Commentary Magazine


Topic: Benedict XVI

Vatican’s Pius Plea Does Little to Help

Catholic-Jewish relations have gotten shakier since the death of Pope John Paul II and the accession of his successor Pope Benedict XVI. John Paul was an extraordinary and historic figure. Having grown up among Jews and witnessed the Holocaust in Poland, the late pope had a special understanding of the difficult issues as well as of the history of persecution that divided Catholics and Jews. Building on the work of Pope John XXIII, John Paul helped reverse centuries of the teaching of contempt for Judaism that marked so much of Catholic thinking. In his comments as well as his actions—it was during his reign that the Vatican finally recognized the State of Israel—the pope exemplified a new spirit of reconciliation that did honor to his church as well as to the whole of humanity.

There is no reason to believe that Benedict XVI would like to change any of this. Indeed, he was a bulwark of his predecessor’s efforts. But the German-born Benedict has none of John Paul’s charm or his innate feel for what to say. Even when controversies arise that are not entirely his fault, the pontiff and his advisers tend to strike the wrong note, especially when it comes to the church’s contacts with Jews, as his blunder in revoking the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop revealed earlier this year.

The latest instance of Benedict’s maladroit manner comes with a Vatican statement yesterday, which claimed that the pope’s decision to move wartime Pope Pius XII closer to sainthood status “is in no way to be read as a hostile act towards the Jewish people, and it is to be hoped that it will not be considered as an obstacle on the path of dialogue between Judaism and the Catholic Church.”

This past weekend, Benedict confirmed the “heroic virtues” of Pius—as well as those of John Paul II. This means that either would be beatified once a miracle is attributed to each. Sainthood could be conferred once a second miracle is credited to them.

The move to beautify Pius is a sore point for Jews who see him as, at best, an ineffectual moral leader who did little or nothing to save the victims of the Holocaust. Though some Catholics have expended a great deal of energy in defending or rationalizing his record, it has done little to reclaim his reputation. Pius was a careful politician who took few risks in his relations with the Nazis when what the world needed then was a man of sufficient moral stature to stand up against them and to excommunicate any Catholic who was part of the German war and extermination machines.

Coupling Pius with the truly saintly John Paul may be the Vatican’s attempt to dampen down the controversy but it is a mistake. The fact is, the more the church talks about this issue the worse it gets. Nevertheless, Jewish groups that chose to make a major issue out of this are also making a mistake. As much as Jews and other people of good conscience may be pained by the elevation of Pius, the question of who is or is not a Catholic saint is a strictly Catholic affair. It is not the business of the Jews or Protestants or anyone else to tell Catholics what they should believe any more than it would be the business of Catholics to tell others how to worship.

But if Pope Benedict wishes to emulate the path blazed by John Paul than he is going to have to realize that the series of blunders he has committed may well be interpreted as “hostile” acts that signal a reversal of the good feelings that his predecessor created. At a time when militant Islam is still on the rise in the world, threatening the entire West, both Jews and Catholics do well to concentrate on what they have in common rather than to pointlessly exacerbate theological or historical differences. That is a lesson that Pope Benedict should take to heart.

Catholic-Jewish relations have gotten shakier since the death of Pope John Paul II and the accession of his successor Pope Benedict XVI. John Paul was an extraordinary and historic figure. Having grown up among Jews and witnessed the Holocaust in Poland, the late pope had a special understanding of the difficult issues as well as of the history of persecution that divided Catholics and Jews. Building on the work of Pope John XXIII, John Paul helped reverse centuries of the teaching of contempt for Judaism that marked so much of Catholic thinking. In his comments as well as his actions—it was during his reign that the Vatican finally recognized the State of Israel—the pope exemplified a new spirit of reconciliation that did honor to his church as well as to the whole of humanity.

There is no reason to believe that Benedict XVI would like to change any of this. Indeed, he was a bulwark of his predecessor’s efforts. But the German-born Benedict has none of John Paul’s charm or his innate feel for what to say. Even when controversies arise that are not entirely his fault, the pontiff and his advisers tend to strike the wrong note, especially when it comes to the church’s contacts with Jews, as his blunder in revoking the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop revealed earlier this year.

