Pope Benedict XVI Assures Us (Again) That He Comes in Peace After the Beatification of Pope Pius XII

I’ve written in this space before about Jewish-Catholic issues and in particular the Jewish community’s awkward relationship with Pope Benedict XVI. Whether he’s in DC, Israel or Vatican City, this Pope has made us squirm in our seats whether with his own personal history as a reluctant member of the Hitler youth, his sins of omission at Yad Vashem, his repeal of the excommunication of a prominent Holocaust denier and now the latest flare-up, his beatification of World War II-era Pope Pius XII.

The controversy stems from the ongoing and unresolved debate over the extent of Pope Pius’ possible actions and lack thereof to save Jews during World War II.  Some say he made a political decision not to extend the Vatican’s protection to Rome’s Jewish community which resulted in the deportation of over 1,000 Jews to Auschwitz. Others, including the current Pope claim that Pius worked silently and secretly to save Jews and that the proof of this resides in the as-of-yet unreleased archives of Pius’ papacy.

The issue has flared up at every step in Pius’ march toward sainthood. Over the weekend came the announcement that Pope Benedict was moving both the beloved Pope John Paul II and the historically dubious Pius XII through the beatification process towards official sainthood — they both now need a miracle ascribed to them to complete the process. The pairing of the Jew-rescuing John Paul with the more ambiguous Pius seemed to many to be salt on the wound of the Catholic Church’s continuing reluctance to openly and honestly confront its legacy in relation to the Shoah. Others bemoaned that all the progress that had been made in Jewish-Catholic relations during the papacy of John Paul II was being undone by Benedict XVI.

Even without the announcement coming in the same news cycle as the theft of the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign from Auschwitz and the accompanying over-wrought reactions, the Vatican seemed once-again surprised by the Jewish community’s outrage at Pope Benedict’s decision. So unsettled was the Vatican that they released a statement today clarifying that the beatification of Pius XII was not an “act of hostility” against the Jewish community or those who criticize Pius’ historical role. And I believe them when they say that.

The problem is we’re judging Pius from two different sets of criteria. The Vatican statement emphasizes that Pius is being evaluated on his “Chrisitan life” rather than the “historical significance of his choices.”  By that they mean, “his intense relationship with God and continuous search for evangelical perfection.” I have an incomplete understanding of that last phrase, but one definition I found explained, “evangelical perfection… is nothing but inward sincerity, and uprightness of heart toward God, although there may be many imperfections and defects intermingled.” In other words, one can become a saint on the basis of their faith and devotion even if their actions were less than saintly. I also get the unstated implication that there would be something unseemly in the Vatican denying any Pope eventual sainthood. While the actions of any particular Pope may have been fallible, their election as Pope in and of itself signifies “evangelical perfection” worthy of sainthood.

This is a very difficult concept for me to wrap my head around as a Jew — actions and devotion are inextricably intertwined. At the same time, one can only expect Catholics to choose their saints based on the criteria of their own determining. Which points to the limits of interfaith dialogue. There are certain things we are never going to agree on — and the Vatican has reminded us of that, yet again.

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Pope is Shocked (SHOCKED!) To Find Holocaust Deniers in His Church

claude-rainsA major kerfuffle in Catholic-Jewish relations sprung up last week when Pope Benedict XVI un-excommunicated a couple of self-appointed Bishops who reject Vatican II and accept Mel Gibson. The Pope was apparently the last person to learn that one of these Bishops, Richard Williamson, in addition to prefering the Latin Mass, also prefers to perpetuate the pernicious lie that six million Jews did not die in the Holocaust and that the paltry 200,000-300,000 who did die did not do so in gas chambers. The Pope apparently isn’t very tuned-in to Swedish television. In all fairness, I can’t say that it’s on my TiVO either.

The ensuing outcry against the Holy Father’s action has proven that the dogma of Papal Infallibilty does not apply to management of the news cycle. The result is today’s statement from the Vatican which stated,

In order to be admitted to episcopal functions in the Church, Bishop Williamson should also publicly and unequivocally distance himself from such positions about the Shoa, which were unknown by the Holy Father at the time of the lifting of the excommunication. 

This statement seems to have satisfied much of the organized Jewish world. But, parsing this statement reveals that the Pope is not threatening the revocation of the revocation of excommunication, rather the withholding of admission to “episcopal functions in the Church.” Roughly translated,  Bishop Williamson can be a Holocaust denier and remain a Catholic, but he can’t remain a Holocaust denier and be a Bishop.

This distinction seems to have been missed by the likes of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Marvin Hier, who stated, “if Williamson refuses to recant, the Vatican should excommunicate him – this time permanently.” Also either missing or ignoring this distinction was the ADL’s Abe Foxman who similarly stated that Williamson and company, “must accept the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the positive teachings about Jews by the last four popes, including Pope John Paul II, before they can be fully accepted back into the Roman Catholic Church.”

They’ve already been accepted back into the Church as members who can receive the sacraments and avoid the after-life penalties that would result from a serious lack of salvation. What remains at stake is whether they will be allowed a role in administering these sacraments.

And perhaps that’s as it should be. While Holocaust denial is a vile lie and Holocaust deniers base anti-Semites, acknowledging the historical fact of the Shoah is not a tenet of the Catholic faith. Pope Benedict may decide that Williamson can’t work as a priest, but as long as he accepts the teachings of Vatican II, (or at least does not publicly crusade against them) what he believes or doesn’t believe about the Holocaust is moot. Whether that will satisfy those in the Jewish community who have felt wounded by the Vatican’s mishandling of this matter remains to be seen.

One thing is certain, Richard Williamson is not the first Catholic holocaust denier, and probably not the last either.

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