By: Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm  | 

From the Commie Archives (April 18, 2005; Volume 70, Issue 10) — The Papacy of John Paul II: A Jewish View

Editor’s Note: With the recent passing of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who stepped down in 2013, The Commentator has seen fit to publish Rabbi Lamm’s reflections on the pope preceding Benedict, Pope John Paul II, upon his passing in 2005.

We Jews, accustomed since childhood to view the Catholic Church, and especially its Popes, with a jaundiced eye, have happily had to revise our thinking in the past 43 years. And that is not a long time as measured by the history of the Church, and especially by the time frame of Jewish history.

When I was a child, Pius XII was the World War II Pope, and I knew that he hated me and I hated him. His austere mien, unfriendly and domineering, did not much to endear him to non-Catholics. His playing with the Nazis - which some Jews excused because, they said, he had to protect Catholics interests from Nazi retribution - certainly raised serious questions about his underlying anti-Semitism. These feelings were reinforced when, in 1963, Rolf Hochhuth's play, The Deputy (which I helped put on Broadway, to the dismay of some of my frightened synagogue members), drew capacity crowds and effectively dramatized Pius' steely indifference to the fate of European Jewry. The blot on his memory will never be ceased.

But Pius XII was only the latest in a long string of Popes - not all, but assuredly too many - who were blatantly anti-Semitic. Any Jewish child who had the least acquaintance with Jewish history identified Catholics with the Inquisition, with the Crusades, and with pogroms. We were persecuted, used, despised. As such, it was not difficult to detest the ecclesiastical leaders of this powerful and antagonistic institution.

Understandably, then, when new winds began to blow through the musty halls of the Vatican, Jews were thrilled, but in their subconscious lingered 2000 years of bitter memories. The Jewish mind and heart were in conflict - the mind saw the dawn of a new day in the relations between Jews and Catholics, but the heart could not forgot the indignities and humiliations that we suffered during the long and often bloody history of the Church.

The great change took place in 1962 under the unforgettable Pope John XXIII when he convened what became known as Vatican II, at which time profound changes were made in Catholic theory and practice. No longer were Catholics permitted to assert the guilt of Jews for the crucifixion, thus banishing deicide from the Church's lexicon concerning Jews. Henceforth, Jews were to be considered "most dear to God." The Church now recognized that the covenant between God and Israel was ongoing, eternal - and not, as in past Catholic thinking, invalidated. And Jews were not to be targeted for conversion.

The next pope, Paul V, confirmed the teachings of Vatican II. For a number of years, the new ideas percolated slowly, until the recently deceased Pope John Paul II gave them enormous impetus by the force of his own personality. But in practice, there still was a long way to go. A giant, world-wide institution numbering about a billion members and a record going back almost a score of centuries cannot turn around suddenly. A train speeding along at 150 m.p.h. cannot stop on the proverbial dime.

The late Pope, who to such a large extent was responsible for upending the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, enlarged and expanded the Vatican II views on the Jews. His actions concerning Jews were the result of his religious thought - he was an accomplished student of philosophy and theology - and his personal experience as a Polish priest who had many Jewish friends, most of whom were killed in the Shoah. In 1991 he established diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. He publicly expressed contrition (he used the Hebrew word Teshuvah) for the sins of leaders of the Church towards Jews for centuries it indulged its anti-Semitism. He visited the synagogue in Rome - and the fact that it was a Roman synagogue made the act so much more meaningful. He went to the Kotel to pray and toured Yad Vashem. And in his personal will, as we recently learned, he mentioned only two individuals by name - a priest who was his long-time assistant, and Rabbi Toaff, the Chief Rabbi of Rome.

This does not mean that his record was perfect in all respects. His efforts to give saint status to Pius XII are one example of misguided policy. Koheleth's statement that there is no man so perfect that he does only good and no wrong, is as applicable to non-Jews as it is to Jews. We must also remember that in addition to his palpable love for Jews and respect for Judaism, the Pope has responsibility for the welfare of his flock the world over, and that political considerations are always inevitable. I am reminded of the time Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was listening to the lobbying by American Jewish leaders about Israel, and he reminded them, "Gentleman, remember that I am Secretary of State of the U.S., not Israel." Some of us impatient Jews should always remember that, indeed, the Pope is Catholic.

Yeshiva students have longer memories and more sensitive outlooks than their non-religious contemporaries. We find it hard to ignore two millennia of Catholic persecution of our forebears - and indeed we should not forget. But we are Jews, and we know the meaning of hakarat hatov, and Pope John Paul II has proven that he most certainly deserves that gratitude.

I have no hesitation in considering him one of the leading Hasidei Umot Haolam who, according to our sacred tradition, are assured a "portion of the World-to-Come." I pray that his successor be no less benevolent towards us and no less friendly to the State of Israel in this world.

Rabbi Dr. Noman Lamm is chancellor of Yeshiva University. 


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