The latest instance of Benedict’s maladroit manner comes with a Vatican statement yesterday, which claimed that the pope’s decision to move wartime Pope Pius XII closer to sainthood status “is in no way to be read as a hostile act towards the Jewish people, and it is to be hoped that it will not be considered as an obstacle on the path of dialogue between Judaism and the Catholic Church.”

This past weekend, Benedict confirmed the “heroic virtues” of Pius—as well as those of John Paul II. This means that either would be beatified once a miracle is attributed to each. Sainthood could be conferred once a second miracle is credited to them.

The move to beautify Pius is a sore point for Jews who see him as, at best, an ineffectual moral leader who did little or nothing to save the victims of the Holocaust. Though some Catholics have expended a great deal of energy in defending or rationalizing his record, it has done little to reclaim his reputation. Pius was a careful politician who took few risks in his relations with the Nazis when what the world needed then was a man of sufficient moral stature to stand up against them and to excommunicate any Catholic who was part of the German war and extermination machines.

Coupling Pius with the truly saintly John Paul may be the Vatican’s attempt to dampen down the controversy but it is a mistake. The fact is, the more the church talks about this issue the worse it gets. Nevertheless, Jewish groups that chose to make a major issue out of this are also making a mistake. As much as Jews and other people of good conscience may be pained by the elevation of Pius, the question of who is or is not a Catholic saint is a strictly Catholic affair. It is not the business of the Jews or Protestants or anyone else to tell Catholics what they should believe any more than it would be the business of Catholics to tell others how to worship.

But if Pope Benedict wishes to emulate the path blazed by John Paul than he is going to have to realize that the series of blunders he has committed may well be interpreted as “hostile” acts that signal a reversal of the good feelings that his predecessor created. At a time when militant Islam is still on the rise in the world, threatening the entire West, both Jews and Catholics do well to concentrate on what they have in common rather than to pointlessly exacerbate theological or historical differences. That is a lesson that Pope Benedict should take to heart.

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Stop Digging Already

Barack Obama issued a somewhat standard greeting for Pope Benedict XVI, but apparently couldn’t resist throwing in this:

At a time when American families face rising costs at home and a range of worries abroad, the theme of Pope Benedict’s journey, “Christ Our Hope,” offers comfort and grace as well as a challenge to all faith communities to put our faith into action for the common good. It will not only be Catholics who are listening to the Holy Father’s message of hope and peace; all Americans will be listening with open hearts and minds.

Do Catholics and other people of faith think Pope Benedict’s appeal has special resonance because of “rising costs”? Would he be less welcome if gas prices were lower? I’m fairly certain Catholics believe in the message of “comfort and grace” even when prices are steady. And if Obama isn’t saying this–for an eloquent guy he seems perpetually to be misundertood–why mention “rising costs” at all?

This seems a bald-faced attempt to say “See, economic conditions do impact religiosity.” For those who were offended the first time Obama went down this road, they won’t be thrilled to see him try it again. Using the Pontiff’s visit as an excuse to reiterate his own political defense seems crass, at best.

At some point Obama may want to give up this “false consciousness” canard and instead concede that faith is not a mere refuge from economic anxiety. But no: he was right and he’s not backing down. See? See?

Barack Obama issued a somewhat standard greeting for Pope Benedict XVI, but apparently couldn’t resist throwing in this:

At a time when American families face rising costs at home and a range of worries abroad, the theme of Pope Benedict’s journey, “Christ Our Hope,” offers comfort and grace as well as a challenge to all faith communities to put our faith into action for the common good. It will not only be Catholics who are listening to the Holy Father’s message of hope and peace; all Americans will be listening with open hearts and minds.

Do Catholics and other people of faith think Pope Benedict’s appeal has special resonance because of “rising costs”? Would he be less welcome if gas prices were lower? I’m fairly certain Catholics believe in the message of “comfort and grace” even when prices are steady. And if Obama isn’t saying this–for an eloquent guy he seems perpetually to be misundertood–why mention “rising costs” at all?

