March 5, 2011

Good relations with Jewish people often a papal priority


There is nothing novel in Pope Benedict saying he does not blame Jews for death of Jesus

SOMEWHERE UP there with “the pope is a Catholic” is the idea that “Pope Benedict does not blame Jews for the death of Christ”. In short, it is a startling glimpse of the blindingly obvious, despite the media headlines suggesting that there is something novel about Benedict’s “unequivocal repudiation of the claim that the Jewish people can be held forever responsible for the death of Jesus”.

Not that the Catholic Church has always been so benign towards its “forefathers in the faith”, to use Benedict’s phrase. The charges of anti-Semitism laid against Catholics for centuries are, sadly, to a large degree true.

Yet they were not true of all Catholics, even when Josef Ratzinger was merely a boy. For example, in 1935, a short, fat, fifty-something archbishop was sent by the Vatican as Apostolic Delegate to Turkey and Greece. This son of Italian peasants quickly established positive networks of contacts, just as he had done in his previous posting to Bulgaria.

Within five years, both of those networks were to prove invaluable. The archbishop began to hear first-hand accounts from Polish refugees of German persecution of the Jews. He helped many of these Poles to reach Palestine, then a British colony. He used his friendly relationship with King Boris of Bulgaria to save thousands of Slovakian Jews. In 1944, he met Ira Hirschmann, a special envoy from the American War Refugee Board and a Hungarian immigrant.

“He listened intently as I outlined the desperate plight of Jews in Hungary,” Hirschmann later recalled. “Then he pulled his chair up closer and quietly asked, ‘Do you have any contact with people in Hungary who will co-operate?’”

The archbishop planned to issue baptismal certificates on a grand scale as a ploy to allow Jews to emigrate safely from Hungary. It is estimated that tens of thousands of Jews were saved by the time Budapest fell to the Soviets in 1945.

The little archbishop was Angelo Roncalli, later to become John XXIII. In 2000, he was proposed by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation for the title of “Righteous Among the Nations”, an honour which recognises people who risked their lives to save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust.

John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council in 1962. Nostrae Aetate was one of the documents which emerged, although because he had died by then, it was issued by Paul V1. Rabbi David Rosen described this document “as truly revolutionary in the most positive sense of the word” for Jewish-Catholic relations.

John XXIII was also the one who removed the reference to “perfidious” (faithless Jews) from the Good Friday prayers. When a cardinal absent-mindedly used the old formula, Pope John corrected him and made him repeat the new formulation.

Good relations with the Jewish people were a priority for Pope John Paul too. When he visited a Roman synagogue in 1986, he was probably the first pope to do so since earliest Christian times.

It would be wonderful if all relations between Christians and Jews had the warmth of Angelo Roncalli’s affection. In fact, Christian anti-Semitism has deep roots. A monk, Thomas of Monmouth, was responsible in the 12th century for what the Catholic Encyclopedia describes as “one of the most notable and disastrous lies of history”, that Jews killed Christian children.

It became known as the blood libel, and despite being condemned as untrue by many popes, including Pope Gregory X in the 13th century, it was the source of much bigotry and violence against Jews.

Nor was anti-Semitism confined to Catholics. In a tract repudiated by most Lutherans today, Martin Luther referred to Jews in vicious terms, suggesting that they be burned out of homes and put to work like dogs.

In Ireland, we had a mixed history. Daniel O’Connell campaigned for Jewish rights, including the right not to wear the special dress laid down by English law. Yet in the 20th century, a priest organised an anti-Semitic boycott in Limerick. (His superiors quietly moved him to a Pacific island not long after.)

Joe Briscoe, son of Irish Jewish politician Bob Briscoe, generously describes the Limerick episode as “an aberration in an otherwise almost perfect history of Ireland and its treatment of the Jews”. Despite his kind words, the Irish also failed miserably when it came to welcoming Jewish refugees from the Nazis.

Anti-Semitism is alive and well worldwide, as evidenced by John Galliano’s drunken rants, and Charlie Sheen’s alleged insults against his Jewish former manager. Not to mention Tommy Tiernan’s comments about lining up 10 or 12 million Jews for the death camps instead of six.

Yet claims of anti-Semitism are also sometimes used to de-legitimise valid criticism of the state of Israel. There is an important balance to be kept here, avoiding the attempt to muzzle legitimate criticism, while still showing tolerance and respect for religious freedom.

Among some in the print and broadcast media in Ireland, there is a form of tone-deafness, a belief that Catholicism is an enemy of progress. Yet Catholics should not succumb to paranoia or compete for the title of “most oppressed people ever”. Irish anti-Catholicism cannot and should not be compared either to anti-Semitism or the murderous anti-Christian sentiment visible in many parts of the world, such as the assassination this week of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s only Christian government minister, by Islamic extremists.

God knows, the Catholic Church has done much to merit opprobrium in recent decades. However, it is still boring, tedious and unoriginal when commentators think they are being radical by constantly seeing only the negatives in Catholicism.