The Vatican and Judaism: Culpability is still denied

The Argument

Though Pope John Paul II has moved the Roman Catholic Church toward reconciliation, serious questions about the Holocaust have not been confronted.

January 07, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff

It was a riveting sight. An old man, back bent by the weight of years, shuffling toward the ancient wall of stone blocks. With a trembling hand, he slipped a card into a crevice. He stepped back for a long moment, absorbed in prayer -- entirely alone, except for the world that was watching.

Pope John Paul II's simple gesture at Jerusalem's Western Wall last March signified how far his Roman Catholic Church has come in its efforts to achieve reconciliation with Judaism.

Those efforts have not stilled the voices of moral outrage. Scrutiny and harsh judgment of the church are gaining energy.

The card he left betrays how far many believe the church still needs to travel. On it were the words he had uttered the week before at St. Peter's Basilica. They have been called a papal apology, but are more of a prayer of repentance for "sins committed by the sons and daughters of the church" against Jews and Judaism.

While the church acknowledges the sins of its sons and daughters, it holds the institution itself above reproach. Acknowledging a history of Catholic "anti-Judaism," a cultural and religious bias based on Jewish rejection of Jesus, it does not admit any association with race-based anti-Semitism.

Catholic teaching states that before a pardon of sins is granted, a full confession must be made. Many believe that so far the Catholic Church has not fully confessed its treatment of Jews over the centuries.

If the church itself is refusing to be fully accountable for its role in fomenting anti-Semitism and its lack of action to prevent or protest the Holocaust, others are taking up the task. In what is threatening to become a sub-genre of church history, new books are appearing that examine the historical and theological record of the Catholic Church and its relationship to Jews.

Under particular scrutiny is Pope Pius XII, the wartime pontiff who is denounced by some for his silence in the face of Nazi atrocities and who is so admired by others that they are working to have him elevated to sainthood.

Those competing attitudes were clearly present in "We Remember, A Reflection on the Shoah," a 1998 Vatican document that expressed deep regret for the "errors and failures" of Catholics during the Holocaust, but also defended the role of Pope Pius XII: "During and after the war, Jewish communities and Jewish leaders expressed their thanks for all that had been done for them, including what Pope Pius XII did personally or through his representatives to save hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives."

The evidence is available, the Vatican says. Although despite repeated entreaties it has refused to open its archives to outside scholars, the Vatican directs inquiries to the 11 published volumes of archival material from the years during and leading up to World War II that was assembled by a team of Catholic scholars.

The introductions of those volumes have been synthesized into "Pius XII and the Second World War" by Pierre Blet, S.J. (Paulist Press, 304 pages, $29.95), who is one of the editors of the 11 volumes.

Blet asserts that Pius XII did indeed speak out in his Christmas message of 1942, when he said that "the hundreds of thousands of people who, through no fault of their own and at times only because of their nationality or race, are destined to be killed or are allowed to simply waste away." That statement, which was his strongest denunciation of Nazi atrocities, is taken by critics to be too weak and non-specific -- it doesn't even specifically mention the Jews.

Pius XII had a good reason for his equanimity, says Blet: "Protests gain nothing, and they can harm those whom one hopes to assist," which he argues could have resulted in the execution of more Jews and Catholics.

Historians and other authors have taken up the challenge to closely scrutinize the Vatican record. In the fall of 1999, British author John Cornwell wrote "Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII" (Viking, 430 pages, $29.95).

Cornwell, a practicing Catholic, attempts to document early evidence of what he believes is Pius XII's anti-Semitism when he was a nuncio in Germany before his papacy, evidence that is not altogether convincing. But more devastating is his critique of the 1933 Reich Concordat the future pope negotiated as Vatican secretary of state with Adolf Hitler. In that, the Vatican received authorization to impose its newly codified canon law and secured privileges for its schools and clergy. In return, it agreed to allow the Catholic Center party, one of the last forces in Germany that might have opposed the Nazis, to be disbanded.

Others writers are at work. David Kertzer, the Brown University professor who chronicled the Vatican's complicity in the 19th century taking of a secretly baptized Jewish boy from his family in "The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara," is completing "The Church Against the Jews: The Vatican's role in the rise of modern anti-Semitism," scheduled for September publication.

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