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The Vatican Regrets

Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past for the Doctrine of the Faith, December 1999

by Rev. Christopher Begg, Msgr. Bruno Forte, Rev. Sebastian Karotemprel S.D.B., Msgr. Roland Minnerath, Rev. Thomas Norris, Rev. Rafael Salazar Cárdenas M.Sp.S., Msgr. Anton Strukelj. Issued from the Vatican by Cardinal Ratzinger of the Congregation. Avai

Pope John Paul II deserves great credit for his work to correct injustices inflicted by Catholics on those of other faiths. He has reached out not only to Jews but to Orthodox and Protestant Christians; but his greatest efforts, his repeated ones, have to do with the Jews. He has issued a statement, We Remember, lamenting the Holocaust and many Catholics’ inadequate response to it. He publicly and ceremonially apologized to the Jews at a Lenten service this year. He visited a synagogue and in March visited Israel and manifested sincere anguish at what Jews have suffered. There are many signs that these moves have had their desired effect. One indication of that comes from two articles by the Israeli novelist Amos Oz in the Italian paper Corriere della Sera, one just before the Pope’s trip to Israel and one during it.

In the first article, an open letter to the Pope, Oz remembered past insults—e.g., some nuns on a train who asked him how Jews could have killed so good a man as Jesus. The effect of similar affronts had embittered his family. When, as a boy, he asked his aunts about Christians, they were no more willing to answer him than they were when he asked questions about sex. He finally went to his grandmother to learn what it was that divided Christians from Jews. She said that Christians think the Messiah has come once and will come again, but the Jews are still waiting for him. She philosophically wondered, why not just wait and see? If the Messiah appears and says, “Nice to see you again,” the Christians will have been right. If he says, “Happy to make your acquaintance,” the Jews will. But Oz’s only surviving aunt was not so philosophical on the eve of the Pope’s visit. She wanted no mere words from the man. Nothing would satisfy her but the Pope’s ordering the Palestinians to leave the Holy Land.

During the Pope’s visit, the paper returned to Oz for an interview. Had his aunt softened her resentment?No, he said: “Only if the Pope had torn the cross from his neck and fallen on the ground to beg forgiveness for the historical sins of the Church against the Jews might she have allowed herself a mere flicker of acceptance.” But Oz himself had been profoundly affected by the Pope’s actions and words in Israel. “Generations on generations of Jews would have paid I know not what to have seen what we were part of today in Jerusalem…. It is an epochal turning point, a revolution of great historical consequence.” The Pope deserves credit for doing what none of his predecessors ever did. The generous response of Amos Oz is a real cause for hope.

Is the matter settled, then? One can wonder, since the very terms in which the apologies are couched and explained seem to reopen questions while trying to close them. That problem haunts, for instance, the Vatican document Memory and Reconciliation, which is meant to supply a theology of apology. Prepared by a committee of theologians at the Pope’s direc-tion and released in conjunction with the Pope’s Lenten apology, the document was signed by the Pope’s principal doctrinal spokesman, Cardinal Ratzinger, the head of the former Holy Office (the historic home of the Roman Inquisition). This official explanation of the scope and purpose of papal apologies complains that the Church’s “recognition of faults is for the most part one-sided”—a reference to what is seen as a lack of response—and goes on to say that “reciprocity,” though not a condition of the apologies, would complete the “purification of memory” that is the Pope’s goal. This has made some conservative Catholics take the attitude, “Will nothing satisfy them?”—encouraging the same kind of hostility the apologies were meant to dissolve. Even the Vatican’s own statement recognizes that some Catholics feel the Pope’s action “is exploited by the Church’s detractors, who are satisfied to see the Church confirm the prejudices they had of her.” The impression given is that the rest of the world is not living up to the Pope’s moral demands on it.

But some of the unease felt at the terms of apology stems from the curiously sidelong nature of every statement made so far. The apologies are ever approaching and never reaching the real nature of the Church’s past persecution of the Jews. It should be a simple matter to say, for instance, that Pope Pius XI was encouraging that persecution in 1928 when he abolished a Catholic ecumenical group, the Friends of Israel, because it opposed calling Jews deicides. Pius’s Holy Office stated that the Church must recognize “the continual blindness of this people,” and added that the Friends of Israel would be disbanded as an organization because it had “a manner of acting and thinking that is contrary to the sense and spirit of the Church, the thought of the Holy Fathers and the liturgy.”1 The document was referring to such “Holy Fathers” as Saint John Chrysostom, who preached repeatedly against the Jews as Christoktonoi, “Christ-killers,” and to the passage in the liturgy that referred to “the perfidious Jews” right up to the time of Pope John XXIII, who finally removed this phrase from the Passion Week prayers. It is a maxim of Church history that lex orandi lex credendi—“the norm of prayer is the norm of faith”—and such was the prayer that the Church voiced for centuries. No wonder that some of the violence against Jews recurred just at the time this prayer was being said. In the sixteenth century Venetian authorities had to lock Jews inside the Ghetto during Holy Week to protect them from mobs.

Even the draft encyclical prepared in 1938, at Pius XI’s bidding, to condemn Nazi actions against the Jews quoted the document suppressing the Friends of Israel and blamed pre-Nazi tensions with the Jews on “a historic enmity of the Jewish people to Christianity,”deploring “the spiritual dangers to which contact with the Jews can expose souls,” the same dangers that had led Jews “to ally themselves with, or actively to promote revolutionary movements that aim to destroy society and to obliterate from the minds of men the knowledge, reverence, and love of God.”2 Pius XI died before this encyclical could be released, but it was in line with former papal statements.

