from: The NYTimes

The Vatican's Sin of Omission

By ARTHUR HERTZBERG
May 14, 2005

LAST week, Pope Benedict XVI vowed to Rome's former chief rabbi that he would renew the Vatican's commitment to Catholic-Jewish dialogue. The statement, which came at the same time that Germany unveiled its new Holocaust memorial in central Berlin, was but one of several gestures the new pope has extended toward a receptive Jewish community. The Israeli government, the Anti-Defamation League and the European Jewish Congress have welcomed these overtures and urged Benedict to continue his predecessor's work.

But from my own experience as the chairman, more than 30 years ago, of the first international Jewish delegation to meet formally with a comparable delegation from the Vatican, I am far from certain that a new age in the Jewish-Catholic relationship has dawned. At that Paris meeting in 1971, we asked the Vatican to acknowledge that it had remained silent while Europe's Jews were murdered. The Catholic delegation responded that it was not empowered to act.

The delegates were following the instructions of the Vatican's commission on theology, which held that the policies of Pope Pius XII and the church under the Nazis could not be questioned, because the church and its leader are, as the First Vatican Council declared in 1870, free of error on matters of doctrine and morality. When Cardinal Ratzinger became the head of that Vatican commission, he issued the same advice to Pope John Paul II, who pronounced the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis an unspeakable crime, but a crime by some Catholics, not by the church.

This position obscures the fact that in 1930's and 1940's Europe, the Roman Catholic Church was the only institution that possessed the moral stature and strength to denounce and forbid the murder of the Jews. It did not do so. And in all the years since, rather than acknowledging this failure to provide moral leadership in the critical hour, the Vatican has repeatedly claimed that while individual Catholics behaved sinfully or misunderstood what the church taught, the sin of letting the Holocaust happen at its doorstep need not haunt the church as an institution.

This remained the Vatican's view throughout the 1990's, even though both the German and the French bishops' national conferences issued ringing confessions of their wartime sins. In 1995 the German bishops pointed out that the "church community" had "looked too fixedly at the threat to their own institutions" and "remained silent about the crimes committed against Jews and Judaism."

The French bishops, for their part, stirringly concluded their September 1997 statement with the following words: "In the face of so great and utter a tragedy, too many of the church's pastors committed an offense, by their silence, against the church itself and its mission," and added: "This failing of the church of France and of her responsibility toward the Jewish people are part of our history. We confess this sin. We beg God's pardon, and we call upon the Jewish people to hear our words of repentance."

Not only did the Vatican fail to adopt a similar attitude of contrition, but Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Edward Cassidy, who was then in charge of Jewish-Catholic relations, devalued the French and German bishops' statements.

When he was elected, Benedict XVI knew that there were doubts about him within the Jewish community, and he tried to allay them. His supporters could point to some significant achievements from his quarter-century as guardian of Catholic orthodoxy. Under John Paul II, the Vatican forbade the teaching of anti-Semitism, for example, and Cardinal Ratzinger authorized the publication of a 2002 report expressing regret that certain New Testament passages condemning individual Jews had been used to justify anti-Semitism. He added, "It cannot be denied that a certain insufficient resistance by Christians to this atrocity is explained by the anti-Judaism present in the soul of more than a few Christians."

What Cardinal Ratzinger did not do, however, was to question the orthodox Catholic position that though individual Catholics can err morally, the church and the pope cannot. Until the Vatican reconsiders that outlook, one of the Holocaust's greatest wounds will continue to fester - namely, that the major European institution that stood for morality looked away from genocide. No amount of personal outreach toward the Jews and Judaism from the new pope will make the Jews forget that the institution of which he is the monarch has not come to terms with that history.


Arthur Hertzberg, a visiting professor of the humanities at New York University, is the author of The Fate of Zionism.


» to Atheists of Silicon Valley Commentary page «

» to Atheists of Silicon Valley homepage «