When Pope Benedict XVI goes to Israel in May, his visit to Yad Vashem will no doubt be forensically examined — by Catholics, by the world’s media, and by Jews in particular. What Benedict says, his gestures, his demeanour, will all have significance.
Not that he is the first Pope to make the trip — John Paul II made it before him — but given recent events, most notably the return to the Catholic fold of the Holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson and the controversies over the possible beatification of the Second World War Pope, Pius XII, the visit will be crucial.
The past few years have not been easy for Jewish-Catholic relations. The reforms of the Second Vatican Council, culminating in Nostra Aetate, the document that acknowledged the importance of the Jewish people in the history of salvation and recognised their faith as a response to God, was like springtime for interfaith relations. And later those relations blazed into summer with the papacy of John Paul II. For him, Judaism was an elder brother, the Jewish people engaged in a covenantal relationship with God. But recent events make one fear that summer is over, even that a winter chill has descended.
The chill factor was most evident with the decision to revoke the excommunication ban on four “Lefebvrist” bishops, one of them being Richard Williamson.
It is reassuring to be told that Pope Benedict did not know of Williamson’s track record of antisemitism, and to know that other Church leaders were bold in their criticism of the move. Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, for example, said “someone who denies the Holocaust cannot be rehabilitated to an ecclesial office”. In this country, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor wrote movingly to the Chief Rabbi expressing his dismay.
But no Catholic could blame Jewish people for being distressed by the move. It came soon after the re-introduction of the Tridentine Rite. This had contained a Good Friday prayer referring to “perfidious Jews” and, while that term had been removed, it was replaced by an entreaty to “illuminate their hearts” so that they may recognise Jesus Christ as saviour.
And there is the ongoing debate within the Church about whether or not Pope Pius XII should be a candidate for first, beatification, and later, canonisation.
Assessing claims about Pius are difficult because the Vatican has not opened its archives on the Second World War. There are, however, indisputable facts: that as Vatican Secretary of State, prior to being Pope, he negotiated a concordat with the Nazis in 1933; that there is no evidence that he was an antisemite; but that he did not speak out for Jews, either. His 1942 Christmas radio message did refer to the suffering of people persecuted for their faith and their race, but there were no specific references to the Jews.
Two weeks ago in the Jewish Chronicle, claims were made about Pius’s directions to monasteries and convents to hide and save Jews, with particular reference to a nun’s diary. I am not sure that this material is entirely new — the nun’s diary has been published before — but what it does show is that Pope Pius did what he could in practical terms, ensuring that Jews were saved in Rome itself. But the specific speaking out, as a person of moral authority on the world stage, did not happen. And we don’t need the Vatican archives to be opened to tell us that. History records that there was no such public condemnation of the Holocaust.
But, in practical terms, there is also much to cheer us today about relations between Catholics and Jews. At the local level, there is a warmth, a mutual interest in the two faiths, a recognition of us being siblings, and important academic work being done. But we need more than that. We need the Pope’s moral authority, his voice to cry out for justice and to speak up for Christianity’s elder brother.
I am optimistic that Pope Benedict will speak in this way in Israel, and not only because of his office. He has shown himself to be steeped in the rabbinic tradition. When he published his encyclical on love, Deus Caritas Est, in 2006, there were notable connections between his own writing and the Jewish tradition. His work echoed Jewish writings on the oneness of God, on the mirroring of the love relationship between God and humanity with the relationships that we have with one another, and on the love of one’s neighbour.
He also cited scholarship on the Song of Songs, and related the Hebrew understanding of ahavah to the Greek agape, which “becomes the typical expression for the biblical notion of love”.
The Song of Songs is of course read at Pesach, the time when spring brings expectation of new life and hope. One can only hope that the Pope will indeed strengthen Catholic-Jewish relations during his Israel visit. I suspect that, if there is a sticking point, it will not be Pius XII but something much more on the practical level. It will be the long-standing row about property and the Vatican’s tax status in Israel.