FaithWorld

The pope and the Holocaust: Regensburg redux?

The uproar over traditionalist Bishop Richard Williamson and his denial of the Holocaust highlights an open secret here in Rome: Vatican departments don’t talk to each much, or at least as much as they should. The pope appears to have decided to lift the 1988 excommunication of four schismatic bishops of the SSPX (including Williamson) without the wide consultation that it may have merited. The Christian Unity department, which also oversees relations with Jews, was apparently kept out of the loop. The head of the office, Cardinal Walter Kasper, told The New York Times it was the pope’s decision. Kasper’s office and the Vatican press office, headed by Father Federico Lombardi, were clearly not prepared for the media onslaught that followed the discovery of Williamson’s views denying the Holocaust. (Photo: Bishop Richard Williamson, 28 Feb 2007/Jens Falk)

Pope Benedict’s lifting of the ban and Williamson’s comments about the Holocaust are unrelated as far as Church law is concerned. The excommunications lifted last Saturday were imposed because the four were ordained without Vatican permission. As Father Thomas Resse, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, told me: “The Holocaust is a matter of history, not faith. Being a Holocaust denier is stupid but not against the faith. Being anti-Semitic, however, is a sin.” This is an important distinction, but not one the Vatican seems to be able to get across.

It was all very reminiscent of the pope’s Regensburg speech in 2006. Few in the Vatican knew it was coming. The Vatican was overwhelmed by the Muslim reaction and the media interest. This time, it is also not clear how many people in the Vatican even knew about Williamson’s history. Surely, those negotiating with the traditionalists for the lifting of the excommunications should  have known. If they didn’t, why didn’t they? If they did, why did they not tell Kasper’s department? The Holocaust is such a sensitive issue for Jews that this response could have been seen from miles away. (Photo: Pope Benedict speaks at Regensburg University, 21 Sept 2006/KNA)

Even if the Vatican felt the rapprochement with the traditionalists was necessary, a clear and severe distancing from Williamson’s views issued simultaneously to the announcement of the lifting of the excommunications certainly would not have hurt.

It is still too early to gauge the public relations fallout within the Jewish community and in the Church itself. In all the years I have been covering Catholic-Jewish relations, this is the biggest blow-up I can recall — bigger than the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz, the Good Friday prayer,  the controversy over Pius XII or the late Pope John Paul receiving Arafat.  It will take a long time for this one to heal. Those involved in Catholic-Jewish dialogue say it will go on. It will.

If Catholic rebels return to Rome, who caved?

Pope Benedict is reportedly planning to lift the excommunication of four ultra-traditionalist Catholic bishops who have defied the Vatican for decades by rejecting some central reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Andrea Tornielli, the well-informed vaticanista of the Italian daily Il Giornale, says the decree inviting the bishops of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) back to the Roman fold should be announced this weekend. If this is true (which, given Tornielli’s track record, it presumably is),  the unanswered question now is: who caved? (Photo: Pope Benedict at the Vatican, 10 Jan 2009/Alessia Pierdomenico)

Our vaticanista Phil Pullella writes that lifting the excommunications “would be a major gesture by Benedict to resolve a crisis in the Church that surfaced in 1988, when the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre illegally consecrated four bishops without the requisite permission of the late Pope John Paul.”

The Swiss-based SSPX has about a million followers worldwide compared to 1.1 billion for the official Church. It maintains the old Latin Mass and rejects Vatican II reforms such as dialogue with other religions.

“In retrospect, I wish Pius XII hadn’t been so diplomatic”

The role of Pope Pius XII during World War Two is a subject of endless dispute, part of which we’ve tracked on FaithWorld over the past year. This has gained in interest because of Vatican plans to put him on the path to sainthood, which may be held up now because of protests from Jewish groups. We’re all waiting for the secret archives of his papacy (1939-1958) to be opened to finally see what the documents say about his relations with Nazi Germany. While we’re waiting, one of the key questions that could be assessed on the basis of files already available is what Pius thought about dealing with the Nazis before he became pope. There is a long paper trail there, because Pius was the Vatican Secretary of State — effectively, the prime minister of the Vatican — from 1930 until his election as pope. But a lot of people argue for or against Pius without having read this material. (Photo: Pope Pius XII/Vatican photo)

Gerard Fogarty S.J., a University of Virginia historian and Jesuit priest, has worked through much of this material and come up with a fascinating article in the U.S. Jesuit magazine America. He’s examined much of the paper trail the future pope left in the 1930s but many of the documents are in a language that the leading commentators on Pius don’t speak. We’re not talking about that dead language Latin, but Italian — a lively regional tongue in Europe that happens to be an international language within the world’s largest church, Roman Catholicism.

