Commentary Magazine


Topic: Benedict

The Symbol Fetish

At the New Republic, Leon Wieseltier writes that Israel has lost “the all-important war for symbols and meanings, to Hamas.” Somehow, among all the wars and skirmishes and ambushes that define Israeli existence and threaten to erase the Jewish state, I find it hard to swallow Wieseltier’s post-modern competition “for symbols and meanings” as “the all important war.”

Ethan Bronner writes, in the New York Times, “the world powers have grown increasingly disillusioned with the blockade, saying that it has created far too much suffering in Gaza and serves as a symbol not only of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians but of how the West is seen in relation to the Palestinians.”

You know what else the blockade serves as? A blockade. It separates Israel’s sworn enemies from those who would help them arm and kill Israelis. Oh, and by the way, as a blockade – and not a symbol – the blockade works. So, too, do the fences, check points, and walls that separate Israel from would-be terrorists in the Palestinian territories.

Oops, did I say walls? This comes from a Reuters story that ran last year: “Pope Benedict stood by the wall Israel is building round the West Bank on Wednesday and called it a symbol of “stalemate” between Israel and the Palestinians, urging both sides to break a ‘spiral of violence.’”

What kind of Freudian limbo do Israelis now supposedly inhabit where everything they do and create is just another telling symbol of chauvinism, paranoia, and frustration. Friends of Israel often decry the absurd standards to which “world powers” try to hold the Jewish state. But this isn’t even about selective standards; it’s a category distinction. Here are the rules: Russia, which has been illegally occupying Georgia for almost two years, and facilitating Iran’s nuclear and anti-aircraft programs for even longer, is a state. North Korea, which recently sank a South Korean navy boat full of 46 sailors (not in oh-so-precious international waters, but in South Korean waters), starves its own population, and threatens to destroy Seoul, is a state. Pakistan — the creation of which led to a million deaths and millions more displaced, in order to give a single religious group its own area– is a terrorist Disneyland; it is also a state, achieving independence in 1947. Israel, on the other hand, is the world’s Hitchcock dream sequence. And it better not forget it.

That’s what all this criticism of the flotilla operation amounts to. How dare Israel act in service of its existence as a country when it’s so valuable as a symbol. In this way, those who wag their fingers at Israel for insufficiently weighing optics and PR and world opinion have put an insidious twist on the denial of Israel’s right to exist. For if it is forbidden to act on its own behalf as a state then there is an implicit denial of its right to be one. After all, when a state prevents a fleet of armed enemies from breaking its blockade with no casualties on their side it’s called a smashing success. When it’s done by Israel it’s just another sinister emblem of increasingly violent suicidal tendencies.

At the New Republic, Leon Wieseltier writes that Israel has lost “the all-important war for symbols and meanings, to Hamas.” Somehow, among all the wars and skirmishes and ambushes that define Israeli existence and threaten to erase the Jewish state, I find it hard to swallow Wieseltier’s post-modern competition “for symbols and meanings” as “the all important war.”

Ethan Bronner writes, in the New York Times, “the world powers have grown increasingly disillusioned with the blockade, saying that it has created far too much suffering in Gaza and serves as a symbol not only of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians but of how the West is seen in relation to the Palestinians.”

You know what else the blockade serves as? A blockade. It separates Israel’s sworn enemies from those who would help them arm and kill Israelis. Oh, and by the way, as a blockade – and not a symbol – the blockade works. So, too, do the fences, check points, and walls that separate Israel from would-be terrorists in the Palestinian territories.

Oops, did I say walls? This comes from a Reuters story that ran last year: “Pope Benedict stood by the wall Israel is building round the West Bank on Wednesday and called it a symbol of “stalemate” between Israel and the Palestinians, urging both sides to break a ‘spiral of violence.’”

What kind of Freudian limbo do Israelis now supposedly inhabit where everything they do and create is just another telling symbol of chauvinism, paranoia, and frustration. Friends of Israel often decry the absurd standards to which “world powers” try to hold the Jewish state. But this isn’t even about selective standards; it’s a category distinction. Here are the rules: Russia, which has been illegally occupying Georgia for almost two years, and facilitating Iran’s nuclear and anti-aircraft programs for even longer, is a state. North Korea, which recently sank a South Korean navy boat full of 46 sailors (not in oh-so-precious international waters, but in South Korean waters), starves its own population, and threatens to destroy Seoul, is a state. Pakistan — the creation of which led to a million deaths and millions more displaced, in order to give a single religious group its own area– is a terrorist Disneyland; it is also a state, achieving independence in 1947. Israel, on the other hand, is the world’s Hitchcock dream sequence. And it better not forget it.

