By Thomas O'Dwyer
(March 23) - To outsiders, one of the most intriguing practices of the Catholic religion is confession, the ritual by which penitents seek forgiveness for sins against the Ten Commandments.
Catholics must prove true repentance by painfully admitting their transgressions to a priest, who represents the ear of God. Only then may the priest absolve the sins in the name of God.
By the measure of the church's own strict sacrament, last week's 14-page confession of the Vatican's sins of omission in the Nazi era has been judged a disappointing failure by many leading Jews - a half-hearted repentance that is just not good enough, either in the eyes of man or of heaven.
Not quite so, says Dr. Yehuda Bauer, who heads the Holocaust Research Institute at Yad Vashem, and who is also professor of Holocaust studies at the Hebrew University.
"The document has to be evaluated positively," Bauer said in an interview. "It relates to the Holocaust as a major tragedy - the major tragedy - of this century; it repeats the present pope's stand against antisemitism, and it pledges to continue the church's fight against antisemitism."
Bauer added that the document obliges members of the church to think about what they did, or failed to do, during the Holocaust.
"In his statement presenting the document, Cardinal Edward Cassidy said it was only a first step, opening the door to more discussion and more dialogue. This is important. I am not saying it is positive for diplomatic reasons, but for its importance."
But Dr. Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said the Vatican document fails on three major issues, as well as on an important secondary matter.
"It fails to take responsibility for the doctrinal antisemitism which paved the way for Nazi antisemitism, and which enabled Catholics to participate in the Holocaust - not only in Germany, which is half Catholic, but more especially in places like Lithuania and Croatia.
"The document is a total cop-out on the role of pope Pius XII. He failed completely to use his moral leadership to condemn and to oppose Nazism. In fact, his overriding fear of communism led him to consider Nazism the lesser of two evils. If he had set the power and moral authority of the church against the Nazis, he could have saved millions.
"The third failure is on the postwar period. The document makes no mention of the Nazi escape routes - the ratlines - aided by some priests; it makes no mention of the shelter offered to fleeing Nazis by some churches, or of the continuing antisemitic statements of some postwar church leaders."
Zuroff said another major problem associated with the Vatican document is the continued secrecy of the Vatican archives - on which Bauer also criticized the church.
"The archives have nothing to do with document itself," Bauer said. "But as long as long as they remain closed to scholars, some of the document's statements cannot be verified. The Vatican document suggests Pius did more than we know, that he saved tens of thousands of Jews. I say, fine - so open the archives and show us."
Bauer said the document, 11 years in preparation, goes less far in the right direction than statements already made by the pope himself, or by conferences of bishops in France, Germany, the US, and other countries. But it is important in that it comes from the core hierarchy of the Vatican.
"No blame is attached to the present pope," said Zuroff. "He was a young man at the time, and he is in fact sensitive and very sympathetic on Jewish matters.
"It is ironic that Christians think him very conservative on doctrinal matters - abortion and birth control - but we can say he is very progressive and liberal on dealing with Jews. But his church's statement still lacks the guts that would make it satisfactory.
Pope John Paul II contributed only a preface to the new Vatican document, in which he remembered friends and neighbors who vanished in his native Poland. He called the Holocaust "an unspeakable iniquity."
"It took us 50 years to get this one document from the Vatican," said Zuroff. "It probably will take another 200 years to get the one we want."
The responsibility of individuals for the church's failure to confront the Nazis remains the most serious issue the Vatican document has skirted, but Bauer said the bravery of many senior churchmen, as well as ordinary priests and nuns who saved thousands of Jews, should also be remembered.
"The first handgun smuggled to the Vilna ghetto came from the hand of the abbess of the Benedictine nunnery on the outskirts of Vilna," he said.
"Then there were senior people like archbishop Szeptyckij of Lvov, Antwerp's archbishop Van Roey, archbishop Saliege of Toulouse. There was papal nuncio Angelo Rotta in Budapest, who will soon be recognized as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem. He opposed his own cardinal to save Jews and worked with Raul Wallenberg. Cardinal Roncalli [later Pope John XXIII] did what he could in Istanbul."
Roncalli was apostolic delegate to Turkey and a close friend of the late president Chaim Herzog's father. Herzog, often a stern critic of the church, wrote: "Roncalli worked to save Jews every way he could ... he stands out as the personality who was ready to dedicate himself to saving Jews."
Pastoral letters read out in churches and signed by archbishops Saliege of Toulouse, Theas of Montauban and Gerler of Lyons, after they had become aware of the fate in store for Jewish deportees, resulted in widespread Catholic rescue efforts and French Resistance activity from late August 1942.
"However, it is still true the vast majority of individual priests and Catholic faithful were completely indifferent, or downright hostile to Jews," Bauer said.
He said the church's failure was a failure of leadership and authority, and while many Catholics were willing to take a private stand, "the pope's colleagues and priests were not actively told to save Jews."
Yet, even Pius did save thousands of Jews in Rome by ordering monks and nuns to give them sanctuary, Bauer said, "but he did it quietly, secretly."
Oddly, the Vatican did take one strong and direct stand against the deportations - in Slovakia, in mid-1942, which temporarily halted the deportations.
"We should also remember that Jews were not the only ones who suffered from the pope's failure to speak out. He kept silent when Polish priests were being murdered by the Nazis. And the Gypsies who were exterminated - most of them were Catholics."
Bauer said the Holocaust had brought a really serious crisis on Christianity.
"Christians have to say, here we were, 1,900 years after we got our savior from the Jewish people - and his people were still being murdered by supposed Christians."
Like other experts, Bauer strongly criticized the church's attempt to draw a distinction between Hitler's antisemitism and Catholic antisemitism.
This hair-splitting first surfaced as early as 1936, when Civilta Cattolica, an official publication, pointed out how Christian antisemitism "differs from the antisemitism of the Nazis."
"It is perhaps true that Nazism was a neo-pagan ideology which attacked Christians as well, but the distinction is anti-factual," said Bauer. "Without Christian antisemitism there would have been no Nazi antisemitism."
Bauer said Nazi propaganda repeated church antisemitism from previous centuries - verbatim at times.
"The Nazis repeated the legend of Jews in a worldwide conspiracy, a force for corruption and evil. They expanded on rulings of the 13th century Lateran Council of the church - ideas of physically separating Jews from Christian society, of making them wear a yellow patch, of professions forbidden to Jews."
Asked why the Vatican comes in for more scrutiny than the eastern Orthodox churches who held sway in Belarus, Greece or Ukraine, or some Protestant churches, Zuroff said the moral authority of the Catholic Church was far greater.
"The strength of the Catholic Church comes from the strength of its hierarchy. Ask any person in the street who the pope is and they will probably know. No one would know who is head of the Orthodox Church. The superior authority and moral stature of the Vatican is what renders its statements more important, more authoritative."
Bauer said there are many historians who assert that even if Pius XII had spoken out strongly against Nazism, he would not have saved a single Jewish life.
"They cite his condemnation of the invasion of Holland and Belgium - no one paid the slightest attention, he achieved nothing.
"But the fact is, he should have come out publicly. Christian doctrine, Christian authority, Christian morality demanded it. He might not have saved the Jews, but he would have saved his soul."
© The Jerusalem Post - March 1998