The Pope and the Jews: A failure to communicate?

The Catholic “silence” over Benedict XVI’s self-made SSPX fiasco was raised earlier, with a focus on the relative absence of strong American voices. But overseas, at least, and from the Pope’s native Germany in particular, objections are being raised as the furor grows among both Catholic and Jewish communities.
The latest comes from the Vatican’s chief ecumenist, Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German like Ratzinger, but considered a much more pastoral figure. According to this Reuters write-up, Kasper told Vatican Radio’s German-language program that he was not consulted on the pontiff’s decision to rehabilitate the schismatic Traditionalist bishops–one an overt Holocaust denier, the rest associated with dodgy statements on Jews.

“There wasn’t enough talking with each other in the Vatican and there are no longer checks to see where problems could arise,” said Cardinal Walter Kasper in a blunt interview with Vatican Radio’s German program, broadcast on Monday night…
…Vatican sources and officials had said privately the decision was taken without wide consultation. Kasper, who was left in the dark, appeared to be venting his frustration.
“Of course, explaining something after the fact is always much more difficult than if one did it right away. I would have also liked to see more communication in advance,” said the cardinal, who like Pope Benedict is German.
“I’m watching this debate with great concern. Nobody can be pleased that misunderstandings have turned up. Mistakes in the management of the curia (Vatican administration) have certainly also been made. I want to say that very clearly,” he said.


This “mistakes have been made” line is a recurring theme even as others speak out about the pope’s move. At “Whispers,” Rocco has a good roundup, including the archbishop of Hamburg saying Benedict should have lifted the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson only if he had recanted his “unspeakable” claim that the Nazis did not use gas chambers. Archbishop Werner Thissen also criticized the Vatican for “sloppy” management. Also, Bishop Gebhard Fuerst of Rottenburg-Stuttgart “branded the rehabilitation ‘a betrayal of trust, especially among Jewish sisters and brothers in their relationship to the church’ and and last week, Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, the bishop in Pope Benedict’s home city of Regensburg, said Williamson would not be welcome in its churches.”
Rocco also noted that Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, a close friend and former student of Professor Ratzinger, said in an interview with Austria’s state broadcaster that “he who denies the Holocaust cannot be rehabilitated within the church.” (Such statements in themselves could be cause for debate.)
But Schonborn also distinguished “between the nature of Benedict’s ‘intent’ for an ‘outstretched hand’ and a ‘mistake’ on the part of his advisers that failed to ‘examine the matter carefully’,” Rocco writes.
The pope’s commincation apparatus also came under fire by another Jesuit, Fr. Thomas Reese, a leading political scientist of the church, who told Reuters:


This and other controversies point to a fatal systemic flaw in the Benedict papacy that is destroying his effectiveness as pope: He does not consult experts who might challenge his views and inclinations,” said Father Tom Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Centre at Georgetown University.
“He is surrounded by people who are not as smart as he is and who would never think of questioning him. A smart man surrounded by less than smart people will always get in more trouble than an average man who consults smart people who are experts in their fields,” said Reese, a leading U.S. Jesuit.

There may be something to be said for blaming a bad communications strategy, but I think this can also be a way of deflecting responsibility for that strategy from Benedict–after all, similar uproars have resulted from his statements many times before, as pope and as cardinal, and they often came after advisers strongly urged him to take another course or to do more prepratory work. Moreover, the man and the message must also be looked at for what they are, and for what no manner of p.r. could finesse.
As Charlotte Knobloch, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said: “We’ve heard the pope’s speech about Muslims in Regensburg, another statement about judging the Protestant church, then about evangelising Jews, the old Latin Mass, and now the rehabilitiation of a Holocaust denier. I don’t think this is a coincidence. The pope is a highly educated man. He says what’s being thought in the Church.”

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posted February 3, 2009 at 1:53 pm

Failure to communicate would be an understatement. While I don’t question the pope’s motives, I do think that he needs some lessons in how to relate effectively and sensitively with people– especially people of other faiths.

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Meredith Gould

posted February 3, 2009 at 3:27 pm

Would it come as any surprise to anyone reading your blog that my book about the ministry of church communications has not be particularly well received among RC clergy? Laity love it. I’ve been told that clergy are “offended” that I’ve devoted a chapter to the structure and culture of church that enables these gross communication snafus.

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Your Name

posted February 3, 2009 at 5:44 pm

Benedict –whatever the hairspliting explanations of the meaning of lifiting the excommuncations of the SSPX bishops== is step by misstep destroying his papacy as a moral voice in the world. A leading issue is how the religions of the world contribute to the peace or disorder of the world. Starting with Regensburg unto Bp. Williamson, his Holiness has unintentionally stirred the pot in unhelpful ways. He does seem to operate in a social vacuum — a malady common to academics. Will he lear from these mistakes? I am not betting on it.

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Okonkwo Ifeanyi

posted February 3, 2009 at 8:11 pm

the pope views and remarksevidently have to be retouched before they reach the public so as to remove abrasive language

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The Dissident

posted February 3, 2009 at 10:50 pm

“Communication problems,” oh sure. In much the same way the Iraq war was beset with “Intelligence problems,” I have no doubt the pope’s actions convey a very specific agenda and worldview. Which is a shame, as this can only erode whatever good was left in my childhood faith.

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