Pope Benedict greets Catholic school children in Israel

Getting it wrong with the Pope

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Any discussion amongst Jews relating to the Catholic Church invariably triggers off emotional responses. But even taking this into account, the rage displayed by some Israelis against the conduct of Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to Israel was unwarranted.

I have no particular axe to grind for Catholics. I have consistently deplored the inclination of Jews engaged in interreligious dialogue to grovel and compromise basic Jewish principles in order to advance their careers in interfaith activity. Nor do I minimize the centuries of bloody persecution of the Jews orchestrated by the Church which laid the foundations for the Holocaust.

Moreover, I have never hesitated criticizing Pope Benedict, in particular his support for the beatification of Pope Pius XII having regard to the latter’s cowardly silence and questionable role during the Shoah.

I am also highly critical of the numerous blunders and misjudgments by the pope for which incompetent or bad advisors do not absolve him. This applies particularly to the bizarre rehabilitation of the excommunicated bishops including unrepentant Holocaust denier Richard Williamson.

However, when the pontiff finally realized the extent of his blunder, he did not hide behind the mantle of papal infallibility, but penned an anguished letter conceding that he had erred and expressed powerful condemnation of Holocaust denial.

Despite the shortcomings of the current pope, we must not overlook the radical revolution the Catholic Church has undergone since the 1965 Nostra Aetate Declaration of the Second Vatican Council. That led to annulling the odious replacement theology, rescinding the accusation of Deicide against the Jewish people and even swallowing the theologically bitter pill of acknowledging the renewal of Jewish statehood.

These changes occurred at a time when we sought to forge new alliances. Whereas the Catholic commitment to Israel and the Jewish people is a far cry from the unequivocal passionate love extended towards us by Evangelical Christians, the Catholic Church today represents an important ally in the global struggle against anti-Semitism.

This is especially so now when our traditional leftist and liberal allies have effectively forsaken us.

Extraordinary courage

Pope Benedict’s predecessor, Polish-born Pope John Paul II possessed warm personality traits that many Jews found attractive. His emotional disposition contrasted with the cold, academic and dour personality of his successor.

But leaders must be judged by their acts not their personalities. And during his visit Pope Benedict explicitly reiterated that “the Catholic Church is irrevocably committed to a genuine and lasting reconciliation between Christians and Jews.”

Many of us fail to appreciate that an ally is not obliged to share all our values. Pope Benedict is the Catholic pontiff, not a Jewish activist.

Yet it took extraordinary courage for him to decide of his own free will to visit Israel, conscious that he was entering such a huge minefield. Even if some of his speeches lacked the sensitivity and emotional appeal associated with his predecessor, this does not justify the primitive pillorying to which the pope was subjected by the Israeli media.

There were even occasions when Joseph Ratzinger’s Hitler Youth and Wehrmacht background were raised without pointing out that his parents were anti-Nazi, that every German youngster at the time was obliged to become a member of the Hitler youth, and that he had deserted the army.

At Yad Vashem, his speechwriters should have drafted a less theological and tepid address and endeavored to deal with his German past in an open manner. His family record displays no grounds for embarrassment and in 2006 at Auschwitz he had movingly related to his German background.

The condemnations directed against him for not “apologizing” for his past were grotesque. In contrast to the dignified welcoming remarks by Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen who never flinched in directly expressing his concerns to the pope about the beatification of Pius XII, other Rabbis began beating up on him.

Shas Rabbis and some of their associates even called for a boycott prior to his arrival. He was also harshly criticized by the worldlier Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau, who despite subsequent more balanced remarks, should have known better.

But to his credit, Pope Benedict carried on. He repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism, which he describes as “a sin against God and man.” When he spoke about the Shoah, he was criticized for referring to victims being killed rather than murdered and for not apologizing.

Despite the inadequate Catholic responses during the Shoah, one can appreciate the pontiff’s determination not to agree that his Church should accept responsibility for the Nazi murder of six million Jews. In his moving departure speech at the airport he totally vindicated himself.

Besides that, he also made important statements breaking new ground that were hardly even mentioned. The most dramatic was his announcement that all missionary activity amongst Jews would be terminated.

Pope is not a Zionist

Whilst we have grounds for being critical about the politically correct statements the pope made for the benefit of the Palestinians, we should note that he was consistent and also failed to even mention the persecution Christians are undergoing. Yet at the outset of his visit at Mount Nebo, he probably surprised his Jordanian hosts when he referred to the “inseparable bond” between the Catholic Church and Judaism.

He also praised Israel for safeguarding absolute freedom of religious practice. At an interfaith meeting when PA representative Sheikh Tamimi launched an obscene anti-Israeli tirade, the pope and his entourage demonstrated their feelings by walking out.

We must appreciate that the Pope is not a Zionist and his primary obligations are to his religion, his Church, his bishops and his 1.5 billion followers. It was thus not surprising that despite repeated calls to the Palestinians to renounce violence, he expressed biased pro-Palestinian remarks which irritated us. We were also disappointed that he failed to deal with the Iranian threats.

However, we should also take into account that many of his pro-Palestinian remarks paralleled statements currently being expressed by spokesmen of the Obama administration. Nevertheless, his comments were considerably less offensive than the standard condemnations directed against us by the Europeans.

We should perhaps note the stark contrast of Pope Benedict’s visit to Pope Paul Vl’s visit to the region only half a century ago in 1964, when he could not even bring himself to mention Israel by name.

We should reserve our wrath for outright hostile Christians like those in the Anglican Church and bodies affiliated with the radical World Council of Churches who insist that Judaism has no role and whose sanctimonious hypocrisy, employment of double standards and vicious attacks against the Jewish state are beyond contempt.

If these churches were even remotely as friendly as Pope Benedict, we would be embracing them.

There is a need for us to control our emotions. We should take into account the tremendous progress the Church has achieved in combating anti-Semitism and building bridges with our people. That should not inhibit us from speaking up and expressing our concerns about negative Catholic policies. But we should actively encourage popes to retain their constructive preoccupation with Judaism and the Holy Land and continue strengthening relations with the Jewish people.

ileibler@netvision.net.il

This column was originally published in Ynetnews



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