This seems a bald-faced attempt to say “See, economic conditions do impact religiosity.” For those who were offended the first time Obama went down this road, they won’t be thrilled to see him try it again. Using the Pontiff’s visit as an excuse to reiterate his own political defense seems crass, at best.

At some point Obama may want to give up this “false consciousness” canard and instead concede that faith is not a mere refuge from economic anxiety. But no: he was right and he’s not backing down. See? See?

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Pipes Sees Hope in Europe

COMMENTARY contributor Daniel Pipes has a piece in today’s Philadelphia Bulletin, in which he asserts that Western Europe is beginning to show promising signs of fighting off the spread of radical Islam on the continent.

Indeed, Europeans are visibly showing signs of impatience with creeping Sharia. The legislation in France that prohibits hijabs from public school classrooms signals the reluctance to accept Islamic ways, as are related efforts to ban burqas, mosques, and minarets. Throughout Western Europe, anti-immigrant parties are generally increasing in popularity.

There’s no question that Nicolas Sarkozy represents a new level of French courage in the face of Islamification. But he’s one man and these prohibitions on hijabs and similar measures seem never to be settled. There’s always some accusation of Islamophobia followed by a call for liberté and then a new round of legal wrangling. At this moment, Turkey (an EU hopeful) is practically on the verge of collapse over the question of whether or not to lift a ban on headscarves.

Furthermore, the anti-immigrant parties that pop up across Western Europe tend to be fascistic in nature. In Holland, where there are respectable anti-Islamist parties, young politicians often can’t afford the security required to stand for election or are simply not inclined to risk their lives.

Pipes is heartened by Pope Benedict XVI’s high-profile conversion of journalist Magdi Allam and by the release of Dutch politician Geert Wilders’ film “Fitna,” which unapologetically connects Qur’anic verse to images of Islamic terrorism. However, he doesn’t see the fact that there was no widespread violent response as promising.

This relatively constrained reaction points to the fact that Muslim threats sufficed to enforce censorship. Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende denounced Fitna and, after 3.6 million visitors had viewed it on the British website LiveLeak.com, the company announced that “Following threats to our staff of a very serious nature, … Liveleak has been left with no other choice but to remove Fitna from our servers.”

It’s important that Americans get behind the efforts that Pipes commends. There’s no schadenfreude to be derived from watching Europe succumb to the forces of intimidation and moral relativism that allow for, say, the acceptance of “limited” sharia in England. We need Europe as a cultural, economic, and military ally. But I wish the European Spirit could give us a little more to rally behind than a convert and a 15-minute video.

COMMENTARY contributor Daniel Pipes has a piece in today’s Philadelphia Bulletin, in which he asserts that Western Europe is beginning to show promising signs of fighting off the spread of radical Islam on the continent.

Indeed, Europeans are visibly showing signs of impatience with creeping Sharia. The legislation in France that prohibits hijabs from public school classrooms signals the reluctance to accept Islamic ways, as are related efforts to ban burqas, mosques, and minarets. Throughout Western Europe, anti-immigrant parties are generally increasing in popularity.

There’s no question that Nicolas Sarkozy represents a new level of French courage in the face of Islamification. But he’s one man and these prohibitions on hijabs and similar measures seem never to be settled. There’s always some accusation of Islamophobia followed by a call for liberté and then a new round of legal wrangling. At this moment, Turkey (an EU hopeful) is practically on the verge of collapse over the question of whether or not to lift a ban on headscarves.

Furthermore, the anti-immigrant parties that pop up across Western Europe tend to be fascistic in nature. In Holland, where there are respectable anti-Islamist parties, young politicians often can’t afford the security required to stand for election or are simply not inclined to risk their lives.

Pipes is heartened by Pope Benedict XVI’s high-profile conversion of journalist Magdi Allam and by the release of Dutch politician Geert Wilders’ film “Fitna,” which unapologetically connects Qur’anic verse to images of Islamic terrorism. However, he doesn’t see the fact that there was no widespread violent response as promising.

