Jews Fault Vatican's Holocaust Study

The Christian Century, April 1, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Jews Fault Vatican's Holocaust Study

In a long-awaited document on the Holocaust, the Roman Catholic Church has expressed its "deep sorrow" for the effort to eradicate European Jewry but denies that Catholic teachings fostered the anti-Semitism that fueled Nazi hatred against the Jews.

In a surprisingly brief and general document, the church also exonerates Pope Pius XII, who Jewish groups contend worsened the plight of Jews by not speaking out forcefully against the Nazi annihilation. "Pius XII does not have a case to answer," said Cardinal Edward Cassidy, who presented the document--titled We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah--at a Vatican news conference on March 16. (Shoah is the Hebrew word for the Holocaust.)

The document, promised by Pope John Paul II a decade ago, cites the "wisdom of Pope Pius XII's diplomacy," methodically fists in footnote form the accolades bestowed on the World War II-era pope by Jewish leaders, including the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, and lauds him for what he did "personally or through his representatives to save hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives."

Pius's reign, however, is likely to remain mired in controversy as some church historians insist that his admiration for German culture and German Catholicism kept him from recognizing the implications of the rise of Hitler and, despite his aid to Jewish refugees, made him reluctant to denounce the Nazi regime and its Axis partners.

Jewish leaders had mixed reactions to the document. Some praised its strong denunciation of anti-Semitism and its commitment to counter the denial of the Holocaust. But most were critical, some highly so, saying the document offers no real solidarity with the Jewish people or concrete steps to combat anti-Semitism.

"This document is a major disappointment," said David Blumenthal, a professor of Jewish studies at Atlanta's Emory University, a frequent Vatican adviser. "This is supposed to heal wounds and be a call to penitence," he said. "But this is not a confession of anything. There is no expression of solidarity with the dangers of Jewish existence. Are these guys going to be with us the next time around because we are Jews?"

James Rudin, interreligious affairs director of the New York-based American Jewish Committee, said the document contains "elements that are very positive," including its denunciation of people who deny the Holocaust. But Rudin went on to say that the document fails to spell out the importance of taking concrete steps to promote religious tolerance.

Rabbi Leon Klenicki, interfaith director of the New York-based AntiDefamation League, said he was left feeling "very sad and disappointed" by the document. "I really can't believe my eyes. I expected, especially under John Paul II, something that would continue his courageous reactions to the teachings of contempt for the Jews. This document falls short of the mark," said Klenicki. A number of Jewish critics repeated their demands for the church to open its archives on the Holocaust period to independent Jewish and Catholic scholars.

The document, the culmination of 11 years of study, consultation and an academic symposium last October, may mark John Paul II's final word on Christianity and the Holocaust. The pope is credited with doing more than any predecessor to promote Jewish-Catholic understanding, something that Jewish critics of the document acknowledged even while saying it would not put to rest nagging questions about the church's actions during World War II.

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