Pope John Paul II condemned Friday the actions of many Christians before and during the Holocaust, telling a Vatican conference that the Christian world contributed to the rise of antiSemitism and then failed to fight it as Jews were being slaughtered during World War II.
But while the pope’s statement was his strongest on the subject to date, he stopped short of issuing an apology for actions or inactions of the church or those of his controversial wartime predecessor, Pope Pius XII. Some Jewish groups have demanded an apology and criticized the Vatican for failing to come fully to terms with its role.
“In the Christian world - I am not saying on the part of the church as such - the wrong and unjust interpretations of the New Testament relating to the Jewish people and their supposed guilt (in Christ’s death) circulated for too long, engendering sentiments of hostility toward this people,” said the pontiff, 77.
“This contributed to a lulling of consciences, so that when Europe was engulfed by a wave of persecutions inspired by a pagan anti-Semitism … the spiritual resistance of many was not what humanity had a right to expect from the disciples of Christ.”
The remarks by the pope, delivered in French at a Vatican symposium on the roots of anti-Semitism in Christian teachings since the time of Christ, were blunt by the Vatican’s standards. Until the 1960s, the idea of Jewish guilt for the death of Christ was accepted by the church. Although that concept has since been repudiated, it wasn’t until today that the Vatican has specifically associated it with the rise of Hitler’s Germany.
“This is probably the (pope’s) clearest acknowledgment of the role of bad Christian teachings … in paving the way for the success of the Nazis and anti-Semitism,” said Eugene Fisher, an ecumenical specialist of the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington.
But to some Jewish organizations, the pontiff’s comments, while welcome, did not go far enough.
“The statement is a breath of fresh air in what has been … a dismal record of the church’s failure to say these things openly and honestly,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. He added that a papal apology would be useful as “a lesson to future generations that the church got the message and it will never happen again - that everyone has to assume responsibility and no one is above the spiritual or legal law.”