At the end of the visit by Pope Benedict XVI to the synagogue in Cologne last Friday, an elderly Jew wrapped in a prayer shawl walked up to his car and kissed the window. It may have been the only emotional expression of the brief visit. The current pope has a cold and reserved style, unlike that of his predecessor, Karol Wojtyla. Nevertheless, in the synagogue Benedict emphasized that regarding relations with the Jews, he considers himself continuing the line of Pope John Paul II, who termed the Jews the "elder brothers" of Christianity. Josef Ratzinger reiterated his predecessor's words, and said, "Whoever meets Jesus Christ meets Judaism."
For good reason Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center hastened to commend the pope for his statements against new expressions of anti-Semitism, and for closer links between Jews and Christians.
"The Catholic Church condemns all forms of discrimination between human beings," Ratzinger said in his speech at the synagogue, "be it for reasons of race, color, class or religion." He said that any such actions "are foreign to the mind of Christ."
Given the Church's past record of relations with Jews and other minorities, one should not minimize the significance of these words. Not the fact that Benedict chose on his first visit outside of Italy to visit a synagogue, and one on German soil, at that - his homeland and the cradle of Nazism. If he indeed harnesses the Church that he now heads in a real struggle against anti-Semitism, this would represent a genuine achievement.
However, the interpretation that the pope offered for events of the past is more troubling and less exact. In reference to World War II and the Holocaust, Ratzinger said that "In the darkest period of German and European history, an insane racist ideology born of neo-paganism gave rise to the attempt to exterminate European Jewry."
He went on to explain the roots of this ideology. "The holiness of God was no longer recognized, and consequently contempt was shown for the sacredness of human life," he said.
This interpretation is very convenient for the Church, of course. It distinguishes between what he calls a secular, pagan, "insane" Europe, which does not recognize the holiness of God, and a religious, sane, peace-mongering Europe. As far as Ratzinger is concerned, the Holocaust took place because of non-recognition of the Christian faith.
There would seem to be a basis for accepting the principle argument, that the rise of secular movements in the 20th century, those which brought down the Holocaust on the Jews and the entire continent of Europe, has to do with the weakening of religious faith. But the attempt to create such a distinction and to clear the Catholic Church just like that of the role it played for hundreds of years, preaching and educating toward hatred of Jews, is far from convincing.
The Holocaust took place on Christian soil, including Catholic Bavaria, where Ratzinger was born. It was made possible, at the very least, by the collaboration of Poles, Hungarians, Austrians, French and Belgians - all of them members of the Catholic community. This collaboration was achieved in part due to the heritage of anti-Semitism that was the legacy of the Church, the same Church that massacred Jews during the Crusades and established the first ghettoes.
Even four decades after the war, a few kilometers from one of the death camps, it was still possible to hear remnants of this preaching when a Polish peasant told the director Claude Lanzmann, in his film "Shoah": "After all, the Jews killed Jesus!" And that is even before we consider the suspect silence of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust.
If the distinction between Christianity and anti-Semitism that Benedict is making is aimed at the future, as an appeal to his flock, it should be warmly commended. But when it comes to the past, it must be recalled that many Jews and other people were murdered in the name of the Christian God, and their murder was made possible in no small measure thanks to the groundwork prepared by the Church.