This relatively constrained reaction points to the fact that Muslim threats sufficed to enforce censorship. Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende denounced Fitna and, after 3.6 million visitors had viewed it on the British website LiveLeak.com, the company announced that “Following threats to our staff of a very serious nature, … Liveleak has been left with no other choice but to remove Fitna from our servers.”

It’s important that Americans get behind the efforts that Pipes commends. There’s no schadenfreude to be derived from watching Europe succumb to the forces of intimidation and moral relativism that allow for, say, the acceptance of “limited” sharia in England. We need Europe as a cultural, economic, and military ally. But I wish the European Spirit could give us a little more to rally behind than a convert and a 15-minute video.

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Thoughts in a Freiburg Cemetery

As the Jewish world commemorated the Holocaust last weekend, I happened to be at a conference in what was once the heart of darkness. Freiburg, a small town in Germany, was the scene of perhaps the most notorious single example of trahison des clercs, the betrayal of reason by the intellectuals.

In May 1933, Martin Heidegger inaugurated his term as rector of the university by extolling the “glory and greatness” of the new Nazi state and its Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler, on behalf of professors and students alike. Heidegger immediately distanced himself from those of his former friends and colleagues who were Jewish—with the partial exception of his lover Hannah Arendt—and above all from Edmund Husserl, to whom he had dedicated his masterpiece, Being and Time, in “admiration and friendship” only five years before. Even today, his record makes painful reading, though he has never lacked for apologists.

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As the Jewish world commemorated the Holocaust last weekend, I happened to be at a conference in what was once the heart of darkness. Freiburg, a small town in Germany, was the scene of perhaps the most notorious single example of trahison des clercs, the betrayal of reason by the intellectuals.

In May 1933, Martin Heidegger inaugurated his term as rector of the university by extolling the “glory and greatness” of the new Nazi state and its Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler, on behalf of professors and students alike. Heidegger immediately distanced himself from those of his former friends and colleagues who were Jewish—with the partial exception of his lover Hannah Arendt—and above all from Edmund Husserl, to whom he had dedicated his masterpiece, Being and Time, in “admiration and friendship” only five years before. Even today, his record makes painful reading, though he has never lacked for apologists.

The odious pettiness of Heidegger’s personal conduct, and the moral collapse that it implied, was brought home to me by a visit to the little cemetery in Günterstal, a suburb of Freiburg. We were there to pay our respects at the grave of Walter Eucken, the great economist whose work inspired the post-war “economic miracle” and helped to set Germany back on the path of liberty and democracy.

A stone’s throw away from the memorial to Eucken is the Husserl family grave. A young scholar at the Walter Eucken Institute, Nils Goldschmidt, told me how Freiburg treated the founder of phenomenology, who was then the most famous living German philosopher. Having already retired when Hitler came to power, Husserl avoided the teaching ban that was imposed on Jewish professors, but he was not even allowed to use the university library. Socially, not only Heidegger but practically all the professors at Freiburg shunned Husserl—with the exception of Eucken, whose wife Edith was herself partly Jewish and who continued to pay visits to the Husserls. While Heidegger was busily excising all references to his former master from new editions of Being and Time, Eucken made a point of quoting Husserl.

When Husserl died in 1938, only two professors attended his funeral: the economist Eucken and the historian Gerhard Ritter. Long afterwards, in an interview he gave to Der Spiegel in 1966, Heidegger excused himself by claiming that it was the Husserls who had broken off relations, not the other way round. But he admitted that “it was a human failing that I did not express once more my gratitude and my admiration” at the time of Husserl’s death. I do not think Heidegger ever grasped the enormity of his “human failing,” of which his treatment of his teacher was only a symbol. But it is Heidegger the Nazi who still basks in the posthumous limelight, while the names of Husserl and Eucken are known only to specialists.

