All eyes now turn to Jerusalem. Not satisfied with Pope John Paul II’s general apology to the world on Sunday, some Jewish leaders are hoping the pontiff will come through with an unprecedented and specific declaration about Christian responsibility for the Holocaust and 2,000 years of anti-Semitic acts when he visits the Yad Vashem memorial next Thursday.
He will meet with survivors from the Polish town of Wadowice, where the Pope was born 79 years ago.
But several Jewish interfaith experts said the Pope missed a historic chance before a worldwide audience to deal with Christian accountability for the Holocaust when he delivered a sweeping papal apology during Mass from St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
“It was a great disappointment because I think he missed a great opportunity in history to rebuild Catholic-Jewish relations,” said Rabbi Leon Klenicki, interfaith affairs director for the Anti-Defamation League. He said the Pope’s message of forgiveness “was so generalized it was completely benign.”
During his apology the ailing Pope — dressed in the purple robes of penitence, and leaning on his silver staff to steady his trembling hands from Parkinson’s disease — did not specifically mention Jews.
That task fell to Edward Cardinal Cassidy, president of the Vatican’s Commission on Religious Relations to the Jews. Cardinal Cassidy read a prayer saying: “Let us pray that in recalling the sufferings endured by the people of Israel throughout history, Christians will acknowledge the sins committed by not a few of their number against the people of the Covenant and the blessings, and in this way will purify their hearts.”
The Pope then responded: “God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the Nations: We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.”
Rabbi Klenicki argued that the Pope needed to be more specific.
“Is ambiguity the essence of Catholic understanding of Judaism and our destiny?” he asked. “I expected at this point in history for him to have denounced totally and completely anti-Semitism in his speech of forgiveness and refer to the Holocaust, which was theologically prepared by Christianity and carried out by Christians.”
While also disappointed about the absence of a Holocaust reference, interfaith expert Rabbi James Rudin said he anticipates that the Pope will deliver more at Yad Vashem.
“I’m very hopeful that on March 23, in the capital of Israel, that we will have more coming from the Pope with specificity,” said Rabbi Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.
Nevertheless, the true test is if the apology message filters down to the pews.
“Will it now mean an intense look whether the teachings of the Church prepared the seedbed of poisonous weeds that grew into the Holocaust, the Nazi ideology? That’s the great question,” Rabbi Rudin said.
Seymour Reich, chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, an umbrella group of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and lay organizations, said it was “hard to comprehend” how the Pope failed to make direct reference to the Holocaust this week. He hoped that in Jerusalem, the Pope “will issue a statement [to] acknowledge the anti-Jewish policies and teachings leading up to the Holocaust and address the issue of the Church’s silence during the Holocaust period.”
But some Jewish interfaith representatives hailed the Pope’s apology and criticized negative Jewish comments.
“In the eyes of some Jewish individuals, whatever he does will not be going far enough,” said Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, executive director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding of Sacred Heart University in Connecticut. “No group is perfect or blameless. John Paul II has asked forgiveness in the name of the Catholic Church’s 1 billion members, and it is important for the Jewish people to accept such gestures.”
A group called the Rabbinic Committee for Interreligious Dialogue said it is concerned that Catholics will get “a false impression from negative Jewish responses.”
A statement by the group, whose members includes Rabbi Jack Bemporad, director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding in New Jersey, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and Rabbi Ron Kronish in Israel called the Sunday apology “this most astonishing and gratifying gesture on the part of the Church confronting its past.
“We believe that now is the time for dialogue, not diatribes, speaking to the people we respect and not through the media.”
An unusual joint statement by the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly praised the pope’s “historic liturgy of forgiveness.” And the American Jewish Congress also hailed the pontiff’s apology as a “historic turning point in the Church.”
The director of Yad Vashem, Avner Shalev, called Sunday’s day of pardon both “significant” and “historic.” But “[the Pope] has to pay tribute and commemorate the remembrance of the Holocaust, and I know that he is going to address” it, Shalev said in Jerusalem.
A key theological doctrine the Pope may tackle at Yad Vashem is whether to take the monumental step and declare the Church — as an institution — to have sinned during the Holocaust.
More likely he will repeat the standard position that the Church, as “the bride of Christ,” cannot sin as an institution but its members can do wrong. This Church doctrine has been a sticking point for some Jews as well as Catholic scholars.
“It’s a distinction without a difference,” said Father Richard McBrien, a noted Catholic theologian at the University of Notre Dame. He said the concept that the Church can’t sin is a relatively new argument for the Vatican, developed in the 20th century.
Indeed, Father McBrien noted that French and German bishops in recent Holocaust apologies have stated the Church as an institution failed during the Holocaust.
And he said Jewish leaders are not unreasonable to request, in a diplomatic way, that the Vatican catch up to the bishops. (Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the National American Boards of Rabbis, said his group plans to push other European bishops’ conferences to adopt similar statements as the landmark French and German documents.)
“There aren’t many popes who have gone as far as he has, but I think they have to go one step farther and acknowledge the sinfulness of the Church itself in some of these activities,” said Father McBrien.
“I really think it’s likely that at Yad Vashem he will be more explicit about the Holocaust. Maybe he’s saving something for dramatic effect.”