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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And then there was the matter of the recognition of the State of Israel. A central area of friction during the 1970s and ’80s was the continued reluctance of the Holy See to normalize relations. As a practical matter, the Vatican had, over the years, recognized Israel, de facto; but it was full normalization of relations — de jure recognition — that was sought.

The Vatican itself asserted that there was “no theological bar” — an attempt to quiet those who viewed this area as a remnant of anti-Semitism, of a supersessionist attitude in the church about the Land of Israel. The church insisted that normalization was being held up pending resolution of border and boundary questions.

On its face, this explanation was entirely legitimate. But my own sense is that the Vatican was traumatized by the slaughter of 100,000 Maronite Christians in Lebanon in the late 1970s and early ’80s, and that the church was legitimately concerned with the fate of Christians in Arab lands should full relations be established with Israel. Whatever the reason, there was no great joy in the Jewish community when John Paul II’s Vatican finally, in 1993, did what it ought to have done a decade, or more, earlier, when normalization of relations would have been the courageous and right thing to do.

The bottom line is that John Paul II had two records. On anti-Semitism and generally on the implementation of “Nostra Aetate,” he was more than terrific. He was revolutionary. He changed the church. But on those matters that fell under the doctrinal rubric, this highly conservative pope was capable of causing heartburn for many Jews. What was going on? My own suspicion is that the pope’s advisers were pulling him in two different directions. On one shoulder sat Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, the Dutch liberal who managed Christian-Jewish relations for John Paul II, whispering into the pope’s left ear; while on the other shoulder sat Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI), a doctrinal conservative, whispering into his right.

Jews everywhere ought to continue celebrating Pope John Paul II, who taught Catholics (and Jews) the true meaning of “Nostra Aetate.” But we should do so with an eye open to the ambivalence that was also an aspect of this splendid pope, and, lo unto the present day, of Vatican-Jewish relations.

Jerome Chanes, a Forward contributing editor, is a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and the editor of “The Future of American Judaism,” to be published this year by Trinity/Columbia University Press.


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