, "The message is that popes are equally authoritative, always right, regardless of whether one says something is white and the other says it is black."

Ruth Ellen Gruber writes from Europe about religious issues.

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