Why Are the Pope's Words on the Jews Important?

Following up on Austen Ivereigh's illuminating post below, another question: What is the importance of Pope Benedict XVI’s sweeping statements in the latest installment of his book series Jesus of Nazareth about the need not to hold the Jewish people responsible as a whole for the death of Jesus? 

After all, the Second Vatican Council’s revolutionary document Nostra Aetate, which enjoys a somewhat higher level of authority than a pope’s personal reflections (especially in a book series which Benedict introduced by saying "Everyone is free, then, to contradict me”), stated more or less the same thing in 1964.  “[W]hat happened in [Jesus’s] passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today,” wrote the Council.  “[M]indful of her common patrimony with the Jews, and motivated by the gospel’s spiritual love and by no political considerations, she [i.e., the church] deplores the hatred, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews, at any time and from any source.” 

That is a clear declaration of the contemporary church’s stance.  So what is the value of the pope’s words?  The importance, it seems to me, is fivefold. 

First, Pope Benedict’s book underlines even further the Catholic church’s belief that “the Jews” are not responsible for the death of Jesus.  That is, it is an important reminder from the pontiff, and an especially timely one, given the approach of Passover and Easter. 

Second, the pope’s book elaborates these ideas in ways that may be more helpful for the average reader than Nostra Aetate, which could not delve deeply into the lengthy textual analysis of the Gospels.  (The documents of Vatican II also read like the definitive pronouncements they are, a style perhaps not as inviting to readers as the personal reflection.)  Of course many other Catholic Biblical scholars before and since Vatican II have analyzed the Gospels to conclude that, in short, the Romans and a few Jewish leaders acting together were primarily responsible for the crucifixion.  You can find careful analyses of the Gospel accounts of the Passion in hundreds of scholarly books, academic treatises and Scripture commentaries; but many are not quite as clear as the pope’s presentation, nor are some written for the non-specialist. 

Third, in all likelihood, many more people will read this latest volume of Jesus of Nazareth in the next few months than will read modern Scriptural commentaries in the next few years.  In short, by virtue of his position, the pope has a far wider audience, and one made up not simply of specialists.  Pope Benedict is also able to reflect on the New Testament in a way that is not overly academic.  Indeed, one of the pope’s greatest gifts is as a teacher: he is able to communicate the faith in helpful, accessible and inviting ways.  (Frankly, I think one of his most overlooked contributions to the world dialogue about Christianity are his weekly “Angelus” messages.)  This book, as an upcoming review will say in America magazine, is a kind of "theological exegesis," and, I would add, a personal reflection on the life of Christ; and it is not simply his deft exegetical writing but the personal touch which makes the so inviting to readers.  In short, he writes well and simply.  In his new book, for example, the pope provides his explanation of the use of the word “the Jews” in the Gospel of John, and does so with admirable simplicity:

Now we must ask: who exactly were Jesus’ accusers?  Who insisted that he be condemned to death? According to John it was simply “the Jews.” But John’s use of this expression does not in any way indicate – as the modern reader might suppose – the people of Israel in general, even less is it “racist” in character.  After all, John himself was ethnically a Jew, as were Jesus and all his followers.  The entire early Christian community was made up of Jews.  In John’s Gospel this word has a precise and clearly defined meaning: he is referring to the Temple aristocracy.

Fourth, Pope Benedict is putting what might be called his own “personal stamp” on the matter.  Anyone who thinks that Joseph Ratzinger, as a person, “blames the Jews” will have to grapple with his clear comments in this personal work. 

Fifth and finally, given that this false charge of “deicide” still endures in a few quarters of the church, any commentary that serves to combat that idea, and to reaffirm the Second Vatican’s Council’s teaching, is useful and important, whether it comes from a Scripture scholar, a priest, a Catholic school teacher--or even a pope.

James Martin, SJ

Juan Lino
6 years ago
To Crystal (#7) – You seem to have certainly read books/articles that proclaim that Servant of God, Pope Pius XII did not do enough but have you also read the other side?  So my question to you is: Have you read – or are you planning to read – Sr. Margherita Marcione’s books?  Just curious.

BTW, the Michael Phayer article – which I read before – is very interesting and it reminded me again that I would like to read the document promoting his cause.  

Regarding your comment about the play, those tons of books, etc, that you mentioned came out after the play – presuming, of course, that I haven't confused my timeline.
John Stehn
6 years ago
Father:

What exactly is the "theological note" attached to the statement in Nostra Aetate.  It is not an expression of the Church's Extraordinary Magisterium...is it?  Especially considering Pope Paul VI's explicit statement about the teaching authority of the Council at it's close.
6 years ago

Blaming the Jews for Jesus's death is and has always been what is better known as a ''Red Herring.''  Jesus came to earth to die and to die ignominiously and then rise again.  As such if there is anyone to blame it is God himself Who ordained it.  I am not sure of the theology here but something meant to be can not be blamed on any one individual or group of individuals.  Someone had to do it so are the specific Jews and the Romans just pawns in the hands of God.
 
