Pope Benedict’s Blind Spot on Holocaust

Ignatius Press made history last month when it published the English version of a recent interview with Pope Benedict XVI. Although German journalist Peter Seewald had twice before interviewed Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, such an interview with a reigning Pope is unprecedented. The evident trust between the two men produced a frank and revealing portrait, much of which was eclipsed by Benedict’s statement about the morality of condom use regarding HIV, the meaning and implications of which were the subject of much debate. Lost in that media frenzy were, among other things, the Pope’s perspectives on the often tense relationship between Jews and the Church.

Early on, Seewald quotes the conservative Jewish philosopher, Bernard Henri-Lévy, who asserted that “as soon as the subject turns to Benedict XVI ‘prejudices, dishonesty and even outright disinformation dominate every discussion.’” While acknowledging that he has often been misunderstood and misinterpreted, Benedict’s responses in Light of the World reveal a precise academic mind, trained to recognize the slightest nuance and to make even more subtle differentiations in his responses. Such distinctions are often challenging to follow, even for the most informed scholar, and helps illustrate, perhaps, why he has so often been misunderstood.

At the same time the interview reveals that the Pope can speak quite clearly on certain issues, particularly those involving Church doctrine. When questioned, for example, about the reauthorization of the use of the Good Friday service that contains a prayer for the conversion of Jews (and his subsequent rewording of it), the Pope responded:

I altered the text in such a way as to express our faith that Christ is the Savior for all, that there are not two channels of salvation, so that Christ is also the redeemer of the Jews, and not just of the Gentiles. But the new formulation also shifts the focus from a direct petition for the conversion of the Jews in a missionary sense to a plea that the Lord might bring about the hour of history when we may all be united.

Such a statement seems to negate the first covenant, concluded between God the Father and Abraham, which remains salvific for Jews. It also dashes the hopes of many that Pope Benedict would continue in the direction of John Paul II and work toward acknowledging the Abrahamic covenant as salvific for Jews apart from Christ.

While Pope Benedict’s relationship with Jews has not been an easy one, Peter Seewald points out that:

Israel Singer, at the time President of the World Jewish Congress [sic], stated that, already during this tenure as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger had articulated the underpinnings for the rapprochement between the two world religions. Singer went on to add that you had ‘changed the two-thousand year history of relations between Judaism and Christianity’ for the better. You were the first Pope to invite a rabbi to address a synod of bishops. You halted the beatification process of a French priest who was alleged to have made anti-Semitic speeches. You have visited more synagogues than all of your predecessors in the papal office.

Despite the glowing praise, events have shown on numerous occasions that Pope Benedict has ignored the intrinsic connection between Christian anti-Semitism and Nazi racial anti-Semitism, identifying the latter solely with modernistic neo-paganism as though it had no other roots in Christian history. Even when Seewald poses a question about German responsibility for the Holocaust, Benedict fails to address it directly:

As you have indicated, in Germany we have a complex, contradictory, and dramatic history. A history full of guilt and full of suffering. But also a history with human greatness. A history of holiness. A history of great intellectual achievement. In that respect there is not simply one German charism.

As noted earlier, however, Benedict can be quite clear on some issues, showing at times a keen awareness of the subtleties of Jewish-Christian dialogue. In response to a question about Pope John Paul’s referencing of Jews as “our elder brothers,” Benedict explains:

The phrase ‘elder brothers,’ which had already been used by John XXIII, is not welcome to Jews. The reason is that, in the Jewish tradition, the ‘elder brother’—Esau—is also the brother who gets rejected. One can still use it, because it expresses an important point. But it is true that they are also our ‘fathers in the faith.’ And this way of putting it illustrates perhaps even more clearly the character of our relationship to each other.

Still, in regard to what may be the most contentious issue of all—the beatification process for Pope Pius XII, who reigned during the Holocaust—Benedict replies:

Actually, the recognition of heroic virtue, which, as you have already said, is not an assessment of his political and historical achievements as such, had already been worked on for two years. At first, I did not grant my signature, but I ordered an inspection of the unpublished archival records, because I wanted to be absolutely sure. Obviously it was impossible to evaluate the papers, of which there are hundreds of thousands, in a rigorously scientific manner. But it was possible to reconfirm our original impression of the whole and to see that the records confirm the positive things we know, but not the negative things that are alleged.

The question then arises: Who has been taking on this research in the Vatican Secret Archives? Earlier in the interview, Benedict admits that he “cannot read all the newspapers and meet with an unlimited number of people. But there are, I believe, few people who have as many meetings as I do. Most important of all to me are my meetings with the bishops from all over the world.” It’s doubtful that the bishops today or in the past have provided the Pope with extensive insight on the historical record of Pius XII.

Benedict does offer light on who is helping to influence Pius’s beatification process, telling Seewald that: “It just recently came to light that Pacelli [Pius XII], already as Secretary of State, had written to all the bishops of the world in 1938, instructing them to take pains to ensure that visas were generously granted to Jews emigrating from Germany. For his part, he did all that he could to save people.”

Such a reply reveals that Benedict has been listening to the historians associated with Pave the Way, an organization founded to “promote tolerance between religions,” and run by Gary Krupp, a retired medical equipment dealer* determined to have Pius XII canonized. Dr. Michael Hesemann, an independent historian from Germany who previously produced several works on UFOs, is one of the organization’s primary researchers. Back in July Hesemann claimed that he had uncovered a document proving that Eugenio Pacelli, as Papal Secretary of State, encouraged Catholic bishops to assist Catholics of Jewish heritage with obtaining Visas following the horrors of Kristallnacht (1938).

Dr. Paul O’Shea, a historian from Australia and author of A Cross too Heavy: Eugenio Pacelli, Politics and the Jews of Europe 1917-1943, has clearly refuted Hesemann’s assertion and demonstrated that the document Hesemann claims is new has been available to researchers for years. Needless to say, O’Shea’s balanced work on Pacelli has been generally ignored by the Holy See as have the works of Michael Phayer, Susan Zuccotti, and Hubert Wolf. Instead, the Holy See seems to favor only those historians who shine a positive light on Pius XII.

Unsurprisingly, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have honored Krupp for his work in Jewish-Catholic relations by first naming him a Knight Commander in the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great and then awarding him a Silver Star of this order.

Back in 2003, Pope John Paul II also honored Sister Dr. Margherita Marchione, a sister of the Religious Teachers Filippini, with the papal award Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross for her research on Pius XII. Despite earning a doctorate from Columbia University, Marchione’s works often reveal little concern for historical method as she blatantly twists the historical evidence in defense of Pius XII. Likewise, the relator of Pius XII’s cause and professor emeritus of the Gregorian University, Father Peter Gumpel, S.J., uses lawyer and amateur historian Ronald Rychlak as a historical consultant.

It’s difficult to take Pope Benedict seriously, then, when he makes this concluding statement on Pius XII: “The decisive thing is what he did and what he tried to do, and on that score we really must acknowledge, I believe, that he was one of the great righteous men and that he saved more Jews than anyone else.”

Recalling his meetings with the victims of clerical sexual abuse, Benedict said: “Actually I could not say anything special at all to them. I was able to tell them that it affects me very deeply. That I suffer with them. And that was not just an expression, but it really touches my heart. And I was able to tell them that the Church will do everything possible so that this does not happen again, and that we intend to help them as well as we can.”

Unfortunately, despite the Church’s role in producing and tolerating centuries of Christian anti-Semitism neither Pope Benedict nor any Pope before him has said the same to Jews. 

*Gary Krupp was initially identified as a medical equipment salesman.