Commentary Magazine


Topic: Pope John Paul II

Two Righteous Men Among the Nations

The question of whether a person ought to be canonized by the Catholic Church is one on which non-Catholics ought to remain largely silent. Even when it comes to historical figures who are mired in controversies that touch on the sensitivities of other faiths and peoples—the candidacy of World War Two-era Pope Pius XII comes to mind—those non-Catholics inclined to an opinion on the question of who is or is not recognized by the Catholic Church ought to err on the side of silence. Just as it is not the business of any faith to edit the prayers of other religions, so, too, must we treat the process by which the Vatican confers upon figures the title of saint as being one that is rooted in a faith that merits our respect, whatever our opinions about the actions or lives of specific candidates might be.

But in the cases of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, both of whom were canonized today in a solemn ceremony in Rome, it is entirely appropriate to add our applause to the acclaim that has greeted the honor accorded those two individuals. That both of these men are important figures in the history of the church as well as the world is not in question. But each deserves special recognition from Jews. The combined efforts of the pair transformed interfaith relations between these two communities of faith from a theoretical construct that was mostly observed in the breach to a living, breathing friendship. In the history of the church, these two popes stand as beacons not only of the struggle for human freedom but for the capacity of an ancient church to change so as to be able to embrace those who practice another, even older faith.

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The question of whether a person ought to be canonized by the Catholic Church is one on which non-Catholics ought to remain largely silent. Even when it comes to historical figures who are mired in controversies that touch on the sensitivities of other faiths and peoples—the candidacy of World War Two-era Pope Pius XII comes to mind—those non-Catholics inclined to an opinion on the question of who is or is not recognized by the Catholic Church ought to err on the side of silence. Just as it is not the business of any faith to edit the prayers of other religions, so, too, must we treat the process by which the Vatican confers upon figures the title of saint as being one that is rooted in a faith that merits our respect, whatever our opinions about the actions or lives of specific candidates might be.

But in the cases of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, both of whom were canonized today in a solemn ceremony in Rome, it is entirely appropriate to add our applause to the acclaim that has greeted the honor accorded those two individuals. That both of these men are important figures in the history of the church as well as the world is not in question. But each deserves special recognition from Jews. The combined efforts of the pair transformed interfaith relations between these two communities of faith from a theoretical construct that was mostly observed in the breach to a living, breathing friendship. In the history of the church, these two popes stand as beacons not only of the struggle for human freedom but for the capacity of an ancient church to change so as to be able to embrace those who practice another, even older faith.

The role that John Paul II played in the struggle against Communism is well known. The first Polish pope was a symbol of the fight for freedom behind the Iron Curtain. If Stalin famously and satirically asked “how many divisions” did the pope have about one of John Paul’s predecessors, then the Soviet tsar’s successors found how just how powerful a man of faith could be. If in the medieval era and specifically in the 19th century, the church was viewed by many as an ally of the established order in Europe against the cause of liberty, John Paul II made it clear that in the 20th century, Catholics were on the front lines in the battle for individual liberty against the toxic influence of totalitarianism.

That stand by itself would have secured John Paul’s place in history. But he also deserves enormous credit for transforming Catholic-Jewish relations. While some in the media took a cynical view of Pope Francis’s effort to highlight the similarities between John XXIII, who is viewed as the hero of church liberals, and John Paul II, who is depicted as the champion of conservatives, there is no question that they shared a common agenda when it came to revolutionizing relations between Catholics and Jews.

John XXIII is best remembered for his convening of the Second Vatican Council that led to changes in Church doctrine and practices. Most importantly for Jews, it ended the teaching of the deicide myth, effectively acquitting the Jewish people of a role in the killing of Jesus. He also ended the use of the word “perfidious” with respect to Jews in Catholic prayers. But even long before this important work, John XXIII earned the gratitude of the Jewish people for his role in saving many Jews from the Holocaust while serving as papal nuncio in Turkey and Greece. After the Shoah, while serving in the same capacity in France he refused orders not to return baptized Jewish children to their surviving parents. He is also believed to have helped influence Pope Pius XII to remain silent about the question of partition of Palestine thus making it easier for Catholic countries to vote for the creation of a Jewish state.

Pope John Paul II built on the good work of Pope John XXIII with regard to interfaith relations. He was the first pope to visit a synagogue as well as the one who finally recognized the State of Israel. His advocacy for treating Jews as brothers in faith rather than rivals or enemies marked a turning point for the relationship between the two faiths and in the way Catholics were educated by their church. Under his leadership, the church became a bulwark in the struggle against anti-Semitism in a manner that it had never before assumed. Just as important, his personal example of friendship with Jews with whom he had grown up in Poland and suffered under Nazi rule ended forever the notion of a natural antagonism between Catholics and Jews.

