Beliefnet
In the mid-1950s, Golda Meir wrote a letter to Pope Pius XII thanking him for his notable efforts to save Jews during the years of the Holocaust. This statement was immediately contested by survivors and by scholars who insisted that this was wildly exaggerated, for Pius XlI's record during the war years had been, in their view, one of indifference relieved by a few occasional positive acts of help and money. The Israeli authorities offered no public answer to these objections. But at the time, I learned through friends in the prime minister's office that the statement was made because Israeli authorities felt such gestures were necessary to persuade the Vatican to recognize the State of Israel.

In recent days, I have encountered a comparable situation. The leaders of the rabbinic bodies of Reform and Conservative Judaism have issued a joint statement hailing the pope's visit to the Holy Land as a profound turning point in Jewish-Catholic relations, an act of reconciliation of historic proportions. When I asked one of the people who drafted this statement for the rabbis whether he really believed that Pope John Paul II would ask the Jews to forgive the church and its wartime pope for their inaction during the Holocaust, this honorable man ruefully agreed that he really did not think so. So I pressed him: Why did you really contribute to the creation of this statement? The answer that I got reminded me of Golda Meir's statement nearly one-half century ago. These religious leaders of American Jews cherish an excellent relationship with the Catholic hierarchy in America. That hierarchy gets upset if popes, past and present, are attacked. Therefore, to preserve and strengthen the goodwill and friendship that does exist in the United States, it seems permissible to tell less than the whole truth about the record of the Vatican in the 20th century.

A comparable calculus seems to be operating in some of the highest quarters of the Vatican itself. To be sure, the Second Vatican Council declared some 30 years ago that it was wrong, hurtful, and dangerous to continue to blame Jews for the crucifixion of Christ. This has been repeated over and over again by the present pope, but occasionally there is a outbreak from somewhere in the Vatican that suggests that this is only public policy. It is useful to proclaim it in a world of increasing pluralism, but this view has not yet been completely assimilated into the very essence of the faith. As recently as Sunday, March 19, Father Peter Gumpel appeared on "60 Minutes" to insist that Pius XII was a holy man of undoubted saintliness. Father Gumpel is clothed in the full authority of the priest in the Vatican who investigates candidates for sainthood; he was defending Pius XII against his critics.

Later that day, the same Peter Gumpel said to a CBS correspondent, Mark Phillips, "Let us be frank and open about this, as in all the things that I have said. It is a fact that the Jews have killed Christ. This is an undeniable historical fact." But it is precisely this assertion that was denied by Vatican II and has been repeatedly excoriated by John Paul II. Is Father Peter Gumpel asserting that these changes in theology and liturgy are an act of public relations, of interdenominational diplomacy with the Jews, but that "true Catholics" like him know they are diplomatic gestures?

So who is fooling whom? Does anyone on either side of the Jewish-Catholic encounter and debate really believe what the Anti-Defamation League printed very prominently in an advertisement in The New York Times on Sunday, March 19, glorifying Pope John Paul II as remarkable in his unqualified love of Jews and Judaism? Have those who wrote that text for the Anti-Defamation League forgotten, or have they imagined that all their readers have forgotten, that this is the pope who received Kurt Waldheim in state when that dishonorable politician and former staff officer of an SS general who was hanged for his war crimes was president of Austria and boycotted by every other leader in the civilized world?

Had the writers of copy for the ADL not noticed that very recently this pope received Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, and the two managed to suggest together that the insistence by Muslims on building a mosque on land they owned in Nazareth next to the Church of the Annunciation was really an Israeli plot? But, of course, this ADL text too can be explained in whispers as a diplomatic necessity.

But is it not bad diplomacy to produce unbalanced accounts of the past? The last time this was done on a large scale, the authors were the people who put together new editions of the Soviet Encyclopedia when the political line changed. In an instant, Trotsky became a nonperson and Stalin became the source of virtue and goodness. Jewish-Catholic relations, and the reputations of people of great substance, some of whom sinned grievously, are matters too serious for such "diplomatic" games.

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