“This is one of the problems even now,” Fogarty recounted in an informative podcast for America. “Scholars come to me and ask, do you use a translator? No scholar is going to do that. You’ve got to learn the language yourself. So people have not looked at what was published.”

Tough times empty the collection plate

For many churches, synagogues and mosques in the United States, this holiday season will be a lean one.

The outpouring of contributions usually prompted by festive goodwill and end-of-the-year giving geared to next year’s income tax calculations is feeling the pinch from the global financial meltdown. The shortfalls are startling. (Photo: Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Chicago, 10 April, 2008/John Gress)

“The giving patterns we’re witnessing suggest that churches, alone, will receive some $3 billion to $5 billion less than expected during this fourth quarter. The average church can expect to see its revenues dip about 4 percent to 6 percent lower than would have been expected without the economic turmoil. We anticipate that other non-profit organizations will be hit even harder.”

Visiting Israeli settlers in what my GPS calls “unreachable areas”

(Editor’s note: Doug Hamilton, one of our most experienced correspondents and lively writers, recently took up a new post in Jerusalem. Here’s the back story to his latest feature “A Biblical view of peace high in the Holy Land.”)

(Photo:the West Bank Jewish settlement of Psagot, 17 November 2008/Eliana Aponte)

When I began my assignment to Israel & the Palestinian Territories two months ago, I was determined to get out and about and see as much as possible for myself. I wanted to find out up close what life was like for the people who live here — from the Palestinians lining up obediently to get through intimidating Israeli checkpoints, to the nightlife crowd a world away in chic Tel Aviv, to the Orthodox Jews in 16th century attire in their Jerusalem districts where you dare not drive on the Sabbath, to the Palestinian olive groves and to the settlers on the occupied land of the West Bank.

I bought a GPS navigator to help me get around and the first thing I discovered was that my desired West Bank and Gaza destinations were “in an unreachable area”, according to the device. The occupied territories show up as dark grey background on the GPS. But its warnings can be overridden and  it will then guide you  pretty accurately to the “unreachable destinations” you seek.

Germany still fighting anti-Semitism

To mark the 70th anniversary of ”Kristallnacht”, when Nazis ransacked Jewish shops and homes and set synagogues ablaze, the German parliament this week passed a resolution on anti-Semitism.

It says anti-Semitism is still a problem that Germany needs to take seriously and calls for a team of experts to report regularly on anti-Semitic activity in Germany and to recommend steps to combat it.

A row with the Left party over the resolution sparked criticism from the Central Council of Jews and overshadowed a wider debate in Germany on the subject.

Financial crisis hits German rabbinical college

Berlin’s new Synagogue, 10 Oct 2005/Amanda AndersenThe revival of Jewish life in post-unification Berlin could suffer a setback if the current financial crisis forces the closing of the first rabbinical college opened in central Europe since the Holocaust. As Berlin reporter Josie Cox writes, the Abraham Geiger College is falling short of funds because its donors in Europe and the United States are getting short of cash themselves. Read the full story here.

The college opened at the University of Potsdam in 1999 and graduated its first rabbis — a German, a Czech and a South African — in September 2006.

“We need many, many more rabbis in Germany. We have a great hunger for rabbis,” Dieter Graumann, vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said at the time.

Does Sony need a religious affairs adviser?

Box art for LittleBigPlanet/Sony handoutDoes Sony need a full-time religious affairs adviser? Someone who says “that’s OK” or “whoa, don’t go there!” It looks like they could use one, judging by its decision to recall and remaster its Playstation 3 video game LittleBigPlanet because it might offend Muslims. LittleBigPlanet was supposed to be one of the biggest releases of the season. And then Sony found out some background music had a few phrases from the Koran in it and they decided to replace the disks with different music. An in-house religion maven who does some “content debugging” would cost much less than this embarrassing exercise.

