After Pius move, Pope Benedict practices delicate Jewish dance

By Ruth Ellen Gruber · December 31,   2009

ROME (JTA) — For at least the third time in his papacy, Pope Benedict’s XVI   is doing the Jewish dance that takes him one step back, one step forward.

The step back came when Benedict made a move in mid-December to bring   Holocaust-era Pope Pius XII a bit closer to sainthood. The step forward will   come in mid-January, when Benedict visits Rome’s main synagogue — a trip   planned long before Benedict’s move on Pius.

The question is what impact the visit will have on ruffled Catholic-Jewish   relations.

“It is an important event, a milestone in the dialogue,” Rome’s chief rabbi,   Riccardo Di Segni, told Vatican Radio about the planned synagogue visit. “We   have great expectations for what it can mean in terms of the general   climate.”

“If we stop at the things that divide us deeply, we won’t get anywhere,” he   said. “The differences are important to move forward.”

Benedict’s visit — set to take place Jan. 17, the Catholic Church’s annual   Day of Dialogue with Judaism — will come a month after he recognized the   religiously defined “heroic virtues” of both John Paul II and Pius XII, putting   them one step away from beatification.

The Polish-born John Paul made fostering Catholic-Jewish relations a hallmark   of his papacy. But critics have long accused Pius of having turned a blind eye   to Jewish suffering during the Holocaust. The Vatican and other supporters say   Pius acted behind the scenes to help Jews. Gary Krupp, a Jew and the head of   Pave the Way, a nonsectarian foundation that promotes interfaith dialogue,   suggested in a recent Op-Ed in The New York Post that criticism of Pius XII   began in the 1960s as part of a Soviet smear campaign against the Catholic   Church, which at the time was profoundly anti-Communist. The Anti-Defamation   League responded with a call on the pope to disregard Krupp’s “flawed”   evidence.

Scholars and Jewish organizations for years have called on the Vatican to   fully open its secret archives in order to clarify the issue before Pius is   moved any further toward sainthood. Benedict’s decision to green-light Pius’s   advance drew widespread criticism from Jewish bodies. While many Jewish   organizational leaders said it was up to the Vatican to decide whom to honor   with sainthood, they renewed calls for the archives to be opened.

“As long as the archives of Pope Pius about the crucial period 1939 to 1945   remain closed, and until a consensus on his actions — or inaction — concerning   the persecution of millions of Jews in the Holocaust is established, a   beatification is inopportune and premature,” the World Jewish Congress’   president, Ronald Lauder, said in a statement.

The Vatican responded with a conciliatory statement saying Benedict’s move   was in no way “a hostile act towards the Jewish people” and should not be   considered “an obstacle on the path of dialogue between Judaism and the Catholic   Church.”

The uproar over Pius XII is not the first episode where the Vatican had to   backpedal, clarify or explain a Pope Benedict decision that angered Jews.

In 2008, Jewish protests over the reinstatement of a Good Friday Latin prayer   that appeared to call for the conversion of the Jews led the Vatican to change   some of the prayer’s wording. Still, Italian rabbis were so angry over the issue   that they boycotted participation in last year’s January 17 Day of Dialogue with   Judaism.

One year ago, the pope’s lifting of a 1988 excommunication order against   Richard Williamson, a renegade Bishop who turned out to be a Holocaust denier,   sparked outrage among political figures and mainstream Catholics as well as   Jews. Williamson was one of four bishops rehabilitated as part of the pope’s   effort to bring their ultra-conservative movement, the Society of St. Pius X,   back within the mainstream Catholic fold.

The Vatican ordered Williamson to recant and admitted that the pope had not   been aware of his views — despite a video of Williamson that was widely   circulated on YouTube.

The pope himself issued a strong message of support to a visiting delegation   from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and   announced to the group the plans for his May 2009 visit to Israel, his first to   the Jewish state as pontiff.

Analysts said Benedict’s move on Pius is part of the pope’s effort to shore   up conservative forces within the church.

“The pope apparently has chosen to balance his unquestionable commitment to   the Catholic Church’s good relations with world Judaism with his commitment to   recuperating the religious right wing of Catholicism,” said Lisa Palmieri   Billig, the American Jewish Committee’s liaison to the Vatican. “Obviously his   path is strewn with warring obstacles.”

Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, an expert in interfaith relations and the vice   president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, said, “The great struggle   of this moment is shoring up the most traditional elements of his church as he   fights the growing secularization and Islamification of the European stage,   which is right before his eyes.”

Bretton-Granatoor said that the visit to the synagogue in Rome is “far more   telling about the state of Catholic-Jewish relations” than the move to elevate   Pius.

His visit to the shul in two weeks will mark only the second time that a pope   has crossed the Tiber River from the Vatican to visit the synagogue in Rome. As   pope, Benedict has visited synagogues in his native Germany and in the United   States, and he made the trip to Israel last May.

But the Rome synagogue has particular significance. Rome is said to have the   oldest continuous Jewish community in the Diaspora. The visit to the synagogue   in 1986 by Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, was the first time any   pope had set foot in any shul since the time of St. Peter.

Bretton-Granatoor put some of Benedict’s apparent gaffes down to differences   in style and substance that set this pope apart from his predecessor.

John Paul “was an actor and a pastor — he understood that every gesture had   meaning,”  Bretton-Granatoor said. Benedict, on the other hand, “was an academic   and was never a pastor — he doesn’t get seem to get it in the same way as his   predecessor.”

He added, “This pope is vastly different from his predecessor. He is a German   and, therefore, cannot speak about the Shoah in the way that [John Paul], a   Pole, could.”