The Vatican expressed remorse Monday for the failure of some Christians to defend Jews against Nazi annihilation but denied that centuries of anti-Semitism within the Roman Catholic Church contributed to the Holocaust.
The long-awaited document, which was criticized immediately by Jewish leaders, heaped praise on the wartime pope, Pius XII, who long has been accused by Jews of failing to speak out forcefully enough against Nazi atrocities.
“We deeply regret the errors and failures of those sons and daughters of the church,” said the statement, “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” which Pope John Paul II has promised for a decade.
The Vatican hoped the document would go a long way toward easing mistrust between Catholics and Jews. But many Jewish leaders around the world said they are discouraged by the statement.
“We are disappointed and saddened,” said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Added Robert S. Rifkind, president of the American Jewish Committee, “It tells the truth, but not the whole truth.”
Jewish leaders argued that the Vatican document failed to acknowledge adequately the role that centuries of anti-Semitic church teaching played in paving the way for the Nazi genocide of 6 million Jews.
The Vatican statement stressed that the Holocaust was not inspired by Christianity. The Holocaust, the document said, was “the work of a thoroughly modern neo-pagan regime. Its anti-Semitism had its roots outside of Christianity.”
But, Jewish leaders maintained, many Christians were intimately involved in the Holocaust.
“The people who killed Jews during the day then went to church on Sunday,” said Foxman, a Holocaust survivor. “They were not aberrations. They were part and parcel of what Western civilization was.
“Two thousand years of teaching contempt of Jews by the church was part of the underpinning of the Holocaust. We expected more from this pontiff who has been so courageous in reconciling the Church with the Jewish people.”
Many Jewish leaders were particularly scornful of the Vatican statement’s portrayal of Pius XII as a wise diplomat who helped save many Jews.
While individual priests and nuns risked their lives to save Jews during World War II, the Vatican remained silent, even though, historians say, its hierarchy knew about the genocide being waged by the Nazis.
According to religious scholars, Pius XII did help rescue Jews in Rome in 1943 and 1944. But Jews say he could have saved countless more lives had he been outspoken years earlier.
“We believe that the historical record does not allow us to disregard the harsh fact of the refusal of important church leaders to take even those minimal steps of compassion and rescue that were clearly within their power to provide,” said Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress.
Vatican historians state that Pius XII chose to be circumspect because he believed protesting would only make things worse for Jews as well as Catholics. Jewish leaders remain unpersuaded and have repeatedly called on the Vatican to make available all documents related to its conduct during World War II.
Because of its role as a moral leader, the Vatican has been under intense pressure finally to confront the church’s behavior during the Holocaust. It was only after the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965 that the church officially lifted its condemnation of Jews for the death of Jesus.
In a brief introduction to the Vatican statement, the pope urged Christians to “examine themselves for the responsibility they too have for the evils of our times.” John Paul said he hoped the document would “help to heal the wounds of past misunderstandings and injustices.”
In some of its most powerful language, the statement did acknowledge the culpability of Christians who failed to protect Jews from the Nazis.
“We cannot know how many Christians … were horrified at the disappearance of their Jewish neighbors and yet were not strong enough to raise their voices in protest,” the document said. “For Christians this heavy burden of conscience of their brothers and sisters during the Second World War must be a call to penitence.”
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