Papal Fallibility

Although he pleaded in March 2000 for forgiveness for the centuries of persecution endured by the Jewish people at the hands of the 'sons and daughters of the Church,' John Paul refused to accept any institutional responsibility for its horrific denouement - the Holocaust.

The first anniversary of the death of John Paul II was commemorated this week not only by millions of Catholics, but also by many Jews for whom his reign redefined inter-religious relations. However, last April's uniformly positive appraisals of this "hero of reconciliation" by Israeli and Jewish groups presented an oversimplified picture of a more complex reality. One year on, it is time to take a more critical look.

Certainly John Paul II made rapprochement with the Jews a central theme of his pontificate. In attending Rome's Great Synagogue in 1986, he undertook the first-ever papal visit to a Jewish place of worship while, 14 years later, he embarked on a five-day pilgrimage to Israel - the first meaningful visit to the Jewish state by a reigning pontiff (Paul VI spent just 11 hours in Israel in 1964, during which he refused to either acknowledge the state by name or its then president, Zalman Shazar, by title).

The written prayer which he placed in the Western Wall during this visit promised to commit the Church to "genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant" and John Paul consistently denounced anti-Semitism as "a sin against both God and humanity," citing the 1965 encyclical Nostra Aetate, which states that the crucifixion of Jesus "cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today," and "deplores the hatred, persecutions and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and from any source."

Yet John Paul is reported to have described Mel Gibson's virulently anti-Semitic film "The Passion of the Christ" as historically accurate, and he sat stone-faced in silence in Damascus in May 2001 as Bashar al-Assad accused the Jews of attempting "to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality in which they betrayed Jesus Christ and the same way they tried to betray and kill the prophet Mohammed."

And although he pleaded in March 2000 for forgiveness for the centuries of persecution endured by the Jewish people at the hands of "the sons and daughters of the Church," John Paul refused to accept any institutional responsibility for its horrific denouement - the Holocaust. While conceding, in his definitive statement on this subject, "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah" (1998), that the Nazi slaughter was "made easier by the anti-Jewish prejudice embedded in some Christian minds and hearts," he maintained that, on the whole, "the Shoah was the work of a thoroughly modern, neo-pagan regime," whose "anti-Semitism had its roots outside of Christianity." He underlined the Church's blamelessness by appending to the document an uncompromising defense of Pope Pius XII, whose thundering silence on the Holocaust was, at the very best, an unpardonable error of judgment.

John Paul's own judgment was called into question by his refusal to allow a commission investigating Pius XII's record proper access to the relevant archives and by placing him on the path to sainthood. His beatification of both Pius IX, the prime mover in the notorious Mortaro case, and the Croatian Church's compromised wartime leader, Archbishop Stepinac, understandably also caused controversy.

Some critics went so far as to accuse John Paul of attempting not only to exonerate Catholicism from blame for the Holocaust, but of actually trying to "Christianize" it by presenting it as a crime against Europe's (especially Poland's) Catholics as much as it was a crime against its Jews. Certainly, he more than once referred to "the Golgotha of Auschwitz" and suggested building churches on the sites of concentration camps "in the same way that since the first centuries of Christianity, churches were built on the tombs of martyrs, beatified people and saints." Churches or crosses were subsequently erected at all such sites, most notoriously at Auschwitz where a Carmelite convent was established and a seven-foot-high cross now stands. Also problematical in this regard was his decision to canonize as a Christian martyr Edith Stein, a Jewish convert to Catholicism gassed at Auschwitz in 1944, despite the fact that she was murdered not for her religion, but her race.

And what of Israel? While John Paul's insistence on a "special internationally guaranteed statute" for Jerusalem, his numerous audiences with Yasser Arafat and his ill-judged attack on the security fence rankled, he was rightly applauded for acknowledging the Jewish claim to the land. In Redemptoris Anno, published April 1984, he asserted that the Jews "had a right to a homeland" while, the following September, he said that "Catholics recognize ... that Jews have a religious attachment to the land [of Israel] which finds its roots in biblical tradition." He described the signing of the Fundamental Treaty, under which Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic relations nine years later, as an "international affirmation" of the "right of the Jewish to return to their homeland," emphasizing this by blessing Israel in the presence of the president during his May 2000 visit.

With these words and deeds John Paul appeared to reject 2000 years of Christian theology, which taught that the expulsions of 70 and 135 C.E. were divine punishments for the Jews' repudiation and murder of Christ, and that only through repentance by conversion could they, as a nation, return. But in reality, his support for Israel had little to do with theology. On the contrary, he explicitly stated that "the existence of the State of Israel and its political options should be envisaged not in a perspective which is in itself religious, but in their reference to the common principles on international law."

In fact, while John Paul repeatedly rejected "replacement theology" (the doctrine that the Jews have been supplanted by the Church as heirs to the Abrahamic covenant), his theological position on the Jews retained an air of ambiguity. He often described the Jews as "our dearly beloved ... elder brothers" but in the knowledge that, as in the cases of Jacob and David, it is generally the younger brothers in the Bible who are favored with inheritance or glory. And despite his dogged insistence that the "Old Covenant ... has never been revoked by God," John Paul was equally adamant that Catholicism and Judaism could not be interpreted as "two parallel ways to salvation." Given that he "explicitly approved and confirmed" Dominus Iesus, the 2000 Vatican document which implied that the path to redemption ran solely through Rome, how did he envisage that the Jews then be saved? While he intimated that they were not to be "targeted" for evangelization, one wonders whether under John Paul, conversion merely moved from being official stated policy to becoming the elephant in the room.

But for all his ambiguities and equivocations, John Paul was as enlightened on these issues as a conservative Catholic could possibly be. And given the views of some of those tipped to succeed him as the vicar of Christ, his pontificate will be seen as a golden age.

Sean Gannon is a free-lance writer and researcher, specializing in Irish and Israeli affairs. He is the author of a monograph on "Roma Locuta Est: Ireland, the Vatican and the Question of Jerusalem."