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Walter Cardinal Kasper, who heads the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, told a Liverpool university audience yesterday that the Catholic Church had weakened itself by “cutting itself off from its Jewish roots for centuries . . . a weakness that became evident in the altogether too feeble resistance against the persecution of the Jews” during the Holocaust. Cardinal Kaspar also said that the Vatican would open all of its wartime archives to scholars.

This important address was covered by the  London Times and  Daily Telegraph , whose religion correspondent Guy Walters wrote,

It is impossible to underestimate the significance of the address made by Cardinal Walter Kasper at Liverpool Hope University on Monday night, in which he promised that the Vatican archives on the wartime record of Pius XII will be opened within six years. This is a hugely welcome piece of news, as the 260th Pope has been the focus of junk historians for decades. “It is our belief that we have nothing to hide and that we do not need to fear the truth,” said Kasper, and he may well be right.

It is noteworthy that the American media universally ignored Cardinal Kasper’s remarks, whose importance far exceeds the announcement that the archives will open. The vilification of the wartime pope, Pius XII, for alleged inaction during the Holocaust presumes that the Vatican had the power to stop the Nazi murder of six million European Jews simply by denouncing it. But the Cardinal made a far more important admission of Church responsibility, and one that Jews should accept in full satisfaction of their grievance against the wartime Vatican: by cutting off its Jewish roots, the Church had weakened itself to the point that it was incapable of offering adequate resistance to Nazi evil.

Cardinal Kasper stated that “the church must draw its vigor and strength from the rootstock of Israel. If the engrafted branches are cut off from the root, they become withered, weak and eventually die. Thus, cutting itself off from its Jewish roots for centuries weakened the church, a weakness that became evident in the altogether too feeble resistance against the persecution of Jews.”

That is precisely correct. Nazi neo-paganism intended to destroy Christianity after it destroyed the Jewish people. In no way can the evil of National Socialism be associated with Catholicism. But the resurgence of neo-paganism in Europe—which destroyed the political power of the Catholic Church—was abetted by the failure of the Church to nurture its own Jewish roots. This failing on the part of the Church, which Cardinal Kasper has recognized in the clearest possible language, led to its own enfeeblement.

By 1939, there was nothing the Church could have done to stop the slaughter of Jews. The Vatican could not even protect Catholic priests in Poland, whom the Nazis murdered in large number. Regarding Pius XII, Cardinal Kasper stated:

The serious recent historical research is differentiated. There are still today Jews who defend Pius XII, and on the other side there are Catholic authors who are critical about his attitude. So there is no clear frontline between Jews and Catholics, though the majority of Jews, especially in Israel, are still critical. Whether this is partly due to a lack of information about more recent historical research work, I would like to leave open.

The main problem is access to the sources . . . The Archives are now working under intense pressure on the project to prepare access to the Pontificate of Pius XII, but the registration and preparation of millions of documents in a due professional way needs time and will be completed in about five or six years, after which general access for scholars will be granted. For it is our belief that we have nothing to hide and that we do not need to fear the truth.

As a Jewish writer who has  urged the Catholic Church to recognize that its own interests are inextricable from those of the State of Israel, and who has  urged Jews to view Pope Benedict XVI as a friend, I have declined to enter the debate about just what Pius XII did or should have done. There is no doubt that he did a great deal to save Jewish lives; whether he could have done more, the historians may conjecture, many years after the terrible events. If he had (for example) excommunicated the Nazi hierarchy, he would have been displaced and perhaps killed, and part of the Church would have split and turned into a Nazi-controlled creature. Would this have saved Jewish lives? I do not know; perhaps it would have enhanced the moral standing of the Church after the war. But it is easy for us, in the safety of our own lives, to second-guess decisions made under unimaginable stress during the darkest hours of Western civilization.

What matters more than the speculation about just what Pius XII did or should have done is the future. It is of inestimable importance for the Jewish people that the Church publicly and passionately explains its own continuing dependence on the Chosen People of God. Franz Rosenzweig said that the history of the world is the history of Israel, for the hope that a loving Creator will sustain his faithful creatures for all of eternity is the most powerful idea ever embraced by human beings.

In discussing the relations between the Church and the Jews, Cardinal Kasper virtually paraphrases Rosenzweig:

Without the engrafted branches the root remains unfruitful. The engrafted branches give the root stock new vitality and fertility. Thus the church has spread universally among the nations the monotheism of Israel and the Ten Commandments as the core of the Mosaic law, and has thereby contributed to the fact that the promise given to Abraham that he would be a blessing to all nations (Gen. 12:3; 18:18, etc.) has come true. Israel without the church is in danger of becoming too particularistic and reclusive, while the church without Israel, as the example of Marcionism makes clear, is in danger of losing its historical grounding and becoming ahistorical and Gnostic. Judaism and Christianity need each other and therefore are dependent on each other. A true ecumenism without Israel is not possible.

Whether the Jews without Christianity inevitably would have become reclusive is something Jews well may doubt. Our apparent reclusiveness was in large measure forced upon us. But the spread of the Jewish idea to the world, and its embodiment in the American concept of inalienable God-granted rights, is the work of the Christians, who gave our written Torah to the world, even if it was embedded in a religion we cannot accept.

How, then, should we understand each other, Christians and Jews? It is a mystery. Here is what Cardinal Kasper said in Liverpool:

Between Judaism and Christianity, therefore, there is a differentiation that is neither simply a parallel co–existence, nor an opposition. Rather, Paul has shown in his insights concerning salvation–history in Romans 9–11 that the two are dialectically related to each other in their difference. This relationship can hardly be reduced to a formula or a catchy phrase. It is, as Paul says, ultimately a mystery (Rom 11:33–36). If one wishes, one can try to describe this mystery in a similar way to the formula of the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) and define the relationship of both with a double negation: without confusion and without separation.

We as Jews have no need and no right to ask for more from the Catholic Church. We do not expect to agree on many things. But what we should agree about is that our respective presence in the world mysteriously reflects God’s plan for the salvation of humanity.

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