Analysis: Say two cheers for the Pontiff

By Mark Solomon, January 21, 2010

The papacy of Benedict XVI has not been short on controversy, so whenever Joseph Ratzinger opens his mouth there is no lack of people ready to jump down his throat.

It is almost disappointing, then, when the Pope says just the right thing, as he did in his speech last Sunday. His well-crafted speech ticked all the important boxes, and even though the papacy is a political office where every utterance is spun with care, his address had the ring of sincerity and spiritual depth.

That is not to say it will satisfy everyone, in the wake of the Pope’s affirmation of the “heroic virtues” of Pius XII, the wartime Pope. In his speech, Pope Benedict trod a fine line. Without mentioning Pius XII by name, he affirmed the “singular” character of the “Shoah [which] represents… the most extreme point on the path of hatred.”

As a German, and notoriously, for a short time, a member of the Hitler Youth, it is interesting to read his reference to “the extermination of the people of the Covenant of Moses, at first announced, then systematically programmed and put into practice”. This is an acknowledgement that the Holocaust was an essential part of the Nazi vision from the beginning.

Referring particularly to the deportation of Roman Jews to Auschwitz in 1943, he grants that “unfortunately, many remained indifferent”, but asserts that “many, including Italian Catholics… reacted with courage, often at risk of their lives, opening their arms to assist the Jewish fugitives who were being hunted down, and earning perennial gratitude.”

Pope Benedict trod a fine line. He did not mention Pius by name

Then, in the most scrutinised words of the speech, he added: “The Apostolic See itself provided assistance, often in a hidden and discreet way.”

There’s the rub, because although it is certain that Pius XII ordered Catholics, especially monasteries, to shelter Jews; and although it is probable that, without the Pope’s intervention, many more Jews would have been deported, many would have expected the Pope’s protests to be less “hidden and discreet”.

The predecessor who was invoked by name was John Paul II, the first pope to visit the Rome synagogue, 24 years ago. Pope John Paul’s commitment to Christian-Jewish reconciliation was passionate and central to his reign. This is less evident with Benedict XVI.

Although Pope Benedict referred with approval to the Second Vatican Council, which transformed the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people, the process of canonisation of Pius XII represents a rejection of the liberal values of that Council in favour of a reactionary, authoritarian form of Catholicism.

Hints of that appear in the section of his Rome speech dealing with the Ten Commandments, which, he said, “call us to preserve and to promote the sanctity of the family, in which the personal and reciprocal, faithful and definitive ‘Yes’ of man and woman makes room for the future.” Some will see here the conservative, anti-feminist and anti-gay agenda which is the hallmark of the Ratzinger papacy.

But credit where it is due: this speech shows a deep sensitivity to the possibilities of friendly dialogue. He is “aware of the differences that exist between us”, but conscious too of the “many lessons [that] may be learned from our common heritage”, including an approach to the Bible which “offers Christians the opportunity to promote a renewed respect for the Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament”.

Anyone committed to interfaith co-operation will applaud his conclusion that “it is our duty, in response to God’s call, to strive to keep open space for dialogue, for … respect, for growth in friendship, for a common witness in the face of the challenges of our time”.

Rabbi Mark Solomon is interfaith consultant for Liberal Judaism

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010