Yet, it represented something new in Vatican relations to the world. As a non-Catholic Christian leader, I want to express my appreciation and say it is a good beginning. I add quickly the obvious fact that it is surely only a beginning.
In this column, I want to focus on the portion of the papal statement that had to do with the church's treatment of the Jews, which I regard as the darkest stain on Christian history. Anti-Semitism is a particularly Christian "gift" to the world. Christians created it and encouraged it from the beginning of Christian history. It makes its first appearance in the Christian Scriptures.
Writing to the Galatians in the early 50s of the Common Era, Paul contrasted Judaism with Christianity in a most negative manner. Judaism was Hagar, Abraham's slave wife. Christianity was Sarah, Abraham's wife of choice. Judaism was Mt. Sinai, where "the bondage" of the law was received. Christianity was Jerusalem, "which is above," the source of "freedom from the law" (Gal. 2:21-31). Later, in his letter to the Romans, the Jewish Paul--in conflict with the more traditional orthodox elements of Judaism--wrote that "God gave them [the Jews] a spirit of stupor, eyes that should not see and ears that should not hear down to this very day."
These negativities also found a place in the Gospels. The author of Matthew's Gospel, who was a revisionist Jew, writing in the early 80s, states that the death of Jesus was the responsibility of the conservative orthodox elements within Judaism. Matthew even portrays these elements of Judaism as willing to acknowledge that fact and to accept that blame. Onto the lips of the Jewish crowd at the time of Jesus' arrest and crucifixion Matthew placed these dreadful words: "His blood be upon us and upon our children." Anti-Semitic rhetoric rises in intensity in the Gospel of John where Jesus was said to have called Jews "children of the devil."
In time, the Christian books that contained this hostility came to be called "The Word of God," thus validating Christian negativity toward Jews as God-inspired. When these words were later incorporated into Christian liturgies, this hatred reverberated through the ages in worship.
The Fathers of the Church--including such influential leaders as Tertullian, John Chrysostom, and Jerome--filled their writings with visceral condemnations of the Jews, calling them "vermin" and "worthy only of death." Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer in the 16th century wrote things about Jews that are difficult either to comprehend or to believe, so venal were they. Several years ago the Lutherans got a jump on the pope by issuing their own apology for Luther's anti-Semitic attitudes.
In the Sunday school of my childhood, the only Jews I met were evil people who sought to destroy Jesus. They were villains like Judas, his betrayer; Annas and Caiaphas, the high priests who sought his execution; and the Jewish crowds who shouted "Crucify him!" With this poison being dumped into the bloodstream of the Christian consciousness for 2,000 years, it is no wonder that anti-Semitism remains alive and well in the Christian West. It should not be surprising that during Holy Week and especially on Good Friday throughout Christian history, the Jews of Europe sought to stay out of sight because Christian worshipers were known to emerge from their churches after hearing the Passion story to beat and kill Jews for what their ancestors had done to Jesus.
There is no doubt that this Christian hostility over the centuries was a major force in creating the Holocaust itself. This human horror not only occurred inside the Western, developed, and ostensibly Christian nation of Germany, but it was also supported either overtly or silently by Pope Pius XII. The governments of such "Christian" nations as the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada were also guilty, for each of these countries closed their eyes to the reality of the Jewish slaughter by the Germans, and they also closed their shores to Jewish immigrants by refusing to treat them as political refugees.