On a warm April evening in that lovely place surrounded by hills, the stillness broken only by the church bell, I tried to imagine the unimaginable repeating itself here in Europe. A lifetime—threescore years and ten—now separates us from the great betrayal. Just long enough for a combination of anxiety and amnesia to wipe out the memory of those days. In British schools, many teachers are afraid to talk about the history of anti-Semitism because they fear confrontation with their Muslim students, who have often been told at the mosque that the Shoah is a myth.

Even in Germany, where Holocaust denial is a crime, there is vast ignorance about both the past and its implications for the present. Few are prepared to entertain the thought that, unless Iran and other Islamist states or terrorists are prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons, our generation, too, may witness another Holocaust. They do not seem to grasp that this time, Israel’s fate is directly linked to Europe’s.

One retired German professor, just old enough to remember the Third Reich, has this week made a symbolic commitment to that shared destiny. Joseph Ratzinger, writing under his own name, not as Pope Benedict XVI, has published the first part of a book about Jesus Christ. To judge from extracts in the German press, the main import of this work is finally to lay to rest the age-old enmity of the Church and the Jews. For the first time, a Pope has not only portrayed Jesus as an observant Jew, “the living embodiment of the Torah,” but has written with humility and love about the Jews of Jesus’ time. Gone is the old caricature of the Pharisee as hypocrite and the “Old Testament morality” as un-Christian. John Paul II already embraced the living covenant and divine purpose of Israel. But Benedict has gone even further: in his view, only the person of Jesus divides Jew and Christian, and the universal mission of Jesus is entirely compatible with the special status of the Jewish people.

A lifetime separates Heidegger’s betrayal from Ratzinger’s reconciliation. How long before Europe recognizes the present danger to Jew and Christian alike, and unites against the common enemies of Western civilization?

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Pope Benedict, Dr. Johnson, and Hell

The Pope says that hell “really exists and is eternal, even if nobody talks about it much any more.” In a Lenten homily at a Roman parish on Monday, reports Richard Owen in the London Times, “Benedict XVI said that in the modern world many people, including some believers, had forgotten that if they failed to ‘admit blame and promise to sin no more,’ they risked ‘eternal damnation—the Inferno.’”

That the Pope believes in hell may not strike most people as surprising. But when was the last time you heard a senior Catholic churchman talk about it? The last Pope, John Paul II, was much influenced by the great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who was a universalist—that is to say, he believed that Christ’s salvation was universal. According to that view, if there is a hell, it is empty. In coming to this conclusion, Balthasar (whom John Paul II promoted to cardinal) was influenced by Edith Stein, the Jewish convert who became a Carmelite nun and was murdered at Auschwitz. She was later canonized by John Paul II as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Her view was that God’s love is so great that it embraces even the most obdurate sinner. As she perished in a man-made simulacrum of hell, a place of mass torment beyond anything conceived by the ancient or medieval imagination, Edith Stein’s words carry considerable weight.

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The Pope says that hell “really exists and is eternal, even if nobody talks about it much any more.” In a Lenten homily at a Roman parish on Monday, reports Richard Owen in the London Times, “Benedict XVI said that in the modern world many people, including some believers, had forgotten that if they failed to ‘admit blame and promise to sin no more,’ they risked ‘eternal damnation—the Inferno.’”

That the Pope believes in hell may not strike most people as surprising. But when was the last time you heard a senior Catholic churchman talk about it? The last Pope, John Paul II, was much influenced by the great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who was a universalist—that is to say, he believed that Christ’s salvation was universal. According to that view, if there is a hell, it is empty. In coming to this conclusion, Balthasar (whom John Paul II promoted to cardinal) was influenced by Edith Stein, the Jewish convert who became a Carmelite nun and was murdered at Auschwitz. She was later canonized by John Paul II as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Her view was that God’s love is so great that it embraces even the most obdurate sinner. As she perished in a man-made simulacrum of hell, a place of mass torment beyond anything conceived by the ancient or medieval imagination, Edith Stein’s words carry considerable weight.

Yet the universalism of Stein, Balthasar, and perhaps John Paul II himself has never been the authoritative doctrine of the Church. Pope Benedict adheres to the authoritative 1994 edition of the catechism, which he largely wrote as Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith and which was one of the great landmarks of John Paul II’s pontificate. The catechism is explicit: “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. . . . The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God. . . . To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice.”