That’s what all this criticism of the flotilla operation amounts to. How dare Israel act in service of its existence as a country when it’s so valuable as a symbol. In this way, those who wag their fingers at Israel for insufficiently weighing optics and PR and world opinion have put an insidious twist on the denial of Israel’s right to exist. For if it is forbidden to act on its own behalf as a state then there is an implicit denial of its right to be one. After all, when a state prevents a fleet of armed enemies from breaking its blockade with no casualties on their side it’s called a smashing success. When it’s done by Israel it’s just another sinister emblem of increasingly violent suicidal tendencies.

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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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A Papal Kowtow

On Friday, the Dalai Lama said that he was sorry that he would not be meeting the Pope during his visit to Italy. The Pontiff met with the exiled Tibetan last October in what the Vatican termed “a private courtesy visit.” This time, however, the Pope refused to have any contact with him. The turn-down was unexpected: a December 13 audience between the two spiritual leaders was unofficially announced in late October.

Why would Pope Benedict change his mind and shun one of the world’s most respected figures? Beijing in early November said such a meeting would “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” Most Chinese, frankly, do not care; it’s the Chinese leaders who would be upset. Their campaign to isolate the Dalai Lama is failing. So far this year, the Tibetan has met the leaders of Germany, New Zealand, Austria, Australia, Canada, and the United States. Moreover, Tibetan lands that the Chinese rule are going through another cycle of instability—disturbances there are occurring with increasing frequency. It’s exhilarating to watch the Chinese repressors on the run both at home and abroad.

Yet it is so depressing to watch the Pope perform the kowtow to atheistic autocrats in Beijing. One of Benedict’s top priorities is to establish relations with the modern Chinese state. He has made some progress recently—China’s state-run Catholic Church ordained two Vatican-approved bishops within the month (it often chooses clergymen who do not have Rome’s blessing). The timing of the elevations suggests they were directly related to Benedict’s refusal to see the exiled Tibetan.

The Pope, in a 55-page open letter dated May 27, indicated that the Vatican was willing to switch recognition from Taiwan to the mainland under certain conditions, including those relating to the selection of bishops. That would be a betrayal of millions of souls. Now, to please the Communist Party, he is breaking the Holy See’s long relations with the Dalai Lama. The Pontiff, unfortunately, is becoming just another craven figure in a world with too many of them. We expect better from religious leaders. Benedict, I am sad to say, is a disappointment.

On Friday, the Dalai Lama said that he was sorry that he would not be meeting the Pope during his visit to Italy. The Pontiff met with the exiled Tibetan last October in what the Vatican termed “a private courtesy visit.” This time, however, the Pope refused to have any contact with him. The turn-down was unexpected: a December 13 audience between the two spiritual leaders was unofficially announced in late October.

Why would Pope Benedict change his mind and shun one of the world’s most respected figures? Beijing in early November said such a meeting would “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” Most Chinese, frankly, do not care; it’s the Chinese leaders who would be upset. Their campaign to isolate the Dalai Lama is failing. So far this year, the Tibetan has met the leaders of Germany, New Zealand, Austria, Australia, Canada, and the United States. Moreover, Tibetan lands that the Chinese rule are going through another cycle of instability—disturbances there are occurring with increasing frequency. It’s exhilarating to watch the Chinese repressors on the run both at home and abroad.

Yet it is so depressing to watch the Pope perform the kowtow to atheistic autocrats in Beijing. One of Benedict’s top priorities is to establish relations with the modern Chinese state. He has made some progress recently—China’s state-run Catholic Church ordained two Vatican-approved bishops within the month (it often chooses clergymen who do not have Rome’s blessing). The timing of the elevations suggests they were directly related to Benedict’s refusal to see the exiled Tibetan.

The Pope, in a 55-page open letter dated May 27, indicated that the Vatican was willing to switch recognition from Taiwan to the mainland under certain conditions, including those relating to the selection of bishops. That would be a betrayal of millions of souls. Now, to please the Communist Party, he is breaking the Holy See’s long relations with the Dalai Lama. The Pontiff, unfortunately, is becoming just another craven figure in a world with too many of them. We expect better from religious leaders. Benedict, I am sad to say, is a disappointment.

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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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