Pope Pius and ‘the other’

I realized that he believes that Pope Pius XII was a righteous man who did everything to save Jewish lives during Holocaust.

Pope Benedict XVI   311 (r) (photo credit: REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi )
Pope Benedict XVI 311 (r)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi )
If the Catholic Church and World Jewry were in a Facebook relationship, their status would doubtless read: “It's Complicated.”
This was never more evident than at a recent meeting in Jerusalem about Jewish-Catholic relations, in which a Swiss cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church addressed the issue along with two rabbis. But before putting in my two shekels, first a personal anecdote.
At dinner a few nights ago, a Catholic friend of mine put forth the following claim: the Jewish curators of Yad Vashem purposely tarnished the image of Pope Pius XII as revenge on the Catholic Church for its long and macabre history of persecuting Jews.
Any attempt to refute his claim would miss the point.
As Rabbi David Bollag said at the meeting on Jewish- Catholic relations, which took place on May 25 at the Jerusalem Center for Israel Studies: “The importance of the dialogue is to listen what the other side has to say.”
And so, after listening to my friend, I realized that he believes unequivocally that Pope Pius XII was a righteous man who did everything in his power to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Therefore, any claim to the contrary must be a malicious smear campaign against his virtuous pope.
It is therefore understandable that my friend, a religious Catholic, is indignant toward how Yad Vashem portrays Pius XII, under whose picture there is a caption that explicitly condemns the pope’s silence during the Holocaust.
One sentence reads: “Even when reports about the murder of Jews reached the Vatican, the Pope did not protest either verbally or in writing.”
It is not my intention to argue for or against the virtue of Pope Pius XII. Suffice it to say that it is a good example of the complex and mercurial relationship between Jews and Catholics.
ANOTHER MANIFESTATION of this controversial issue was witnessed in 2009 after current Pope Benedict XVI bestowed Pius XII with the title of “Venerable” which, according to the Catholic canonization process, declaimed his Heroic Virtue and moved Pius XII one step closer to sainthood.
Many leaders of prominent Jewish organizations were flummoxed, and some,including the president of the World Zionist Congress, the founder of Simon Wiesenthal Center and the chairman of Yad Vashem, were incensed. As they viewed it, it was an insensitive and provocative gesture that offends Jewish memory and, more importantly, living Holocaust survivors.
Other critics of this move said it was premature to grant Pius XII such an honorific because the documents in the Vatican Secret Archives that pertain to the life of Pius XII had not yet been opened. The Vatican releases documents 75 years after an event occurs, meaning documents about Pius XII will open in 2014.
This debate also takes place in scholarship. On one side, there is a book entitled Hitler’s Pope: the Secret History of Pius XII, which was written in 1999 by British journalist John Cornwell, whose general argument is that Pius XII could have done more to save Jewish lives.
On the other side, there is a book published in 2008 and written by German historian Michael Heseman, which bears the title The Pope who Defied Hitler: The Truth about Pius XII. In 2010, after gaining privileged access to Vatican archives, Heseman revealed that Pius XII, then a cardinal, requested that 200,000 Jews be allowed to leave Germany after Kristallnacht.
Another book, written by none other than a rabbi and historian, David G. Dalin, carries the title: The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: How Pope Pius XII Rescued Jews from he Nazis. The book was published in 2005.
The point is that the Holocaust remains an open wound in Jewish-Catholic relations, which explains clearly the reason Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, who is also the head of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, expended much breath on the issue during his 10-minute, prepared address on May 25 at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.
On one hand, he said that the Catholic Church must admit that Christians were complicit in the perpetration of the Holocaust. However, he took great pains to renounce Adolph Hitler as a Catholic, thus isolating him as a pariah and doubtless not a representative of the Church.
More importantly, Koch noted that the Holocaust was a turning point in Jewish-Catholic relations, forcing the Catholic Church to reconsider its attitudes toward the Jews. This resulted in the Second Vatican Council, which took place from 1962-1965 and produced the document, Nostra Aetate, which was a manifesto for the Church’s new attitude toward non-Christian religions.