The catechism leaves open the question of who, if anybody, is damned, but it rejects Calvinist predestination, stating that “God predestines no-one to go hell” and that hell is a state of “definitive self-exclusion.” Only those who freely persist in their defiance of God’s love “to the end” will suffer damnation.

Any belief in damnation, however, is regarded by many people as morbid and hence wicked. Its public restatement as a necessary part of the true faith will arouse bitter hostility from those who see hell as a relic of the superstitious, guilt-inducing caricature of Catholicism that persists in popular imagination. Ironically, as the Church has grown reluctant to reaffirm its belief in hell, the secular culture has appropriated the idea in its gothic horror. It ignores the essence of hell—separation from God—in favor of imagery drawn from other, often pagan, underworlds.

Pope Benedict’s words put me in mind of Samuel Johnson’s celebrated conversation on the subject, reported by Boswell in his Life. It took place at Oxford on June 12, 1784, when Dr. Johnson was visiting friends at Merton College. In the course of a conversation with “the amiable Dr. Adams” about the goodness of God, Johnson admitted his terror of death and what might follow it:

. . . as I cannot be sure that I have fulfilled the conditions on which salvation is granted, I am afraid I may be one of those who shall be damned.” (looking dismally.) Dr. Adams. “What do you mean by damned!” Johnson. (passionately and loudly) “Sent to Hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly.” Dr. Adams. “I don’t believe that doctrine.” Johnson. “Hold, Sir, do you believe that some will be punished at all?” Dr. Adams. “Being excluded from Heaven will be a punishment; yet there may be no great positive suffering.” Johnson. “Well, Sir; but, if you admit any degree of punishment, there is an end of your argument for infinite goodness simply considered; for, infinite goodness would inflict no punishment whatsoever. There is no infinite goodness physically considered: morally there is.

At this point, Boswell, who rightly considered himself much more of a sinner than his older and wiser friend, intervened:

But may not a man attain to such a degree of hope as not to be uneasy from the fear of death?” Johnson. “A man may have such a degree of hope as to keep him quiet. You see I am not quiet, from the vehemence with which I talk; but I do not despair.” Mrs. Adams. “You seem, Sir, to forget the merits of our Redeemer.” Johnson. “Madam, I do not forget the merits of my Redeemer; but my Redeemer has said that he will set some on his right hand and some on his left.

Boswell tells us that Johnson was now “in gloomy agitation” and concluded the conversation abruptly. He was 75, a great age for that time.

Johnson died exactly six months later, imploring God’s forgiveness for “the multitude of my offences,” but sufficiently at peace with himself and his maker to show more concern for the salvation of his black servant, Francis, than for himself, saying: “Attend, Francis, to the salvation of your soul, which is the object of the greatest importance.” If this isn’t exactly repentance, it’s close enough.

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Israel and the German Bishops

“In the morning at Yad Vashem, photos of the inhuman Warsaw Ghetto; in the afternoon, we go to the ghetto in Ramallah. It’s enough to make you blow your top.” This outburst in Bethlehem by Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstätt was only one of several provocative comments made during a much-heralded pilgrimage to Israel and the Palestinian terroritories by all 27 German Catholic bishops last week.

The Bishop of Augsburg, Walter Mixa, accused the Israelis of “racism,” while the most senior member of the delegation, the Cardinal Archbishop of Cologne, Joachim Meisner, compared Israel’s security fence to the Berlin Wall and predicted that it, too, would be torn down. “This is something that is done to animals, not people,” Cardinal Meisner declared.

While in Israel, the bishops were given VIP treatment by Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres and other senior officials. At the Yad Vashem memorial, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, the chairman of the Bishops’ Conference, gave a respectful speech. But the tone changed dramatically after the bishops left Israel and entered Palestinian-controlled territory.

