pope with jews 248.88 ap.
(photo credit: AP)
For the first time since the death of Pope John Paul II, Catholic-Jewish relations have become strained. Pope Benedict XVI, in an effort to heal a 20-year-old schism in the Catholic Church, has allowed a high-profile Holocaust denier back into his fold. But must the views of one lunatic bishop put an end to interreligious dialogue? Surely not. Now, more than any other time in our troubled history, Catholics and Jews must stand together against the threat of Islamism.
The Holocaust-denying Bishop Williamson is, by all accounts, a deeply unpleasant and ignorant man. Despite being educated at Cambridge University, he rejects the existence of the gas chambers in Nazi concentration camps. In doing so, he denies the Holocaust as a historical event, claiming that "only" 300,000 Jews perished.
To Roman Catholics, these views are intolerable. The pope has expressed his disapproval in the strongest terms, saying to an American Jewish delegation, "The hatred that was manifested during the Holocaust was a crime against God and humanity. This terrible chapter of our history can never be forgotten." He added, "All of humanity should continue to lament the savage brutality that was shown towards the Jewish people."
His words were of the utmost importance, and Rabbi David Rosen praised the pope's condemnation of Holocaust denial as "absolutely unequivocal." But the Vatican's slow response to the outcry must not escape criticism.
THE INTERNATIONAL MEDIA, fresh from attacking Israel's war on Hamas, decided to "restore the balance" by stirring up feelings of anti-Catholicism. But the pathetic advisers to the pope, who were "unaware" of Williamson's renowned anti-Semitism (despite the fact that it was on the front page of The Catholic Herald last year), made it far too easy. After coming dangerously close to rolling back 20 years of progress in Catholic-Jewish relations, they should be sacked.
When Pope John Paul II died in 2005, he was mourned not only by Roman Catholics, but by Jews all over the world. During his 26-year pontificate, the Polish-born Karol Wojtyla had transformed the way the Catholic Church interacted with the Jewish people.
He was the first pope since the days of the early church to enter a synagogue, and was key to the Vatican's establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel in 1994. He publicly acknowledged the failure of many Catholics to act against the Nazis, and apologized on their behalf. In 2000 - during his visit to Israel at age 79 - he personally paid his respects to the victims of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem, even meeting with survivors.
But when dealing with the internal matters of his church, Papa Wojtyla was not so successful. In the late 1980s, he failed to stop a traditionalist movement breaking away from Rome. And despite pleading with the founder of the Society of St. Pius X, four bishops were ordained in defiance of church law, causing them to be immediately excommunicated.
The current pope - then Cardinal Ratzinger - was sent to restore order. In spite of numerous difficulties, he began the long process of reconciliation and attempted to bring the rebel bishops and their followers back to Rome. During his tenure as pope, and particularly since his restoration of traditional Catholic liturgy, this process has moved steadily toward its culmination.
The lifting of the excommunications was an internal matter that resulted, to the pope's obvious distress, in catastrophic external consequences. Although none of the men is allowed to teach in the church, the healing of one rift has very nearly led to the opening of another. The pope and his incompetent advisers have come close to causing a meltdown in Catholic-Jewish relations. This outcome would be disastrous for both sides.
IN 2009, good relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people are more important than ever. The biggest threat to stability in Israel emanates from Iran in the most virulent form of Islamism. Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, and Hizbullah in Lebanon are all under the influence of an Iranian regime that does not recognize Israel's right to exist. And now this regime is moving ever closer to nuclear capability. For Jews, the threat has become existential.
To the secular, political West, religious fundamentalism is an alien phenomenon. When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran stated in 2005 that Israel should cease to exist, then-British prime minister Tony Blair's disbelief was telling: "I have never come across a situation of the president of a country saying they want to wipe out another country." Blair was not even close to understanding the motives of an Islamist dictator. Likewise, the EU offered a statement that condemned Iran for not being "a mature and responsible member of the international community."
The Catholic Church understands all too well that Ahmadinejad's morbid ambition has nothing to do with political maturity. Before the Islamic revolution in 1979, there were some quarter-million Catholics living in Iran. Now there are fewer than 15,000. The intolerance of a bigoted regime has driven Catholics out of Iran in vast numbers. It is that same intolerance that would attempt to rid the Middle East of the Jewish people.
Although attempts have been put forward by the Iranian regime, Benedict has wisely refused to meet Ahmadinejad. He has spoken of Iran's desire to be nuclear-armed as "a matter of great concern" and has urgently called on the Islamist regime to achieve a "peaceful coexistence" with other countries in the Middle East.
More importantly, however, Benedict - in spite of recent events - remains one of the most pro-Israel leaders in the political world. Like his mentor, the previous pope, who called the Jewish people "our elder brothers," Benedict XVI has consistently attempted to express his "full and unquestionable solidarity" with Israel and the Jewish people, as he did when he visited Auschwitz three years ago. When he visits Israel in May, his reception will probably be very different from his predecessor's. But his prayers at the Western Wall will be just as earnest, and the gesture as profound. It is this yearning for cooperation in the face of new and horrible threats to Israel that must remain a priority.
The writer is a contributing editor of the British weekly The Catholic Herald.