Among other noteworthy comments, it exculpates Jews from the murder of Jesus. It also recognizes the similarities between Jews, Muslims and Christians, as all being sons of God. In the spirit of this document, Koch notes in his address “Christianity couldn’t exist without its Jewish roots” and that “with Judaism, we have a relationship that we do not have with any other religion.”
He also admitted that there may be two parallel paths to salvation, and that the Jewish path may be just as legitimate as the Christian one.
RABBI DAVID Bollag, a senior researcher at the Institute of Jewish-Christian Research in Lucerne, Switzerland, was asked to respond to Cardinal Koch’s remarks.
In them two thing were apparent.
First was the refusal of Jews to disassociate the Catholic Church from the Holocaust. Bollag argued that there was a strong connection between the development of Nazism and centuries-old Christian anti- Semitism. He further argues that Nostra Aetate would not have been born had the Catholic Church not felt responsible for the Holocaust. The idea that the Catholic Church played a central role in the Holocaust reverberates in Jewish dismay at the sanctification of Pius XII and also Yad Vashem’s negative portrayal of him and the Catholic Church.
The second issue that was apparent was hypocrisy.
Bollag took advantage of his audience with the cardinal to air his consternation with the Catholic Church’s “Good Friday” prayer for the Jews.
Having undergone many revisions, the prayer in its most current version, as articulated by Pope Benedict XVI reads: “Let us also pray for the Jews: That our God and Lord may illuminate their hearts, that they acknowledge Jesus Christ is the Savior of all men.
Almighty and eternal God, who wants that all men be saved and come to the recognition of the truth, propitiously grant that even as the fullness of the peoples enters Thy Church, all Israel be saved. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.”
Bollag criticized this version as a major step backward in Jewish-Christian relations, as the prayer clearly exhibits a lack of respect for the Jewish religion. Bollag was suggesting the Church has not learned the lessons of the Holocaust, and that rather than extricating anti-Semitism from its roots, the Church through this prayer is actually disseminating anti-Semitism throughout the Catholic world.
Cardinal Koch responded to Bollag’s criticism, arguing that Bollag took the prayer out of its eschatological context. He said that the prayer refers exclusively to Judgment Day, during which Jewish tradition states that their Messiah will come and save them.
According to Koch, their Messiah, although currently unbeknownst to Jews, will actually be Jesus Christ, whom the Christian hope the Jews will accept at that time.
The hypocrisy in Bollag’s statement was revealed by an audience member, of which there were about 200.
The man rightly noted that the Jewish prayer of “Aleinu,” which is the second most recited prayer in Jewish liturgy after the Kaddish, is read in Israel with the following verse: “It is our duty to praise the Master of all to ascribe greatness to the Author of creation; who has not made us like the nations of the lands nor placed us like the families of the earth; who has not made our portion like theirs, nor our destiny like all their multitudes. For they worship vanity and emptiness, and pray to a god who cannot save.”
The audience member noted that in many American synagogues this verse is omitted, but he was pointing to the fact that both religions, Judaism and Christianity, are particularistic and view their path as the only path. It seems the only difference is that some Christians feel obliged to “save” non-Christians from deviating from the path, while some Jews view their religion more as an exclusive club. You want in, great! If not, it’s your problem.
In the end, it is my opinion that while I applaud Rabbi Bollag’ s call to “listen to what the other has to say,” each side must also engage in self-reflection and, in a sense, listen to what “his or her own side” is saying.
This is what led me not to dismiss outright my Catholic friend’s indignation at his beloved pope’s portrayal at Yad Vashem. While I believe the charge of deliberate besmirching is a bit far-fetched, it is entirely possible that the Jewish attitude toward Pius XII is jaundiced. Maybe when the Vatican archives open in 2014, Jews worldwide will do some self-reflection and reconsider their views on “Hitler’s Pope.”
The author is a master’s student at the Hebrew University, studying Islam and the Middle East. He also has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland.