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Anti-Semitism and the Catholic Church

by Rabbi Dovid Bendory, Shevat 5765 (January 2005)

Of late I have found myself in a number of conversations regarding "controversy" over the Catholic Church's stance on Anti-Semitism. Such discussions usually revolve around the Holocaust, Pope Pious XII, and the changes in Vatican II. But there are a number especially striking points that are never raised in any of the discussions on the subject.

The Holocaust is hardly the Church's darkest hour vis-a-vis the Jews. If you want a club with which to bludgeon the Church over its treatment of Jews, look at the Inquisition — in which the Church explicitly sanctioned and even encouraged the torture and murder of Jews; or look at the Crusades in which the Church at best turned a blind eye to its own soldiers' inhuman treatment of any non-Chatholic, including the Jews. Or just look at the theology of the witness and its explicit provisions for Jewish degradation — a theology which has barely been repudiated, if at all, even in Vatican II.

OK, so that's all "ancient" history, whereas the Holocaust is more recent. Why bludgeon the Church with ancient history when we have the modern examples of the Holocaust and Vatican II as representative of the "modern" Church, its attitudes, and behaviors? But the history of the Church during the Holocaust is so subject to interpretation that it's impossible to draw any definitive conclusions. Can we say that Vatican II is sufficient? Why assail the modern Church over these issueas at all?

Well, in fact, we can examine the Church's deeds with regards to the Jewish people post-Vatican II rather than just looking at the words of the document. The Vatican archives have tens of thousands, probably even hundreds of thousands, of Jewish religious books and articles which it has "acquired" (to be generous) over the centuries. These certainly include uncountable historical manuscripts of Jewish books and texts, some of which are not extant outside of the archives. It may even include articles looted from Jerusalem and perhaps even items taken from the Temple when it was sacked and destroyed by the Romans two millenia ago.

The Israeli government, the Israel Museum, and scholars from Hebrew University have asked many times for access to these items, but the Church generally denies such access. The Vatican only allows a very small number of scholars into the archives to view these holdings, and they generally don't allow them to be microfilmed. If the Church has truly changed its view of the Jewish people, if it has truly repented for its past sins, if it truly respects the religious rights of Jews, then it can demonstrate this by returning all of these items to their rightful place among the Jewish people by donating them to the State of Israel as the modern "representative" of the Jewish people.

Why does the Church not do so?

So I am of the opinion that Pius' history is subject to interpretation and, while he was no saint, it is conceivable to me that he was not a vigilant Anti-Semite. But the Church's history and its present-day actions — or lack of actions — make its views much more clear than any official statement ever could.

So why limit the discussion and controversy to a few books that have been published regarding the Holocaust and Pope Pious & Company? There are 1000s of more important books which should be the focus of any real discussion on this topic.

Until this issue is resolved, until the Church is willing to return stolen Jewish property to its rightful owners, anyone who defends the Church or its leadership on matters of Anti-Semitism is standing on very shakey ground.

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