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Jewish World Review March 22, 2000 /15 Adar II, 5760

John Leo

John Leo
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The Vatican confesses, but is it enough? -- THE CATHOLIC CHURCH has been confessing its faults and sins for many years now, particularly its treatment of Jews. By one count, Pope John Paul II alone has made over a hundred confessions of Christian failure. Many Catholics are now weary and wary of the apology process, and non-Catholics who comment on all the apologizing are tired of saying, in effect, "That's nice, but can you please be a bit more specific?"

The Vatican effort this time is the strongest and most solemn to date, a formal theological statement, "Memory and Reconciliation," combined with a confession on behalf of all Catholics by the pope and various cardinals built into the liturgy of a papal mass.

In the twilight of his papacy, Pope John Paul II clearly wanted to make an impact. We can assume that he was also trying to commit the next pope, who is very likely to be an aged and cautious member of the Vatican bureaucracy, to his own active policy of reconciliation.

Yet the Vatican's statement and liturgy have many of the same flaws as earlier efforts. Once again, a Catholic expression of regret relies too heavily on the passive voice, always a sign that we are about to swerve away from candor. We read about "the suffering endured by the people of Israel" rather than the Christians who helped the Nazis impose all the suffering. Still, the document is better than "We Remember," the Vatican's 1998 effort, which abstractly lamented antisemitic slanders that "have circulated" and catastrophes that "befell the Jewish people." (Mistakes were made.)

"Memory and Reconciliation," the new document, tiptoes gingerly up to Christian complicity in the Holocaust by saying that the behavior of Christians "was not that which might have been expected from Christ's followers." No, I guess not.

Baffling language. Some of the misty abstractions are baffling. "Purification of memory," which the pope keeps calling for, might make sense in Latin or Italian but fails to register at all in English. "Methods of violence and intolerance used in the past to evangelize" is probably a good enough short label for the forced conversions of native peoples, but "force in the service of truth," a reference to the Inquisition, doesn't really capture the flavor of people being tortured and burned at the stake. Can't we just have more plain talk?

Referring to the Crusades and the Inquisition, the document says: "Isn't it a bit too easy to judge people of the past by the conscience of today . . . almost as if moral conscience were not situated in time?" Correct answer: No. Many of the valiant crusaders used to warm up for their long trip to the Holy Land by butchering some local Jews, just for practice. The Christian moral conscience should have judged acts like these just as clearly in 1099 as the pope and most of the world would today. Yes, some moral norms change over time, but Catholics are not famous for their belief in moral and cultural relativism. An unsuspected respect for relativism really shouldn't show up in the middle of a confession for the Crusades and the Inquisition.

The document says the Holocaust "was certainly the result of the pagan ideology of Nazism." The Vatican has to stop inserting this line into its expressions of sorrow to the Jews. It's a way of discounting Christian antisemitism as a major factor in the extermination of Europe's Jews. Apart from the scale of the killings, there was nothing in the Nazi program for the Jews that hadn't been pioneered by centuries of Christian practice: from the forced wearing of a yellow badge, isolation, and rituals of humiliation to expropriation of property, banishment, and pogroms. The Nazis may have drawn their direct inspiration from a post-Christian version of purely racial antisemitism. But Christianity clearly prepared the way and lit the fuse.

It's true that popes and Christian princes intervened periodically over the centuries to protect Jews and usher in periods of relative tolerance. But it is also true that contempt, hatred, and vilification of Jews have been at or near the heart of Christian experience for most of two millenniums. It is the longest record of sustained oppression in human history. The anti-Jewish message was carried not just by excitable mobs and popular prejudice but by theologians, popes, bishops, saints, and official pronouncements and councils of the church.

Under this remarkable pope, the Catholic Church is trying hard to come to terms with its antisemitic tradition. But its official statements are still pockmarked by verbal diversions, fears about the reputation of Pius XII, legends of (virtually non-existent) church resistance to the Nazis, and odd claims that the Christians and Jews of Germany were somehow equal victims of Hitler. This won't do.

Jewish critics seem like terrible nags to so many Catholics, after all these apologies. But the critics know, as most Catholics do not, that Christians are nowhere near getting to the bottom of their antisemitic tradition. This is why Catholic-Jewish relations still have a quality of polite unreality about them. John Paul II has done far more than any other pope in history to repair the damage and put the dialogue on a realistic footing. Let's hope he uses this week's trip to Israel to do more.

JWR contributor John Leo's latest book is Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2000, John Leo