ROME – Always uneasy, the relationship between the Vatican and the Jewish community took another sour turn recently when Pope Benedict XVI announced he was rescinding the excommunication of a bishop who denies the Holocaust.
While the pope managed to smooth things over somewhat by distancing himself from Bishop Richard Williamson’s Holocaust denial and, at a meeting last week at the Vatican with Jewish representatives, announcing plans to visit Israel in May, the uproar of the past few weeks raises significant questions about the goals of Benedict’s papacy.
It also highlights the scrutiny Benedict has come under regarding Jewish issues in the nearly four years since he became pope. The Williamson affair may be the most dramatic of the Jewish-related crises of Benedict’s papacy, but it’s not the first.
“What has been revealed most dramatically by this episode is something that Vatican observers have been noting consistently during this papacy in contrast to the previous pontificate: an amazing lack of consideration of the ramifications of papal actions, and a profound lack of collegial consultation,” said Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s director of Interreligious Affairs.
The result, Rosen said, is that time and again the Vatican has ended up “running to put out fires” when it “could have prevented the distress to others and the harm to itself in the first place.”
The most recent flare-up is a case in point.
Benedict announced on Jan. 24 that he had lifted the 1988 excommunication of the British-born Williamson and three other members of the Society of St. Pius X, a breakaway traditionalist group that rejects some of the reforms of the 1962-65 Vatican II Council. The council’s Nostra Aetate document paved the way for formal Jewish-Catholic dialogue by repudiating collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus.
Just days before Benedict’s announcement, Swedish TV had broadcast an interview with Williamson in which he denied the existence of Nazi gas chambers and claimed that only 200,000 to 300,000 Jews had been killed in the Holocaust rather than the more accepted number of 6 million.
While the reinstatement of the four bishops was an internal Catholic matter aimed at fostering Catholic unity, Williamson’s rehabilitation triggered anger, outrage and a measure of disbelief around the world.
“The Vatican has done far more than set back Vatican-Jewish relations,” the scholar Deborah Lipstadt, an expert on Holocaust denial, wrote on her blog. “It has made itself look like it is living in the darkest of ages.”
Condemnation rolled in from Jewish groups, Holocaust survivors, U.S. legislators, Israeli leaders and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as from elements within the Catholic Church.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican point man on relations with the Jewish world, complained that he had not been consulted about the matter and did not know about it in advance.
Even more remarkably, the Vatican said the pope himself had not been aware of Williamson’s views.
In a frenzy of damage control, the Vatican issued statements trying to clarify the issue and eventually ordered Williamson to recant his remarks on the Holocaust. Williamson apologized for causing the pope “unnecessary distress and problems” with his “imprudent” statements – but to date he has not retracted his stated views.
On Feb. 12, the pope met at the Vatican with a delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, his first meeting with Jewish leaders since the crisis.
Any denial or “minimization” of the Holocaust, Benedict told them, is “intolerable and altogether unacceptable.” The Church, he said, is “profoundly and irrevocably committed to reject all anti-Semitism, and to continue to build good and lasting relations between our two communities.”
Benedict also personally announced his upcoming trip to Israel, which also will include stops in the West Bank and Jordan.
Some Jewish representatives at the meeting hailed the pope’s words.
“We came a long way,” Rabbi Arthur Schneier of the Park East Synagogue in New York told reporters after the meeting. “We traveled to share our pain, to share our disbelief, but we are leaving with renewed hope of stronger bonds between Catholics and Jews.”
Others were more circumspect.
“This meeting was an effort to reconcile, to bring closure, but it didn’t lay this issue to rest,” Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman, who also attended the meeting, told JTA.
“You cannot say that we oppose anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial and then reinstate a denier,” Foxman said. “Every day that Williamson remains” a member of the Church “is an affront. There needs to be action on Williamson, so we know that there are no Williamsons in the Church hierarchy.”
Vatican-Jewish relations have been under close scrutiny since Benedict was elected pontiff in April 2005. His predecessor, the Polish-born Pope John Paul II, made fostering Jewish-Catholic relations and promoting awareness of the Holocaust a major focus of his reign.
Benedict was John Paul’s “most trusted theological right hand,” Rosen said.
From the beginning, Benedict indicated he would continue John Paul’s policy toward the Jews. He met with Jewish leaders and made historic visits to synagogues in Germany and the United States.
His own history played a role: Benedict grew up in what he has described as a staunchly anti-Nazi family, but like other German teenagers he was forced to join Hitler Youth. He deserted the German army before the end of World War II.
Now 81, Benedict undoubtedly is the last pope who will have witnessed the Holocaust era firsthand.
While welcoming his synagogue visits, the Jewish community has chafed at some of Benedict’s policies.
The most persistent thorn in the community’s side has been the ongoing controversy over the role of the wartime pope, Pius XII, whom the Vatican plans to beatify. Many historians say Pius turned a blind eye to Jewish suffering during the Holocaust, but his defenders say he worked behind the scenes to save Jews.
Jewish groups have called on the Vatican to open its archives to resolve the issue.
Another rift occurred last year when Benedict reinstated a Latin Mass for Easter that includes a prayer some understand as calling for the conversion of the Jews. The Vatican amended the prayer somewhat after Jews voiced concern.
“Decisions that the Church is making for its own use and needs are having unintended consequences and spilling into Jewish-Catholic relations,” Foxman observed.
Many Jews remain unsatisfied. Last month, Italian Jewish leaders took the extraordinary step of boycotting the Church’s annual celebration of Judaism.
In this context, Benedict’s trip to Israel will be watched closely.
It will be the first papal trip to the Holy Land since John Paul II’s historic five-day pilgrimage in 2000. Memorably, he placed a prayer note in the Western Wall asking for forgiveness for Christian persecution of Jews over the centuries and pledged Catholic brotherhood with the Jews.