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.
Getty Images
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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

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.

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.