Moses may be, as we know he is, a most upright and honest man, but he gives a full account and reckoning of everything that has been contributed to and used in the project. The sages ask, “Who would ever have suspected Moses of impropriety?” But they answer their own question: “No matter who you are, even a leader, especially a leader, you are answerable for your deeds of omission and commission”.
There has been a particular, highly charged example this week; on the eve of the Pope’s visit to Israel, the Vatican’s ambassador to the Holy Land has been reported as making remarks on television basically whitewashing the wartime Pope, Pope Pius XII, and asserting that his attitude towards the Jews and the Holocaust was above question and query.
The fact is that since World War II there has been a series of important Roman Catholic statements about Jews and Judaism which leave no doubt that the Church is determined to recognise its failings over the centuries in its attitude to our people and our faith, especially in relation to the Holocaust.
The Pope himself, when speaking in Sydney in 1986, called this “the century of the Sho’ah, the inhuman and ruthless attempt to exterminate European Jewry”. More recently, in 1998, a major document on the Catholic Church and the Holocaust frankly and honestly recognise the long centuries of Christian mistreatment of the Jewish people and admitted that it made its contribution towards the circumstances that created the Holocaust. The document uses the Hebrew word T’shuvah, and on behalf of the Church it expresses its repentance.
There has been no comparable document issued by any other Church, and the Pope, the Vatican and the Catholic community are undoubtedly honest, genuine and sincere in recognising that they too have sinned.
It is true that some Catholic leaders and lay people showed great courage in helping to save Jewish lives, and while no one is certain how many people survived as a result, the estimates go as high as 750,000. The question is, however, could more have been done – and could and should the Pope have done it?
In particular, could and should the Pope have stood up and spoken up, stood out and spoken out, in ringing condemnation of the evil of Nazism and what it was doing to the Jews of Europe?
The Vatican ambassador in Israel seems to feel that no criticism should attach to the Pope. Most of us would beg to differ. The evidence seems overwhelming that the Pope was backward in coming forward, silent when he should have spoken.
Did he fear a backlash that would harm Catholic interests? Probably yes, but should moral conscience be swayed and stilled by thoughts of what might result? Surely if you have to speak out, you speak. Indeed, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church spoke out, repeatedly condemned the persecution of the Jews, and remained safe.
Was the Pope’s concern more for Catholics than for Jews? Probably; there was age-old hostility to Jews, who for centuries had been regarded by Christianity as under a curse from God. There is the awful possibility that the Pope might have thought, “Let Hitler punish the Jews and do God’s work for Him”.
Fortunately, but a little late, a wind of change in the last half century has enabled the Vatican to acknowledge that Jews have not ceased to be the people of God, that antisemitism is a sin even when perpetrated by the Church, and that when any of God’s children are hurting, everyone is diminished.
There will be an ongoing debate about Pope Pius XII and the Jews for many years to come. Fortunately this is happening inside the Church itself, and already the French bishops have openly recognised that religious leaders must not allow ecclesiastical interests to take priority over the demands of conscience.
Perhaps the Vatican ambassador to Israel is not quite aware of the whole discussion. Perhaps he is not quite aware that Israel is precisely the wrong place to make insensitive comments. Perhaps he is not quite aware that with the Pope’s arrival imminent, he should not create but smooth out difficulties. Whatever it is, one can only conclude that if the ambassador has said what the media have reported, he has shown himself to be a diplomat who does not always act diplomatically.
Despite all of this, I believe there is a sense of great satisfaction that the Pope is about to visit Israel at last, and one hopes that the occasion will not be soured in any way by anything said or implied which might be unhelpful on the issue of Jerusalem and any other aspect of the Middle East situation.
Israel is only a short distance from Rome but this, probably the Pope’s most important symbolic pilgrimage, is in a sense the longest journey he has made. We wish him good health to cope with the strains, and inspiration to handle the sensitive issues.
We hope, too, that as the rabbis say that no leader can be above account and reckoning, so both Pope and Vatican will have the courage to see and recognise that the issue of the wartime Pope must be properly addressed in order that the papal T’shuvah may be full and unstinting.
(Published 8 March 2000.)