Pope's isolation is thanks to years of education

The Pontiff is under fire from Catholics over the readmission of a Shoah denier. So interfaith dialogue has done its job

By Edward Kessler, February 12, 2009

For those of us who have devoted many years to improving relations between Catholics and Jews, the last few months have been particularly challenging. Controversies have arisen over the canonisation of the wartime Pope, Pius XII; the revised Tridentine Rite Good Friday prayer; and, most recently, the decision to readmit four excommunicated bishops from the Society of St Pius X, including Holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson.

The Vatican knew that Williamson was a notorious Holocaust denier. Pope Benedict XVI apparently did not. This latest development is reminiscent of the saga which followed the Pope’s 2006 Regensburg address, which antagonised the Muslim world. As today, the Vatican was ill-prepared for the repercussions of an ill-advised action. In 2006, the Pope apologised to Muslims. Will he do so to Jews? Or will he just leave it at his demand that Bishop Williamson withdraw his remarks?

Regardless of whether Williamson apologises for his antisemitic views — and suggestions are that this obstinate priest will not be apologising in the near future — the problem is more than the Bishop. The problem for Catholics, no less than for Jews, is profound disappointment and increasing perplexity about the current Pope and his leadership. No one believes that he shares Williamson’s views about Jews or the Holocaust. But why is he inclined to minimize their significance? Why too is he prepared to allow back into the fold members of an order who explicitly reject Vatican II, the council which reversed at least 16 centuries of anti-Jewish teaching, stating that the Jewish people “remain most dear to God” and committing the Church to fighting antisemitism?

Many cardinals and bishops — including, significantly, the German bishops — have vented their frustration at the Pope’s decision. Ostensibly an internal Catholic decision, it has already had serious consequences outside, as illustrated by the critical remarks of German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. In a move which, while understandable, was unhelpful, the Chief Rabbis of Israel broke off official ties with the Vatican. Chief Rabbi Sacks’s instinct is correct: pursue private conversation with leading Catholics.

However, the Pope now needs to declare unequivocally, like his predecessor, that the teachings of Vatican II are not optional; that they represent the true spirit of the Church, from which there is no return.

The latest controversy also demonstrates the importance of those of us working to deepen understanding between Catholics and Jews. Criticism from within the Church was a strong factor in the Pope’s desire to heal the rift. The courage to criticise the Pope from within is partly the result of strong relations on the ground between Jews and Catholics, in the pew and pulpit, in the seminary and academy, among bishops and rabbis, and cardinals and Jewish leaders. These have a significant impact throughout the Catholic world.

When Christians are taught properly about Judaism, fewer will hold antisemitic views and more will have the courage to stand up in the face of antisemitism. The lies of Nazism were built on a history of a Christian teaching of contempt of Judaism, which is now being repaired across the Church. One reason that so few Christians aided Jews during the Holocaust was because of an ignorance of Judaism. Should Bishop Williamson and his friends wish to open their eyes, they would discover that the Holocaust was closer to home than they like to acknowledge.

Christian-Jewish dialogue, however, has lessons for us all. Jews, as much as Christians, need to take the “other” as seriously we wish to be taken ourselves. This is no easy task and dialogue is a costly exercise. Some will always retreat to the apparently secure shtetl, behind closed doors. The problem, as Pope Benedict XVI is now discovering, is that the winds of change will blow through, regardless how tightly shut the doors remain.

Dr Ed Kessler, Director, Woolf Institute of Abrahamic Faiths, Cambridge

Last updated: 11:41am, February 12 2009