No person, even a saint, is perfect, and it is possible to construct a critique of John Paul II’s papacy in terms of its slow reaction to the pedophile scandal that rocked Catholicism on his watch. But that is a problem that predated his papacy and cannot be ascribed to the Vatican as it can to specific individuals or institutions. Whatever we may think about the church’s past failures in that regard, it does not erase his or any other pope’s good work.

Thus, while I cannot venture an opinion as to the qualifications of either man (or anyone else for that matter) for Catholic sainthood, I can say that both John XXIII and John Paul II stand as two of the most important positive figures in the history of Jewish-Catholic relations. They are richly deserving of the title of Righteous Among the Nations, the name of the honor given by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, to those who saved Jews during the Holocaust. May the memories of both these popes be for a blessing. 

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John Paul, Benedict and the Modern Papacy

The decision of Pope Benedict XVI to resign shocked the world today setting off a wave of speculation about the outcome of the upcoming conclave of the College of Cardinals that will choose his successor. The next pope will have a long agenda of issues to deal with as the Church grapples with calls for liberalization of doctrine from within its ranks as well as from non-Catholics. There is also the cardinals’ choice will reflect a desire to reach out to the Third World in a way that reflects the Church’s future. These are issues that are beyond the scope of this blog and are for the Church and its adherents to resolve without comment one way or the other from us. But the transition from Benedict to the next generation at the Vatican is an apt moment to acknowledge the unique achievements of this pope and his predecessor on a topic on which we have a lot to say: Catholic-Jewish relations.

It has long been acknowledged that Benedict’s papacy was a transitional era that in many ways marked the conclusion of the era begun by the previous pope, John Paul II. Though naysayers can point to individual incidents in which some of the Vatican’s decision rubbed Jews the wrong way, an honest assessment of these two papacies must note that these men helped change a long and contentious history of Catholic-Jewish conflict and ill feeling into one in which the two faiths can truly be said to be partners and friends. Whatever else John Paul and Benedict accomplished, they must be considered heroes for their work toward ridding the Church of a legacy of 2,000 years of anti-Semitism and recognizing the legitimacy of the State of Israel. The modern papacy is largely their work and they deserve the gratitude of all people of faith for that.

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The decision of Pope Benedict XVI to resign shocked the world today setting off a wave of speculation about the outcome of the upcoming conclave of the College of Cardinals that will choose his successor. The next pope will have a long agenda of issues to deal with as the Church grapples with calls for liberalization of doctrine from within its ranks as well as from non-Catholics. There is also the cardinals’ choice will reflect a desire to reach out to the Third World in a way that reflects the Church’s future. These are issues that are beyond the scope of this blog and are for the Church and its adherents to resolve without comment one way or the other from us. But the transition from Benedict to the next generation at the Vatican is an apt moment to acknowledge the unique achievements of this pope and his predecessor on a topic on which we have a lot to say: Catholic-Jewish relations.

It has long been acknowledged that Benedict’s papacy was a transitional era that in many ways marked the conclusion of the era begun by the previous pope, John Paul II. Though naysayers can point to individual incidents in which some of the Vatican’s decision rubbed Jews the wrong way, an honest assessment of these two papacies must note that these men helped change a long and contentious history of Catholic-Jewish conflict and ill feeling into one in which the two faiths can truly be said to be partners and friends. Whatever else John Paul and Benedict accomplished, they must be considered heroes for their work toward ridding the Church of a legacy of 2,000 years of anti-Semitism and recognizing the legitimacy of the State of Israel. The modern papacy is largely their work and they deserve the gratitude of all people of faith for that.

On this score, Benedict who labored under the stigma of his German birth and brief service in Hitler’s army did not get as much credit as he deserved. Though nothing he did matched the symbolism of the way the first Polish pope embraced the Jewish people in a heartfelt manner, his service to John Paul and his actions while leading the Vatican, Benedict carried on his predecessors work on this issue.

Benedict was criticized for his efforts toward reinstating the Latin mass, which in one part contained a prayer for the conversation of Jews that most Jews thought offensive. But Benedict was quite clear that this was not a license to reinstate the Church’s abandoned efforts to proselytize Jews. Those who wished to judge Benedict harshly for this should have remembered that Jewish tradition instructs us to judge people by their deeds and in that respect, Benedict’s efforts to continue John Paul’s work was largely exemplar. Catholic doctrine about what will happen at the end of days should be of as little concern to Jews as Jewish ideas about the Messianic era should be to Catholics.

It should also be stated that under both John Paul and Benedict, the Papacy has been a bulwark of support for the cause of freedom against tyranny. In the battle against the evil empire of the former Soviet Union, the Pope’s divisions, as Stalin would have put it, were formidable assets in the struggle to overthrow Communism. Whatever changes occur in the Church in the future under the next pope, we hope that it will remain true to the legacy of John Paul and Benedict in this respect.

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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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