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“In the morning at Yad Vashem, photos of the inhuman Warsaw Ghetto; in the afternoon, we go to the ghetto in Ramallah. It’s enough to make you blow your top.” This outburst in Bethlehem by Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstätt was only one of several provocative comments made during a much-heralded pilgrimage to Israel and the Palestinian terroritories by all 27 German Catholic bishops last week.

The Bishop of Augsburg, Walter Mixa, accused the Israelis of “racism,” while the most senior member of the delegation, the Cardinal Archbishop of Cologne, Joachim Meisner, compared Israel’s security fence to the Berlin Wall and predicted that it, too, would be torn down. “This is something that is done to animals, not people,” Cardinal Meisner declared.

While in Israel, the bishops were given VIP treatment by Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres and other senior officials. At the Yad Vashem memorial, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, the chairman of the Bishops’ Conference, gave a respectful speech. But the tone changed dramatically after the bishops left Israel and entered Palestinian-controlled territory.

Despite sharp reactions from Shimon Stein, the Israeli ambassador to Germany, and from German Jewish leaders (described by the Iranian news agency as “German Zionist lobbyists”), the bishops seem unrepentant. They issued a statement vehemently denying that they had “demonized” Israel, adding that the “emotional consternation” of their visit to Bethlehem had evoked some “very personal remarks” that had already been “self-critically corrected.” In fact, however, Bishop Hanke merely said that “comparisons between the Holocaust and the present situation in Palestine are unacceptable and were not intended.” Neither he nor Cardinal Meisner and Bishop Mixa offered any apology.

I do not know what to make of this lamentable tale. Do the German bishops really need to be reminded of the collaboration with the Nazis of many of their predecessors during the Third Reich? Do they need to be reminded of what the Germans actually did in the Warsaw Ghetto? Does an East German like Cardinal Meisner need to be reminded of the difference between the Berlin Wall, built to stop people fleeing from Communist tyranny, and Israel’s fence, built to protect its people from Palestinian terrorists? Do the German bishops still know so little of the tragic struggle for survival of the Jewish people that they need to be reminded of their own unique responsibility, as Germans and as Christians, to counter the revival of anti-Semitism in Europe?

I hope that Pope Benedict XVI will summon the offending bishops to Rome and discipline them. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he encouraged John Paul II to make unprecedented gestures toward the Jewish people and the state of Israel. As the first German pope for a thousand years, he declared his intention to continue to lead the Church down the path of reconciliation. As a man who knows the Third Reich from personal experience—he was a member of the Hitler Youth and served in an anti-aircraft unit during the last months of the war—Pope Benedict has a special duty to distance the Catholic Church from comparisons between Israel and the Nazis. Such comparisons, though commonplace in the Islamic world, are not a Muslim monopoly.

This incident has a particular resonance for me, as a philo-Semitic Catholic, a friend both of Israel and of Germany. Quite simply, I feel ashamed of these bishops. Nobody wants the Germans to be perpetually beating their breasts to atone for the crimes of the Nazis. Like anybody else, they are entitled to criticize the Israeli government. After all, Israelis themselves criticize their own government all the time. But I am angry that German bishops, of all people, should come out with extremist propaganda that delegitimizes Israel, a state that is threatened with a second Holocaust at the hands of a nuclear-armed Iran.

These campaigns of vilification against Israel have done terrible harm. A new BBC poll conducted in 27 countries finds that Israel has the most negative image of all, ahead of Iran, the United States, and North Korea. This grotesque attitude to the beleaguered Jewish state is fuelled by comments like those of the German bishops, and reinforced by their failure to apologize.

In medieval times, Christians knew how to do penance for their sins. The German Emperor Henry IV went to Canossa, in Tuscany, to beg Pope Gregory VII to lift a sentence of excommunication. The monarch stood in the snow outside the castle for three days, wearing only a hairshirt, before the pope forgave him.

To repair the damage they have done to German-Israeli and Catholic-Jewish relations, these three German bishops must make their own journey to Canossa. They don’t have to wear hairshirts, but they do need to show that they have grasped the magnitude of their folly. They owe that much to the younger generation of Germans—some of whom last week destroyed a medieval Jewish cemetery in Bavaria.

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