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Papal Apology

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Apology and the Holocaust; The Pope's in a Confessional, And Jews  Are Listening     By CELESTINE BOHLEN     forgiveness   .

Apology and the Holocaust; The Pope's in a Confessional, And Jews Are Listening


MORE than any other Pope in history, Pope John Paul II leader of the world's almost one billion Roman Catholics -- has asked forgiveness for the sins, crimes and errors committed in the name of his faith.

He has apologized for the persecution of Protestants, for the crimes of the Crusaders; he has asked forgiveness for the abuses of Europe's colonial-era proselytizing around the world; he has voiced regret at the church's repression of Galileo and condemned its silence regarding Italy's own murderous Mafia.

But with only two years to go before Christianity closes the books on its first 2,000 years, the Pope has yet to ask forgiveness of the Jews for the violence they have suffered over the centuries at the hands of the church, its followers and, in some cases, its leaders. Most particularly, he has yet to make a reckoning of what many have condemned as the silence of the Vatican during the systematic slaughter of Europe's Jews by the Nazis during World War II.

And it is this apology that weighs most heavily on the church. It was first promised in 1987 by the Pope himself in a meeting with American Jewish leaders in Miami. It has been anticipated in apologies to the Jews by the Catholic bishops of Germany, Poland, Hungary and, most recently, France, for the failure of their local churches to oppose the Holocaust.

Many Jewish leaders see the long-awaited papal statement on the church, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust -- being prepared by the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with Judaism -- as the conclusive test of the willingness of the church to confront its share of guilt for the tragedy that befell the Jews.

''It is not so much an apology we are looking for, since this Pope has many times expressed remorse for anti-Semitism,'' said Rabbi David Rosen, director of the Israel office of the Anti-Defamation League, the league's Vatican liaison. ''But what could resolve the outstanding resentment which is still to be found among Jews is an honest reckoning of the actual role church leaders took during the period of the Holocaust, and to what extent this was impacted on by church teachings on Jews and Judaism.

''It is clear,'' he added, ''that there are some in the Vatican who have reservations about how far it should go.''

Arab Christians

Some observers attribute the document's slow progress to resistance from Vatican diplomats concerned with the church's relations with the Arab world, and in particular with the status of an estimated 10 million Arab Christians, who feel caught in Arab-Israeli hostilities in the Middle East. In the past, resistance from Arab Christian leaders has contributed to the Vatican's hesitancy first to recognize the state of Israel, and to improve relations with Jews generally.

Others detect a wish among church officials to put a stop to apologies altogether. ''It makes no sense to judge completely diverse situations, three, four, five centuries after the fact,'' Giacomo Cardinal Biffi, the archbishop of Bologna, said recently.

No Catholic leader would deny that the church bears a historical burden of anti-Judaism -- a prejudice that, as the Pope himself recently admitted, crept into interpretations of the New Testament, damning the Jews collectively as ''Christ-killers.'' But in the minds of many Catholics, that doesn't mean the Catholic Church bears a responsibility for the Holocaust. They point to the distinction between anti-Judaism (a religious prejudice) and anti-Semitism (a racial prejudice); between the Church itself and its followers, and between the Church's failure to challenge the Nazis and a conclusion that it shares the Nazis' guilt.

Even the Pope, in offhand remarks to reporters during a recent trip to Brazil, seemed almost annoyed by questions about the long-awaited document. ''It is interesting that it is always the Pope and the Catholic Church who ask for forgiveness while others remain silent,'' he said. In fact, the Protestant Church of the Rhineland, for one, in 1980 admitted the church's ''co-responsibility and guilt'' for the Holocaust.

Three years ago, the Pope set the year 2000 as a deadline for what he calls the church's ''examination of conscience.'' He has scheduled two theological symposia to examine its history -- the first on anti-Judaism, held last month, and one next year to study the Inquisition, the papal courts that at various points in history weeded out heretics with systematic brutality.

Most Vatican experts expect the Pope to issue a pastoral letter sometime before the year 2000, in which he will atone for a range of sins including anti-Semitism. Some experts expect a separate document on the Holocaust, the one Jewish leaders have been awaiting for a decade. ''There will be an apology,'' said one Vatican observer. ''The question is for what.''

Many say the 77-year-old Pope has already done everything but formally apologize to the Jews. Born and raised in southern Poland, where many of his friends were Jews, his commitment to the eradication of anti-Semitism in church ranks has been evident since he became Pope in 1978.

In 1979, on a visit to the site of the Auschwitz death camp, he referred to the Holocaust as the ''Golgotha of our century.'' In Rome in 1986, he became the first Pope ever to visit a synagogue. Under him, diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Israel were finally established in 1994.

Some groundwork was laid earlier. At the Second Vatican Council in 1965, the church formally repudiated collective Jewish guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus, and condemned anti-Semitism. Since then, other documents have been issued, purging Catholic texts of such phrases as ''perfidious Jews'' (once part of the Good Friday liturgy) and pressing for more active Catholic contacts with Jewish communities. ''Today the Catholic church is not part of the problem, but part of the solution,'' Rabbi Rosen said.

But for many Jews, the Vatican's failure to make a public accounting of its actions during World War II rankles the most. Its accusers see Pope Pius XII's general silence as evidence of the church's indifference to the fate of the Jews. His defenders say the Pope, fearful of Nazi wrath against Catholics, deliberately kept his voice low, while encouraging and even directing efforts to save Jews.

John Paul has already signaled that he will not stand in judgment of Pope Pius XII. During a trip to Germany two years ago, one of his speeches contained a passage -- which he chose not to read aloud -- attacking Pius's critics. ''Those who don't limit themselves to cheap polemics know very well what Pius XII thought about the Nazi regime, and how much he did to help the countless victims persecuted by that regime,'' the text said.

Last month, at the Vatican symposium on anti-Judaism, the Pope provided another hint about how far he is likely to go on the Holocaust. His remarks were elaborately, even awkwardly, worded, reflecting the intellectual pains taken to produce them, and can be summed up as follows: Certain strains of Christian thought, both wrong and unfair, fueled hostility toward the Jews. These erroneous interpretations of the New Testament, he said, played a role in numbing Christian consciences, to the point where many Christians, confronted with 20th century anti-Semitism, lost their moral bearings and failed to mount the spiritual resistance ''expected of the disciples of Christ.''


Thus, in the Pope's view, it was not the church that promoted anti-Judaism, but wrong-headed Christian thinkers. Nor was anti-Judaism the incubator of the Nazis' anti-Semitism, which was a racist, not a religious, campaign. Finally, the moral failure of many Christians during the Holocaust was not one of active participation but of passivity (though the Pope stressed that many Christians did oppose the Holocaust, at great risk).

Many Jewish leaders would prefer to see the Pope concede a more direct link between anti-Judaism and the mentality that shaped the Holocaust. But most say the church's main task now is to continue to eradicate prejudice wherever it is found. ''The issue is to reach the conscience of the faithful, an effort which is under way,'' said Tullia Zevi, head of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. ''These things take time. We are a patient people, and the Church is a patient institution. We move in slow times. The issue is to move in the right direction.''

Organizations mentioned in this article:
Roman Catholic Church

Related Terms:
Jews; Anti-Semitism; Nazi Policies Toward Jews and Other Minorities

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