Pope John Paul II's Divided Loyalties to Jews

As Beloved Pontiff Nears Sainthood, Assessing a Dual Legacy

A Sainted Pontiff: Pope John Paul II seemed to have a liberal and conservative advisor perched on each shoulder.
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A Sainted Pontiff: Pope John Paul II seemed to have a liberal and conservative advisor perched on each shoulder.

By Jerome Chanes

Published July 17, 2013, issue of July 19, 2013.
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The Vatican has recently announced that two popes who were pioneers in Christian-Jewish relations — John XXIII and John Paul II — are leading candidates for canonization as saints in the Roman Catholic Church.

John Paul II was, of course, the pope who followed in the steps of John XXIII in his forthright condemnation of anti-Semitism, and who forged close personal relations, individually and communally, with Jews. The problem is that there were two Pope John Paul IIs.

There is the John Paul II, the Polish Karol Wojtyla, who is richly remembered for his repudiation of classic anti-Semitic church teachings, who radically changed church behavior and, by extension, the paradigms and protocols of Christian-Jewish relations.

Then there is the doctrinally conservative John Paul, whose record when it comes to Jews is more than a tad ambiguous. On the positive side of the ledger were numerous actions that reinforced the principles of Vatican II and “Nostra Aetate”: John Paul II’s 1989 papal document on racism, “The Church and Racism,” which specifically repudiated anti-Semitism; a slew of declarations, including the 1990 Prague Catholic-Jewish declaration on anti-Semitism, which demanded that Catholics take Vatican II seriously and do away with Catholicism’s antagonism toward Jews, and, most dramatically, John Paul II’s intervention in the Auschwitz convent affair, ensuring that there would be “no Christian presence” on the death-camp grounds. It was most unusual for a pope to intervene in the affairs of any bishop, but intervene Wojtyla did in 1993, with good results for Jews everywhere.

On the negative side: The visit on April 13, 1986, of the pope to the Great Synagogue in Rome, with his forthright condemnation of anti-Semitism “by anyone,” rightly celebrated by Jews at the time. There was, however, a big “but.” The formulation used by the pope to refer to the Jews, “You are our elder brothers,” was in fact the language of classic supersessionism, the theological notion that the “elder brother” — the Jews — had gone astray and was superseded by the church, Verus Israel, the “true Israel.”

Further, and related: in 1989 came papal homilies that expressed supersessionism, and then a 1991 encyclical on missionary activity, which appeared to single out Jews.

On the political front there were problems, as well. The 1982 meeting with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, the first of two, generated a collective American Jewish “Oy!” Worse in some respects was the 1987 papal meeting, an outrage, with Austrian Chancellor Kurt Waldheim, who had well-publicized Nazi skeletons in his closet. And even worse was Wojtyla’s 1988 defense of the conduct of Austrian and German churches during the Nazi period.


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