What could be simpler or more forthright than for the Pope to repudiate Pius’s ban on the Friends of Israel, to apologize for that and similar statements throughout Church history (including those of John Chrysostom)? After all, Pius XI said those statements were binding on the Church. That was the reason for repressing the Friends of Israel. But none of John Paul II’s apologies has so far admitted that official statements were ever to blame for the hatred of Jews. In fact, statements by the teaching church (the Magisterium, in theologians’ language) are specifically exempted from any need for apology in Memory and Reconciliation: “Vatican II distinguishes between the indefectible fidelity of the Church and the weaknesses of her members.” Thus “behavior contrary to the Gospel by one or more persons vested with authority does not involve per se her magisterial charisma, which is assured by the Lord to the Church’s bishops, and consequently does not require any magisterial act of reparation.”

The customary defense of this distinction is that the extraordinary Magisterium, formally invoked in infallible statements, never condemned the Jews. But Vatican officials are especially insistent now that the ordinary (non-infallible) Magisterium is binding on Catholics. (Its statements on ordination of women, for instance, are called “irreformable,” though not technically infallible.) And in any case, the Pope has not apologized for any teachings even of the ordinary Magisterium (like Pius XI’s on the Friends of Israel). It is worth repeating:no apology has been made for the teaching Church’s statements, at any level of formality.

In fact, a little dance of words is gone through every time reference is made to past injustices calling for apology. It is never “the Church” that erred, just its “sons and daughters.” It is always the weakness of these children, not any error of their mother, that is at fault. Over two dozen times this formula is used, in several variations, in Memory and Reconciliation. Indeed, the Church is called on to voice regret at her children’s weakness, since they are apparently not able to voice their own repentance. She must “express profound regret for the weaknesses of so many of her sons and daughters.” The teaching Church is not only sinless itself. It compares itself, blasphemously, to the sinless Jesus who suffered for others’ sins—thus not only exculpating “the Church,”but deifying her: the Church “always acknowledges as her own her sinful sons and daughters…in really taking upon herself the sin of those whom she has generated in Baptism. This is analogous to the way Christ Jesus took on the sin of the world.”

This constant distinction between “the Church” and its children, or members, or erring sons and daughters, goes against the Vatican Council’s definition of the Church as the whole “people of God.” The Vatican slips back into the habit of calling the teaching Church “the Church,” making it the head of the Mystical body when only Christ can be that. But when the whole praying Church, taught by the teaching Church, referred to “the perfidious Jews,” this was the Church itself in error, not just its “sons and daughters,” as Memory and Reconciliation would have it. Lex orandi lex credendi.

The continual clearing of its own skirts gives the teaching Church’s apologies a form of self-praise that does not comport with penitence. In fact, the Pope is praised for teaching others to be honest with themselves—as if he were not responding to calls for greater truthfulness in the world itself:

In this perspective, the actions undertaken by the Holy Father, and those requested by him, regarding the faults of the past have an exemplary and prophetic value for religions as much as for governments and nations, beyond being of value to the Catholic church….

The utilitarian nature of such apologizing emerges when the Vatican expresses pride that its apologies, so carefully keeping the Church’s teaching authority clear of blame, have added to the credibility of her other statements:

Many have noted the increased credibility of ecclesial pronouncements that has resulted from this way of acting…they strengthen her credibility…such acts can increase the credibility of the Christian message.3

This is apology as propaganda. “The Church”is not only vindicated but actually gains by her apologies, and leads the way for others to embrace the truth, rather than lagging behind others in the recognition of such historical wrongs as the Inquisition, the war on science, the denigration of women, and the failure to denounce pogroms. The Vatican congratulates itself that “the unconditional trust in the power of Truth which the Pope has shown has met with a generally favorable reception.” There is such a thing, here, as a triumphalism of apology.

And the Church does not only ask for forgiveness for “her sons and daughters,” but offers forgiveness to others, though they may not reciprocate. “This offer of forgiveness appears particularly meaningful when one thinks of the many persecutions suffered by Christians in the course of history.” An interplay of apology and forgiveness is presented through the document as a “purification of memory,”which puts past wrongs to rest—without facing them. It would take just a few simple words to admit, for example, that Pius XI was wrong in suppressing a group because it departed from the condemnations of the Jews contained in “the Holy Fathers and the liturgy.”There is no substitute for that kind of honesty and truth. The steps toward reconciliation that the Pope has in fact made are all laudable; but they are not what the Vatican claims—the Holy Father’s “unconditional trust in the power of Truth.” They are asymptotic moves toward truth, which by definition do not reach it.

  1. 1

    Holy Office document cited in Georges Passelecq and Bernard Suchecky, The Hidden Encyclical of Pius XI (Harcourt Brace, 1997), pp. 97-98.

  2. 2

    Passelecq and Suchecky, The Hidden Encyclical of Pius XI, pp. 251-252.

  3. 3

    This claim is blithely made when polls show Catholics themselves expressing incredulity at “ecclesial pronouncements”on contraception, women’s ordination, a married priesthood, and artificial insemination (condemned because it involves masturbation to collect the semen).

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