It’s not just what the Pope says when he travels, it’s the baggage he carries with him…
Judging from the reaction of senior officials of the Catholic Church to criticism of Pope Benedict’s remarks in Israel, it is clear that they do not understand that very often the strongest messages come not in what is said, but via what is not said. Sometimes, the oversights take the form of important words left ...
Judging from the reaction of senior officials of the Catholic Church to criticism of Pope Benedict’s remarks in Israel, it is clear that they do not understand that very often the strongest messages come not in what is said, but via what is not said. Sometimes, the oversights take the form of important words left out of speeches. For the Pope, an example was his failure to mention by name the Nazis, to characterize their actions during the Holocaust as murder or to satisfactorily acknowledge his own past in his speech at Yad Vashem. But greater than this misstep, cited by Israeli critics in government and the media and defended by a Papal spokesperson who said “he can’t mention everything every time he speaks” is the fact that fueled the calls for a few extra words from the Pope, the fact that haunts his Papacy, the fact that of all the people on earth a man with his background was selected to be Pope.
As quoted in an AP story by Victor Simpson, Israeli parliament speaker Reuven Rivlin observed, “The pope spoke like a historian, as somebody observing from the sidelines, about things that shouldn’t happen. But what can you do? He was part of them. With all due respect to the Holy See, we cannot ignore the baggage he carries with him.”
The Washington Post included the following responses to the visit:
‘You were not asked to do something unprecedented or heroic. All that was required from you was a brief, authoritative and touching sentence. All you had to do was to express regret. That’s all we wanted to hear,’ wrote Hanoch Daum, a columnist for the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.
On Wednesday, an editorial in the widely read newspaper Ha’aretz called the visit a ‘missed opportunity.’
‘His important statements condemning anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial lost their potency because of his lukewarm remarks at Yad Vashem,’ the editorial said. ‘The pope’s visit shows that there is no real dialogue between Israel and the Vatican, and that it is difficult to erase centuries-old wounds.'”
While the Pope’s past as a member of the Hitler youth and the German army during World War II is something that has been often discussed and its compulsory nature acknowledged, it is understandably very difficult for some people to get beyond. For me however, what is more difficult still is the fact that the cardinals of the Catholic Church, meeting in sacred conclave in the Sistine Chapel, knowing those facts and the church’s dubious history during the Second World War, chose among all the worthies in their midst to select the man who later chose to be called Benedict. This was blindness or arrogance or worse. Certainly they knew the choice would be unsettling to at least one group with a long and difficult history with the church. Certainly they knew it would be evaluated as a choice in that light. Perhaps they might even have foreseen a moment when the new Pope would stand before a Holocaust memorial and be seen both as a representative of his church and of his past. Yet nonetheless, they went ahead.
This is not in any way to say that Benedict is a bad man. It is not to minimize the fact that he ultimately deserted from the German Army or that he has devoted his life to a course of reflection and service. He certainly appears to be a very good man by many important measures. And frankly, his speeches in Israel and the message of his trip to the Middle East were much less troubling than his ill-considered comments about condom use during his trip to Africa or his embrace of a Holocaust-denying bishop at the beginning of this year. But what the Israel trip has done is to cast once again into stark focus the choice the cardinals made, the message they chose to send about who among them in their eyes best represented their church, its values and its future…and about how little they cared about the reactions of those who might be especially troubled by their choice.
Clearly, just because an individual has a dark chapter in his past — whether it was a mistake or a failure to make a choice to resist an ultimate evil — that does not disqualify him from having a life of value or accomplishment. However, when elevating such men (or women) to prominent, powerful, and richly symbolic posts, the characteristics of these individuals in question often become secondary to the role those characteristics and the reaction to them play in the selection process. Whether they are part of the justification for the selection or, in this case, considered dismissible or minimizable, how they are treated speaks to the character of the selectors and the institution they represent even more than they speak to the character of the person under consideration.
This is true in comparatively minor instances, such as when a government administration with the desire to have the highest standards in selecting officials chooses to ignore missteps by some that would disqualify others (thus raising the question of why some make it and some do not). And it is certainly true in the case of choosing to lead a church with the Vatican’s history and responsibilities someone from a past like that of the former Cardinal Ratzinger. In such a case, speeches, pomp, and religious ceremony fade to the background. What troubled observers in Israel was not what the Pope said but who he was and that he was chosen.
He could, as observers noted, fairly easily have addressed this at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in the state whose creation was in part a by-product of that abomination, was the place to do it. The Vatican’s argument that he had addressed it before was uncompelling because by choosing not to in the one place where such a statement of acknowledgement and regret would have made the most difference he again raises questions not just about a choice but the reasons behind it.
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