Vaticans Shoah stance undermines interfaith dialogue

Why the profound disappointment in the Jewish community to the long-awaited Vatican document on the Roman Catholic Church and the Holocaust?

So much progress has been made in Catholic-Jewish relations since 1965, when the historic Vatican II Nostra Aetate document. As a result, when word came that the Vatican was going to issue a major document on the church and the Holocaust, expectations rose of a dramatic conclusion to the recent activity.

Pope John Paul II has personally taken many important steps to announce the church's greater sensitivity to the Jewish people. Whether it was his visit to the synagogue in Rome, the first such visit by a pontiff, or establishing diplomatic relations with the state of Israel, condemning anti-Semitism as a sin or declaring the innate legitimacy of Judaism as a parent and sister religion to Christianity, the messages were positive and hopeful.

Moreover, in recent months the bishops of Germany and France had taken greater Catholic sensitivity to the evils of the past to new levels in separate documents. The French statement on the church's role during World War II, "French Bishop's Declaration of Repentance," says clearly that the "Church of France failed in her mission as teacher of conscience" in the face of the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews.

The German Catholics Bishops Conference on Jan. 23, 1995, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, said: "Today the fact is weighing heavily on our minds that there were but individual initiatives to help persecuted Jews. Christians did not offer due resistance to racial anti-Semitism" during the time of the Third Reich.

It is in this context that the Vatican document on the Holocaust is so disappointing. Unlike the French and German documents, the church specifically rejected a connection between the Holocaust and Christianity. It called the Holocaust the "work of a thoroughly modern neo-Pagan regime" and added that its "anti-Semitism had its roots outside of Christianity."

This notion belies the history of Christian anti-Semitism, which suffused Europe for centuries and created an environment that made the Holocaust possible. It undermines the major effort of so much interfaith dialogue in recent years that has focused on the disastrous consequences of delegitimizing another people and another religion.

Indeed, it was Pope John Paul II himself who convened an international meeting of Catholic scholars to consider the serious matter of anti-Judaism in the teaching and preaching of the church.

If the history of the influences leading up to Nazism is distorted, so, too, are the descriptions of what took place during the Holocaust. The document presents the role of Pius XII in a favorable fashion, but it ignores the many opportunities he had as a world religious leader to help stop the slaughter. Its defense of Pius XII reinforces our belief that it is vital that the church open its archives. Only then can a clear and complete picture clarify the pope's policy and conduct during the war.

Unlike the German and French documents, in which those who stood up and rescued Jews were seen as exceptions, the Vatican document gives the impression that those who were evil, insensitive and acquiesced to the Final Solution were the exceptions to the overall Christian approach.

In truth, had this Vatican document appeared prior to Nostra Aetate, before the succession of remarkable steps taken by John Paul II, before the French and German statements, one might have termed it courageous for even looking at the church's role during the Jewish tragedy and for its clear denunciation of anti-Semitism.

But this is 1998, two years before the millennium. It was hoped that this document would culminate the process of reconciliation between Christianity and Judaism.

Disappointed as we are, we are nevertheless committed to continuing the creative interfaith dialogue that projects a message of hope to both faith communities.

We are hopeful that under the leadership of John Paul II, this can become the reality of our relationship for the new millennium.