Two Popes and John Paul II (Lolek)

By Goldman, Solomon | Midstream, May-June 2000 | Go to article overview

Two Popes and John Paul II (Lolek)


Goldman, Solomon, Midstream


At all times and in all places, good people have come to the rescue of Jews. There were good Poles, Germans, French, Danes, and Italians. We call them "The Righteous Among the Nations."

Peter Schneider, in his essay, "The Good Germans -- Saving Conrad Latte," (The New York Times Magazine, 13 February 2000) states:

   ... the argument that the rescuer stories could be misused to neutralize
   German guilt doesn't hold up, and never did. In reality, the example set by
   these few makes the guilt of the collaborators and bystanders greater. It
   contradicts the self-justifying myth that the Nazi power machine was so
   finely tuned that obedience was the only option unless you were willing to
   risk your life."

The likelihood that the historic pilgrimage of John Paul II to Israel and neighboring areas will go down in history as a turning point in the Judeo-Christian relationship is unquestionable. Jews and Roman Catholics, and perhaps Christians in general, have been spellbound tracing the personal pilgrimage of the Vicar of Saint Peter's to the land where "God chose to pitch his tent." The extensive coverage by the media and the interviews with leading spokesmen of all three monotheistic religions would render any additional comments redundant. There will undoubtedly be many essays written on the political, moral, and theological implications of the pope's utterances and gestures and the effect they will bear on Catholic practice and doctrine.

This essay will therefore concentrate more on the personae of the three popes: Pitts X (1903-1914); Pius XII (1939-1958);John Paul II. We will briefly trace their origins, upbringing, and environment in an attempt to understand, if not always to condone, their behavior and actions.

Pius XII grew up in a strict Catholic family in Italy. His father was a legal advisor to the Vatican and had many ties to the curia. The young Eugenio Pacelli was from his early youth destined to become a priest. Very disciplined, almost ascetic, and possessed of visions of grandeur, step by step he rose in the Vatican hierarchy. First as Papal Nuncio to Germany during and after the fall of the Weimar Republic, and later as Secretary of State, he became the most influential shaper of Vatican diplomacy and proponent of the centrality of the papacy. It was he who strove to conclude concordats with foreign governments. To achieve these objectives, he very often denigrated the local Episcopal structures and undermined their political organizations. The Catholic Central party in Germany during and after the Weimar Republic was the leading political power. The pursuit of Pacelli's objectives resulted in the complete subordination of the German episcopate to the Vatican, thus playing into the hands of Hitler and ensuring the silencing of the most potential political opposition. Both as Secretary of State, and later as Pope Pius XII, he favored fascism over communism, which he hated and feared passionately.

Jews who lived in Rome prior to the rise of Christianity were actually an abstraction to him. He looked at Jews and their religion as members of a cult. There is no evidence of any recognition of Judaism as the fountainhead of Christianity; many indignities, the remnants of Jews' denigration in medieval times, still prevailed in the church of his time.

The legacy of Pius XII hovered over John Paul II's pilgrimage. The ambivalence of the Church in face of that by-now universally acknowledged silence will remain a stumbling block in clearing not only Christian-Jewish relations. It will occupy Christian historians and theologians in the future. If the Church is the embodiment of Jesus, and therefore holy and not subject to error, a reigning pope cannot criticize a predecessor. Pope John Paul II could only refer to the errors of the sons and daughters of the Church who may have sinned by commission or omission against Jews. Not being a specialist, I can only state, on the presently available evidence, that it is the sin of omission and commission at best that can be leveled at Pius XII. …

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