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Issue Date:  June 16, 2006

Pope at Auschwitz praised, faulted


While Pope John Paul II’s 1979 visit to Auschwitz, the first ever for a pope, was widely hailed as a watershed, Benedict XVI’s May 28 appearance has drawn more mixed reviews. Criticism came mostly for what the pope didn’t say -- no acknowledgment of Christianity’s complicity in the Holocaust, for example, and no reference to contemporary anti-Semitism.

Ironically, John Paul didn’t say any of those things in 1979 either. Indeed, most experts say that if anything, Benedict went a little further in deferring to Jewish sensitivities, for example by electing not to celebrate a Catholic Mass in Birkenau as John Paul had a quarter-century before.

Perhaps John Paul’s impact in transforming Jewish-Christian relations can therefore be gauged by the fact that what was pioneering rhetoric in 1979, could actually seem disappointing in 2006.

“John Paul II spoke so strongly about anti-Semitism as a sin subsequent to his Auschwitz-Birkenau visit, that more was expected of Benedict,” said Fr. John Pawlikowski, an expert on Jewish/Christian relations at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

Pawlikowski pointed, for example, to John Paul’s words on anti-Semitism in his 1994 book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, and the note he left behind at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2000.

“Time didn’t stand still” since 1979, said Abraham Foxman of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League. “John Paul did so much in the meantime that Benedict’s words seem to us like a step backward in time.”

In his May 28 address, Benedict argued that the Holocaust was ultimately an assault not merely on Jews, but on God.

“Deep down,” Benedict said, “those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are eternally valid.

“If this people, by its very existence, was a witness to the God who spoke to humanity and took us to himself, then that God finally had to die and power had to belong to man alone -- to those men, who thought that by force they had made themselves masters of the world,” he said.

“By destroying Israel,” Benedict said, “they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and replace it with a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful.”

To be sure, criticism was hardly universal. Many commentators praised the pope’s somber, reverent demeanor at Auschwitz, the way he was clearly moved by his encounter with survivors, as well as the spiritual depth of his address.

“It was a deeply moving theological reflection,” said Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, Judaic scholar at the Jewish Federation of Chicago.

At a symbolic level, there was also the rainbow that crossed the sky at Birkenau when Benedict began to speak after a brief rain shower, seemingly as close to divine approval as one could ask.

Critics nevertheless found fault with what was left out.

Riccardo di Segni, chief rabbi of Rome, called the pope’s Auschwitz speech “problematic,” while Rabbi David Rosen, a longtime veteran of Christian/Jewish relations, termed the absence of any reference to Christian complicity in anti-Semitism “lamentable.”

“There was almost a sort of accent on the problem of the absence of God, and not on the silence of human beings and their responsibilities,” Di Segni said.

Though Benedict acknowledged that he came to Auschwitz as a “son of Germany,” some believe Benedict attempted to minimize Christian and German responsibility for the Holocaust by saying that Germans were “used and abused” by the Nazis.

Critics also pointed to Benedict’s opening of old wounds by invoking Edith Stein, a Jewish convert to Christianity who perished in Auschwitz. Stein is a sore point for some Jews leery of Christian proselytism.

Ironically, John Paul II in 1979 said virtually the same things.

Despite calling Auschwitz “this Golgotha of our times,” John Paul II also treated the Holocaust in universal terms, as a call to peace and respect for human rights, rather than mentioning the specific issue of Jewish suffering. Like Benedict, John Paul said nothing specifically about contemporary anti-Semitism.

Also like Benedict, John Paul said nothing about generalized Christian complicity in the Holocaust, or about the responsibility of his countrymen (in his case, Poles rather than Germans). John Paul also praised Edith Stein, calling her death in Auschwitz “a victory” for humanity.

To make matters even more complex, John Paul said all this in the context of a Catholic Mass celebrated at Birkenau honoring Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, a priest who volunteered to take the place of another prisoner who was marked for death. Benedict, in a gesture of sensitivity, chose instead to hold an interfaith service at Birkenau with significant Jewish participation.

The difference between 1979 and 2006, most experts said, is context.

“At that time, what John Paul said was nowhere near as important as that he said it, and that he was there,” Poupko said.

“In the context of a Polish Communist government that sought to erase the Jewish distinctiveness of the Holocaust, John Paul affirmed it and declared his solidarity with the Jewish people,” Poupko said.

Foxman told NCR that 26 years of pioneering efforts by John Paul II in effect “raised the bar” in terms of what Jews expect from a pope when he visits what Foxman called “the largest Jewish cemetery in the world.”

Foxman expressed special concern that Benedict appeared to analyze Auschwitz “in Christological terms,” thereby “universalizing and Christianizing” the Holocaust.

Foxman stressed, however, that he gave Benedict credit for what he called an “almost immediate correction” in the pope’s general audience on May 31.

“Auschwitz must not be forgotten, and the other ‘factories of death’ in which the Nazi regime tried to eliminate God in order to take his place,” the pope said that day. “We must not cede to the temptation of racial hatred, which is at the origins of the worst forms of anti-Semitism.”

Foxman said those words filled a gap.

“The Vatican usually ignores criticism, moves on, even gets upset,” Foxman said. “In the past when we’ve spoken out, it’s been at the cost of a certain isolation. One does not criticize the Holy Father lightly.”

Given that history, he said, he found Benedict’s swift mention of anti-Semitism “very heartening.”

Pawlikowski told NCR that another factor makes 2006 different from 1979 -- the reawakening of anti-Semitism in Europe, along with the inclusion of far-right parties in the current Polish government with historic links to anti-Semitic forces in the country.

“This is a real source of concern for Jewish leaders,” he said.

Poupko said that Benedict’s May 28 speech has to be understood in the context of a “process of development” within the Catholic church that began with Nostra Aetate, the document of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) that rejected the charge of deicide against Jews and opened a new chapter in Jewish-Christian relations.

Poupko told NCR it is significant that Benedict did not make use of any verses from the New Testament; that he invoked Psalm 44, traditionally used in Jewish prayer and lamentation about martyrdom and the Holocaust; and that he insisted that the Jews are a witness to God, so an attack on the Jews is an assault on God.

“By implication, those in the church, Christians who did not come to the rescue of the Jewish people, those who were silent, did not know that the Jewish people are witnesses to God, and that an assault on them is an assault on God’s very self,” Poupko said.

Pawlikowski said that in the long run, the significance of Benedict’s Auschwitz visit remains to be seen.

“I doubt it will be up there among the critically important moments” in Christian-Jewish relations, he said, such as John Paul’s 1986 visit to the Rome Synagogue or his 2000 trip to the Holy Land, including Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, and the Western Wall.

“But much will depend on the extent to which Benedict is prepared to follow up on the theological issues he raised,” he said.

If nothing else, Pawlikowski said, Benedict put his finger on the perennially central question hanging over Auschwitz: “Where was God?”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, June 16, 2006

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