The Jewish Critique


Judging by the statements and press releases issued on the letterheads of Jewish organizations following the death of Pope John Paul II, most of the Jewish community agreed that the pontiff made unprecedented contributions to Jewish-Catholic relations.

Jewish spokesmen cited the Vatican’s establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel, the pope’s condemnation of anti-Semitism as a “sin against God” and his general sensitivity to Jewish concerns.

But John Paul II’s record, in the eyes of some Jewish observers, was not unblemished. His actions clearly came from Catholic concerns, not Jewish, they said. And areas of disagreement, in which the Catholic Church made missteps or did not go far enough, still remain.

“There are certain matters that are still of serious concern for the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Leon Klenicki, former director of Anti-Defamation League’s Department of Interfaith Affairs and a founding member of the Interfaith Theological Forum of the John Paul II Center in Washington. Rabbi Klenicki took part in several ecumenical meetings with the pope.

The rabbi said some of the criticism of the pope is justified, but tends to center around areas that are not now of crucial importance to Jewish-Catholic relations.

John Paul II was the “the first pope in centuries to openly show his friendship with and appreciation for the Jewish people,” Rabbi Klenicki said. “He was against anti-Semitism from his very youth, inspired by his father, who had great local Jewish contacts.”

Rabbi Klenicki offered comments to The Jewish Week on some remaining Jewish-Catholic issues whose fallout may face the next pope.

Vatican archives. The Vatican has granted only partial access to its extensive collection of documents from World War II, which some Jewish observers believe would show Pope Pius XII’s sympathy to the Nazi cause and indifference to Jewish suffering. In addition, the Vatican has continued to deny that it has extensive holdings, including ancient Jewish artifacts and other items that are thought to have been seized from Jewish hands over the centuries.

“The Vatican hasn’t yet opened all its archives from the Second World War, archives not related to Jewish matters,” Rabbi Klenicki said. “The archives also include the relations of the Vatican with Western powers, the CIA and other intelligence offices, vis-a-vis the former Soviet Union.

“If they open the archives that show yes, Pius was pro-Nazi, or no, he was against the Nazis, will that help us to bring out Jews from Auschwitz? We have to complain, but not to make that an issue of interfaith dialogue. What is important now is not the past. I would like the bishops and cardinals of Europe to denounce present anti-Semitism all over Europe, especially in France.”

The canonization of Edith Stein and Pius XII. Despite Jewish protests, the pope elevated to sainthood Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), the Jewish-born nun who died at Auschwitz, and continued to advocate the canonization of Pius XII, the Vatican’s wartime leader.

“The canonization of Edith Stein is a Catholic matter. We can only express our serious concern about the fact that the Vatican is emphasizing the Jewish origins of Edith Stein,” Rabbi Klenicki said. “In the Vatican, there is great divide concerning the canonization of Pius.”

Apology for the Holocaust. Over the objections of some members of the Vatican hierarchy, John Paul II, in the name of Christendom and the Catholic Church, issued a mea culpa for putative believers’ role in the Final Solution and asked for Jewish forgiveness. But in the eyes of some Jews, the pope’s 1994 apology, “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” was insufficient, focusing on individual members of the Church rather than the institution itself.

“The text was edited by the [Vatican] secretary of state,” Rabbi Klenicki said. “In the original, it spoke of [the responsibility] of the Catholic Church. The original document said that from 1933 on, the Catholic leadership should have been more effective concerning the anti-Semitism of the Nazi Party.

“It was watered down. That was a mistake.”

Convent at Auschwitz. When a group of Carmelite nuns established a convent, with a prominent cross, at the site of the death camp as a “gift” to Pope John Paul II and an expression of penance for the victims, many Jewish organizations took offense, seeing the Catholic building at a place where millions of Jews died as inappropriate. After a decade of demonstrations by several Jewish organizations, the pope convinced the nuns to leave in 1993.

“Since Vatican II, each national bishops’ conference has its freedom to deal with local issues. Once the nuns took that place, that was under the jurisdiction of the Polish national bishops’ conference, not the Vatican. The pope couldn’t say anything,” Rabbi Klenicki said.

“The pope intervened when the bishops’ conference was not strong enough to stop the convent. When he realized that nothing was being done, he issued an order for the nuns to move.”

Meetings with Kurt Waldheim and Yasir Arafat.

In his role as head of the Catholic Church and leader of a sovereign nation, John Paul in 1987 met with Waldheim, then president of Austria with a recently revealed Nazi past, and Arafat for the first time in 1982, before the PLO signed a peace treaty with Israel. To many in the Jewish community, the pope was granting legitimacy to a Nazi and a terrorist.

“The pope received everybody — politicians, presidents, prime ministers. This was part of his function as the political leader of the Vatican. I don’t like it,” Rabbi Klenicki said.

“The pope and especially the Holy See should have been more prudent. At least the Vatican should have issued some critical remarks about the past of Waldheim. The Vatican should have said something about terrorism. It was a lack of vision.”