During his long reign as vicar of Rome, Pope John Paul II oversaw sweeping, historic changes in the Catholic Church and in the role of religion in world affairs. But none of the pope’s initiatives was more fundamental, or more emblematic of the man, than the transformation of Catholic-Jewish relations.
The change began with Nostra Aetate, the historic 1965 statement of the Second Vatican Council that opened the door to better relations between the two faiths. But Nostra Aetate was Janus-faced, including backward-looking elements. John Paul moved its policy direction positively forward. And, as one Polish priest recently noted, “Until his accession these were merely lifeless documents. John Paul invested them with human content.”
The historical record is clear: John Paul was the best pope in history for the Jewish people.
Under his direction, the Vatican hit a theological trifecta: Affirmation of Judaism as an ongoing, valid covenant with God, diplomatic recognition of the State of Israel and admission of the Holocaust as a theological turning point (combined with acknowledgement that Christians need to repent for centuries of spreading hateful images of Jews).
One can speculate on the factors that moved John Paul to exceed all expectations in putting his personal stamp on Catholic policies to the benefit of Jewry. Most likely, the man born Karol Wojtyla was driven by his friendship with Jews from his youth and by his deep encounter with the Shoah (with the consequent emotional internalization of the suffering of Jews and Poles under the Nazis).
The results were unprecedented, as John Paul, in effect, repudiated the classic Christian doctrine that the Old — the original Jewish — Covenant no longer was valid because it had been “fulfilled” in the life and death of Jesus Christ. The logic of this replacement claim had led to the persecution of Jewry and the defamation of Judaism for almost two millennia.
The first clear sign of this revolution came in a 1980 address to the Jewish community of Mainz, Germany, when John Paul spoke of Judaism as “the Old Covenant, never revoked by God.”
Six years later in Rome, he reiterated the theologically groundbreaking point during history’s first papal visit to a standing Jewish synagogue. “The Jews are beloved of God, who has called them with an irrevocable calling,” the pope declared.
During his Rome synagogue visit, John Paul advocated moving beyond “a mere ‘coexistence’” and affirmed that Jewish-Christian relations were predicated on recognition and respect for each religion “in its own identity beyond any syncretism or any ambiguous appropriation.” He asserted that this “path undertaken is still at its beginning” and that “much work remained to remove old forms of prejudice, even subtle ones, to readjust every manner of self-expression” to ultimately “present always everywhere, the true face of Jews and Judaism, as likewise of Christians and Christianity.”
The full implications of the pope’s position have not yet been drawn by all Christians. Some still seek to convert Jews; not all the sermons, rituals and liturgies have been revised. But it will be hard to stop the inevitable conclusion of upholding the validity of Jewish faith. In Catholicism, this gives Judaism a unique, special place alongside Christianity before God.
The potential ironies abound. When the Vatican’s Office for the Propagation of the Faith released the declaration Dominus Iesus in August 2000, the church seemed to reaffirm that Jesus Christ — through Catholicism — was the only channel to God. This evoked a storm of criticism from other Christian churches and Jews alike.
Jewish communal leaders were reassured, however, that they should not be offended. On background, church officials insisted that the exclusive claims of Dominus Iesus applied only to Protestants and other non-Christians — the Jews were self-evidently in direct communion with God as proven by the pope’s earlier statements.
This was the view of a pope who was deeply seared by the Holocaust, a point that he came back to again and again in his public pronouncements. His determination to correct the past and his openness to a theological model that accepted the legitimacy of Judaism were clearly driven by guilt generated by the horror of the Shoah. In the end, with considerable Jewish prodding, but at John Paul’s insistence, the Catholic Church issued “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah” in 1998. Despite its equivocations, the document acknowledged the possible connection of church teachings to setting up Jews for the Shoah and stated: “…the Catholic Church desires to express her deep sorrow for the failures of her sons and daughters in every age. This is an act of repentance ( teshuva ).”
John Paul’s Vatican established diplomatic relations with the State of Israel, overriding Arab objections and political pressure and undercutting classical Christian teachings that Jews were condemned to exile and eternal wandering until they accepted Jesus. The pope followed this diplomatic and theological breakthrough up with his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. During an unforgettable prayer visit to the Western Wall, the pope again expressed sorrow for Jewish suffering and a desire for forgiveness for past misbehaviors.
Another of John Paul’s gifts to the Jews was the crucial role that he played in the overthrow of the Stalinism that relentlessly repressed Jewish culture and religion and de-legitimated Jewish statehood.
Buoyed by John Paul’s spiritual force, the Solidarity movement helped bring down the Communists in Poland and became the first Polish national uprising that refused to stoop to antisemitism to protect its popularity with the masses. Thanks to Karol Wotjyla’s special relationship with the Poles, his religious model strengthened their revolt against Russian domination; thus obedience to God became resistance to tyranny. Polish resistance, combined with American pressure and successful defiance of the secret police system by the Russian Jewish refuseniks, collapsed the structure of intimidation and fear within which Soviet totalitarianism thrived.
Despite his record, John Paul is not universally beloved by Jews. Part of this ambivalence was generated by his own behavior. The pope, who spoke so feelingly about the Holocaust, also bestowed sainthood on two victims of the Nazis: Father Maximilian Kolbe (who died in a concentration camp in place of a Jewish prisoner, but was antisemitic throughout his career) and Edith Stein (a Jewish convert to Catholicism). This aroused suspicions that the pope intended to “Christianize” the Holocaust.
In another World War II-related matter, John Paul’s spirited defense of Pius XII, who has been accused in some Jewish circles of failing to speak out against the Nazi’s Jewish policies, drove many ecumenical Jews to despair. For some, “We Remember” was “tainted” by its defense of Pius XII and by its attempt to distinguish between anti-Judaism and antisemitism, thereby reducing Christian culpability for the past. Similarly, his historic recognition of Israel was diminished by his embrace on other occasions of Yasser Arafat and criticisms of Israeli policy.
In truth, John Paul suffered from two handicaps. One is the heritage of two millennia of hurt and mistreatment. This led some Jews to doubt the sincerity of his new policies. Furthermore, Jews are disproportionately liberal, politically and theologically, and they held the pope’s conservatism in Church policy against him. Therefore, most never fully understood, still less appreciated, his broader theological framework. He maintained that his pro-tradition, pro-family, pro-life, anti-feminist, anti-gay teachings — combined with his opposition to the death penalty, his Common Good doctrine critique of free-market capitalism and his challenge to the use of force in international relations — added up to a defense of the culture of life.
In retrospect, John Paul’s Jewish critics judged him too harshly. Up until his reign, a willingness to expand the post-Vatican II trends and pursue more positive attitudes toward Jews and Judaism went hand-in-hand with theological liberalism. Both policies involved a critique of the tradition and acknowledgment of past failures. But John Paul cut that connection. While he bent the church to his will to check liberal trends on many social issues, he extended Vatican II’s opening to Jews and Judaism. In the end, he went toward the Jews where no pope had ever gone before. I daresay that when the dust of history settles, the Jewish community will recognize him as one of the most righteous of the gentile nations.