Menu JTA Search

News Analysis: Pope John Paul Ii Marks 20 Years of Revolution in Interfaith Relations

Pope John Paul II marks the 20th anniversary of his election as pope Oct. 16.

The two decades of his papacy have revolutionized relations between Roman Catholics and Jews.

With milestones such as the first papal visit to a synagogue and the establishment of full diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See, John Paul has instituted an official Catholic opening to Jews, their sensitivities and their causes unprecedented in 2,000 years of church history.

“John Paul has placed those relationships squarely in the mainstream of Catholic teaching, preaching, liturgy — indeed, in all forms of church life,” said Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious relations for the American Jewish Committee.

The process has not been without serious ups and downs, particularly regarding the Vatican’s handling of some issues stemming from the Catholic Church’s actions — or inaction — during the Holocaust.

“Whenever we get to the core issues around the Shoah, things get much more complicated,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The beatification earlier this month of Croatia’s wartime Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac, accused by critics of collaborating with the fascists, is one example. Beatification, the last step before sainthood, appeared hardly appropriate for Stepinac, who has been reviled by some as a collaborator with the Nazi puppet regime that ruled Croatia during the war.

Beatifying Stepanic, said Cooper, “on whose watch the murder of innocent Serbs, Jews and Gypsies took place, is an outrage.”

A separate ceremony this week, in which sainthood was conferred on Edith Stein — a Carmelite nun killed at Auschwitz who was born a Jew and converted to Catholicism — also strained some Jewish sensibilities.

Another example is a controversial Vatican document on the Shoah released in March.

While the document expressed repentance for individual Catholic failings during the Shoah, it absolved the Church itself from any responsibility and strongly defended wartime Pope Pius XII against the decades-old criticism of his silence in the face of the Holocaust.

“Clearly John Paul has every intention of putting Pius XII on the fast track to `sainthood,'” a move that “will further strain the rapprochement with the Jewish world,” said Cooper.

The Jewish world was also outraged when John Paul paid honor to former Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, despite evidence of Waldheim’s having lied about his Nazi past.

Further straining Jewish-Catholic relations was a bitter conflict in the late 1980s and early 1990s over the establishment of a Carmelite convent in a building adjacent to the site of the Auschwitz death camp.

And although the Vatican established full diplomatic relations with Israel in late 1993, the status of Jerusalem, which the Vatican wants to see put under international mandate, also creates problems.

Nonetheless, the strides in improving Jewish-Catholic relations under John Paul’s papacy have been enormous.

Official sanction of full-scale Catholic-Jewish dialogue only dates back to 1965, when the Second Vatican Council issued “Nostra Aetate” — or “In Our Times” — a declaration that repudiated the concept of Jewish guilt for Jesus’ death and called for mutual respect and dialogue between Catholics and Jews.

From the beginning of his papacy, John Paul made the bettering of relations with the Jewish world — and the condemnation of anti-Semitism — cornerstones of his policy.

One reason was that he himself lived through the horrors of the Nazi occupation of his native Poland and saw firsthand the effects of the Holocaust and the effects of postwar Communist anti-Semitism.

John Paul has spoken out strongly against anti-Semitism on numerous occasions, and he has taken a number of other significant, highly publicized, actions to demonstrate his regard for the Jewish world.

In 1979, he paid homage at Auschwitz to the victims of Nazism, on his first trip back to Poland after his election to the papacy.

In 1987, he visited the main synagogue in Rome, where he embraced Rome’s chief rabbi and referred to Jews as Christianity’s “older brothers.”

Throughout his papacy he has held numerous meetings with Jewish communities in various countries and has met with numerous Jewish delegations at the Vatican.

He has also sponsored events such as a concert at the Vatican in 1994 to commemorate the Holocaust, a menorah-lighting ceremony at the Vatican to mark Chanukah 1997 and a symposium at the Vatican in 1997 to discuss Christian roots of anti-Semitism.

Despite the progress, though, it remains clear that the implementation of the new, official church teachings on Jewish issues remains a key challenge.

The new teachings are not always heeded, transmitted or acknowledged — and are sometimes even rejected.

Polish Roman Catholic extremists who claim to be “defending the cross,” for example, have defied church leaders in erecting hundreds of crosses outside the walls of Auschwitz since July, and have injected a heavy dose of anti-Semitism into their public statements.

Maintaining the momentum established by John Paul will be a key priority in Catholic-Jewish relations as the church heads into its third millennium.

Future popes may not have John Paul’s personal commitment to bettering Jewish relations at the forefront of Vatican policy.

These issues may be become marginalized, but it is unlikely that the process of expanding Catholic-Jewish dialogue will be reversed.

“Because of the pope’s personal background and because of the length of his reign,” said Rudin, “history will record that John Paul II’s achievements are epoch-making; achievements that permanently changed the way Catholics and Jews relate to one another. That is his greatest gift to future generations.”

NEXT STORY