Sony isn’t the only company to trip over religious sensitivities. Microsoft had to withdraw its Xbox fighter game Kakuto Chojin; Back Alley Brutal in 2003 because of Koran verses chanted in the background. Back in 1998, Muslims accused Nike of sacrilege for selling sneakers bearing a logo showing the word “air” written in fiery letters that looked like the Arabic word “Allah.” Nike ended up withdrawing the shoes, giving sensitivity training to employees and building playgrounds at several mosques in Virginia.

Muslims haven’t been the only ones complaining. A French jeans poster showing women imitating Jesus Christ and his apostles in the Leonardo da Vinci painting, “The Last Supper”, was banned in France and Italy after Catholics there complained. A leading anti-Semitism watchdog howled last spring when a South Korean cosmetics company advertised a skin lotion with a picture of a young woman sporting what appears to be a Nazi officer’s hat.

First it was about Pius’s silence, now it’s Benedict’s

Pope Benedict in Pompei, 19 Oct 2008/Tony GentileThe dispute over Pope Pius XII’s public silence about the Holocaust (background here) widened over the weekend. At the same time, Pope Benedict came in for criticism for his own silence, this time about organised crime in the Naples area during a visit to nearby Pompei . A local newspaper had (wrongly) reported he would publicly condemn the Camorra, as the local mafia is known. His spokesman insisted the visit to a Marian shrine (the purpose of the trip) was purely spiritual.

The Pius dispute heated up when Rev. Peter Gumpel, the German Jesuit who is the postulator for the late pope’s cause for sainthood, told the Italian news agency ANSA on Saturday that Benedict was delaying the beatification of Pius because it would harm relations with Jews. He also said Benedict could not visit Israel until a caption under a photograph of Pius at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial was changed. The caption said Pius “abstained from signing the Allied declaration condemning the extermination of the Jews”. The Vatican denies that charge and says Pius did all he could to save Jews.

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi denied the caption was holding up any papal visit to Israel. Without naming them, he also told both Gumpel and Pius’s critics to lay off Benedict. “In this situation, it is not opportune to exercise pressure on him from one side or the other,” he said.

Pius polemics persist — more due next month?

Pope Pius XII/The Holy SeeReasonable people can agree to disagree on lots of issues, but some are so polarising that even reasonable people will hunker down in opposing trenches whenever debate about them flares up. The long-standing Catholic-Jewish dispute over Pope Pius XII and his role during the Holocaust is one of those issues. The 50th anniversary of Eugenio Pacelli’s death on Oct. 9, 1958 has recently mobilised both his defenders and detractors. After several pro-Pius comments from the Vatican and its friends and a firm but polite rebuttal by an Israeli rabbi, the umbrella group of French Jewish organisations, CRIF, has issued a stinging denunciation of Pius and warning that beatifying him would strike a “severe blow” to Catholic-Jewish relations.

CRIF logoThe statement (here in French) is clearly sharper than the latest call by the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL) urging the Vatican to open its last wartime records to historians’ scrutiny before deciding to proceed with Pius’s beatification and eventual canonisation as a Roman Catholic saint. CRIF is the public spokesman for France’s 600,000-strong Jewish community, which is Europe’s largest. It regularly denounces anti-Semitism in France Anti-Defamation League logoand upholds the memory of the Holocaust, but has not been as active as the ADL in engaging the Vatican in the debate over whether Pius did as much as he could have to save Jews during the Holocaust.

A quick look at the timetable of the latest dispute puts the CRIF statement in perspective. Shear-Yashuv Cohen, chief rabbi of Haifa in Israeli, became the first Jew to address a bishops’ synod in Rome on Oct. 6. Catholic-Jewish relations have improved markedly in recent decades and Cohen accepted the invitation in that spirit. But when in Rome he realised the meeting would also be commemorating Pius’s death, he told our Vatican correspondent Phil Pullella he might not have attended if he had known that. During his address, he told the bishops that Jews “cannot forgive and forget” that some major religious leaders during World War Two did not speak out against the Holocaust. He separately told reporters Pius “should not be seen as a model and he should not be beatified”.