Any attitudes we have about a group of people is more often a reflection on ourselves then the people in question. 
John Stehn
6 years ago
The reason that I ask Father, is that you are quoted in an AP story as saying "A Vatican Council is the highest teaching authority of the Church".  I'm not so sure about that, particularly with regard to this "teaching".
Crystal Watson
6 years ago
Given how the pope has been actually treating the Jewish people ... approving a prayer for traditionalist Good Friday services that calls for the conversion. of the Jews, lifting the excommunication of the SSPX bishops, putting Pius XII on the sainthood fast-track .....  I'm not very impressed with the mention in his book of such an obvious and already stated (Vatican II) truth.
Juan Lino
6 years ago
Regarding the black legend surrounding the Servant of God, Pope Pius XII – started by a play of all things – Sr. Margherita Marcione, Ph.D. has written many wonderful books about the supposedly “factual” claim.  I encourage all to read her books and to pray for the speedy canonization of Pope Pius XII! 
Crystal Watson
6 years ago
The idea that Pius XII did not do enough to help the Jewish people during the Holocaust was not started by a play (The Deputy ... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Deputy), it was started by an evaluation of the relevant events.  There are tons of books, articles, that discuss why it's thought Pius XII didn't do enough ... here is just one of them that was published in Commonweal in 2003 by Michael Phayer, professor emeritus at Marquette University - "Canonizing Pius XII:  Why did the pope help Nazis escape?"  ...  http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1252/is_9_130/ai_104578550/
Crystal Watson
6 years ago
Juan,

It is a fact, the truth, not just my interpretation of facts or the truth, that Pius did not make a public and specific  condemnation of what the Nazis were doing to the Jews.  It is based on this fact that I'm making a personal  judgement about him, namely that I don't think he should be made a saint. I'd assume that the books you are refferring to give mitigating factors for why Pius  didn't do what he didn't do, but I guess I've decided that there isn't a reason good enough to explain away his lack of speaking out.  Maybe this is just my  emotional reaction to the horrific  things that happened to the Jews, but if I have to err, I'd rather err on their side than his.

I'm not alone:  in February of this year, 18 Catholic theologians and historians  from the United States, Germany and Australia wrote to the pope "imploring" him to wait for more info before making Pius a saint.  You can read the letter and the signatories here at Reuters .... http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld/2010/02/18/theologians-historians-urge-benedict-to-slow-pius-xii-saint-process/
Crystal Watson
6 years ago
Juan,

No, I must admit, I don't plan to read the Sister's book.  I would suppose that it makes the point that Pius tried to hide a number of Jews from the Nazis, and this does seem to be the case, though there also seems to be some questions about whether this was true for Jews who had not converted to Christianity first. 

That doesn't change the fact that he never publicly spoke out against what was happening despite entreties from many including Myron Taylor, Roosevelt's emissary to the Vatican, and even though many others did speak out, including the then Archbishop of Canterbury.  I just find this pretty unforgivable.

The play did bring the subject up publicly and I do think that criticism of Pius was more extant after the play.  Maybe this is in part because at the time of the actual events, it was not as easy as it was later to access so much relevant info and analyze it.  I just meant that people who are critical of him are not basing their stance on the play, but on events that inspired the play.
Crystal Watson
6 years ago
Hi David,

No, I'm not that old  :) 

 But seriously, have you read any of the firsthand accounts of people sent to the death camps? Have you seen the old newsreels of the camps being liberated?   If so, I'd not be surprised if you too found unforgivable the fact that the pope, who might have made a difference for some of those people by speaking out, chose not to do so.
Juan Lino
6 years ago
Crystal (#9) -  Since I try to give precedence to facts, I tend to read both sides of a topic (those that support my position and those that don't) so that I can make an informed judgment; but hey, that's what I do and not something I am trying to impose on you.

Now, on reflection, I said to myself: perhaps Sister's books are too popular for her and so I'll suggest another: The Pius War by Joseph Bottom and David G. Dalin. After all, I presume you are interested in the truth and not just in maintaining an ideological position.
Crystal Watson
6 years ago
David,  I never thouyght you of all people would argue for the relativity of moral values  :) 
david power
6 years ago
Crystal ,

Bad Popes we have a plenty. It seems to be Gods way of keeping us focussed ,but having read all of the literature and visited all of the concentration camps and spent about seven years considering it all I think that your judgement is wrong.Pope Pacelli may not have been a Saint in the sense that would have passed muster centuries ago but he was a man of conscience.
Three months ago I spoke to a woman in the Jewish Ghetto  in Rome who was with her twin daughters ,who spent her youth in Castelgandalfo.Maybe she was ignorant of the "true" facts but she was nonetheless grateful for Pope Pacelli. 
Pacelli was not a hero, nor was Churchill or Roosevelt for that matter. Einstein only spoke positively of Pacelli. Our Standards are as David Smith said not to be confused with those of the past . In Italy 80% of Jews survived.Coincidence? Pacelli did what he could, most did not. 
Pacelli it is clear had many defects ,but he was not a hypocrite. If we could say that about all Popes we would be happy campers! 
Crystal Watson
6 years ago
OK, you guys have convinced me to at least consider reading  more on the subject.  I'm especially challenged by people who are not really all bad or all good but  a mixture  - perhaps Pius falls into that ategory.

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