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Western Press Review: The Vatican and the Holocaust

By Joel Blocker, Dora Slaba and Esther Pan

Prague, 18 March 1998 (RFE/RL) - Much Western press commentary today and yesterday has centered on the Roman Catholic Church's controversial statement on the Holocaust that was released on Monday (March 16). Some 11 years in preparation, the document expresses the Vatican's regret at what it described as "the errors and failures" of those Catholics who, the statement said, "were not strong enough to raise their voices" during the World War Two Nazi massacre of millions of European Jews. Press commentators have generally welcomed the declaration, but many find it did not go far enough in its admission of Roman Catholic responsibility.

The New York Times today calls the document "a carefully crafted statement that goes further than the Roman Catholic Church has ever gone in reckoning honestly with its passivity during the Nazi era and its historic antipathy toward Jews." In an editorial, the paper writes: "This breaking of new political and theological ground by the Vatican is important and welcome. Yet the document disappointingly stops well short of the unflinching acknowledgments of responsibility that Catholic bishops in France and other European countries have produced in recent years." It continues: "The gap was probably unavoidable, given the institutional interests and caution of the Vatican. Still, the Church's statement, 'We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah (Holocaust),' is a sobering and moving call to penitence and a denunciation of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Those are no small steps for the Vatican..."

But the editorial goes on to criticize Pope John Paul II for having "resisted a critical look at the Catholic response to the Holocaust and...defended the silence of Pope Pius XII during the Third Reich." It adds: "The document does not even mention Pius' failure to speak out against Nazi atrocities. Instead it offers evidence of Church efforts to save Jews and recalls the thanks Pius received from Jewish leaders. It is regrettable," the New York Times concludes, "that the Vatican has not yet found the courage to discard this defensive, incomplete depiction."

In Switzerland's daily Tribune de Geneve yesterday, Antoine Maurice said that the declaration "was published at a delicate moment in Christian-Jewish relations --since the Shoah, there have in fact been few times as delicate." In a commentary, Maurice wrote: "In 1997, the text of a statement by French Catholic bishops used the word 'repentance.' In the vocabulary of remorse, that...was more frank than the word 'regret' used by the Vatican in its declaration. So we have neither an apology nor repentance from the Catholic Church, which judges itself not implicated in the Nazi crimes. The (Catholic) Church also seems not to recognize the heavy tradition of the image of a God-killing people, one of the sources of anti-Semitism, which Christian churches have perpetuated."

In an interview published by the French daily Liberation yesterday Shimon Samuels, the Paris-based Director of International Relations for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said he was "shocked" by the Vatican 's defense of Pope Pius XII. "It's true," he told the paper, "that several dozen (that is, about 50 to 100) Jews were saved by the Vatican, as it is true that there were priests who risked their lives to save Jews. But the (Roman Catholic) Church is (also) a state that had a policy. The anti-Bolshevism of Pius XII led him to say nothing about the extermination of the Jews...The Vatican should not trivialize the conduct of Pius XII in this manner." Samuels also said that he hoped "above all that (the declaration) is only a step in a process, not its final result....The Vatican must finally agree to open the archives of Pius II's papacy -- which it has so far refused to do -- so that we can know the truth..."

Another French daily, Le Monde, yesterday said that "certainly the Church's admission of (regret) for the Holocaust comes too late." In an editorial, the paper recalled that "the Vatican required three centuries to admit its guilt in its trial against Galileo. This time the acknowledgment took half-a-century, while it needed 2,000 years for a lesson to be learned about (maligning) the so-called Chosen People, which created one of the biggest catastrophes in history." The paper concluded: "This 'mea culpa' comes late, but nevertheless one must be pleased. It was needed by the younger generation, whether believers or not, and for older people lest they forget."

The Italian daily La Stampa wrote yesterday: "It's (an historic) fact...Christian Europe set the scene for the Shoah massacre of unprecedented dimensions. Surely, Germany did not become barbarous overnight, and (Nazi) SS members were to a great extent declared (Christian) believers." The paper also said in its comment: "It does not correspond to the truth to say that anti-Semitism was only manifested in certain (special) cases and was not deeply rooted....Clearly, this special kind of (murderous) anti-Semitism originated in (Christian) theology. It is also historically false to deny the responsibility of Pope Pius XII."

Vienna's daily Die Presse welcomed the Vatican statement even though, the paper said, it avoided "a clear statement on the attitude of Pius XII." Die Presse's editorial continued: "The manner in which the document evaluates the attitude and policy of Pope Pius XII (will be) controversial, especially outside the Catholic Church itself. The fact that Pius saved the lives of numerous Jews through his personal intervention, or that of his representatives, stands historically in juxtaposition to the impression that the Pope was hesitant in making a public diplomatic initiative in order to (halt) the destruction of the Jews..." It added: "This aspect, too, deserved a mention in the document....The Church continues to give an incomplete account of(the pontificate) of Pius XII." But the paper concluded: "Overall, the impression left by the document is nevertheless positive."

The Spanish daily El Pais commented ironically yesterday that "haste is not one of the cardinal sins of the Catholic Church." The paper wrote in its editorial: "(The Church has delayed in acknowledging its role) in the 2,000 years of cultural, social and theological anti-Semitism that has afflicted Western societies, especially those with Catholic roots." El Pais continued: "Communion among the various Christian churches would have been (postponed) indefinitely without a reconciliation with Judaism, the seed of all the others. The (Vatican's) document will probably facilitate an official invitation by Israel for the Pope to visit Jerusalem, one of his greatest hopes. This is possibly the next step in the full reconciliation between the Church and Judaism."

Another Spanish newspaper, El Mundo, notes that the Vatican statement admits that Christians fed an "anti-Jewish sentiment" for centuries and asks if this unfair sentiment made them "less sensible, or even indifferent, to the persecution of Jews by the Nazis when they came to power." In its editorial, the paper also said that "the document points out that 'some governments in Western countries with a Christian tradition -- both in Europe and America -- showed themselves to be more than reticent when it came to opening their borders to Jews.' This comment," El Mundo said, helps "put events in their (proper historical) context, but does not exonerate anyone of any guilt." The paper concluded: "Recognizing the limitations of this first report of the Vatican, we should in any case not lose sight of what it took to produce it. Monsignor Pierre Duprey, vice president of the (Vatican) commission which prepared the report, said it took 'almost a decade for this reflection on the Shoah to mature in the heart of the Church.' All great roads begin with a first step.

The Israeli daily Ma'ariv yesterday entitled its editorial, "The Catholic Church Is N-o-t Begging the Jews for Forgiveness." The paper wrote: "What is striking about the Vatican document is what is missing: It does not place explicit blame on the Catholic Church for inciting whole generations to anti-Semitism....Also missing is an unequivocal acknowledgment of the Church's share in the catastrophe that overtook the Jewish people during the Holocaust....The document not only does not condemn the 'silent consent' of Pope Pius XII during the Nazi era, it asserts that he raised his voice against the (Nazis') dark ideology." Ma'ariv concluded: "Even though the document carefully avoids (avowing) responsibility, it is nevertheless -- from the point of view of the Catholic Church -- an event of great significance. Shortly before the new millennium, and before (Pope John Paul II's promised) visit to Israel, the Vatican has taken another small step to settle the enormous historic account of the sins of the Catholic Church against Judaism."