An Israeli diplomat’s take on the popes

Serving as Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican must be a mighty tricky post.

The current man is Mordechay Lewy, a veteran Israeli diplomat who has represented his country in Germany, Sweden, Thailand and now at the Holy See. That’s Lewy (yeah, the guy on the right).

The Boston Globe’s Michael Paulson recently interviewed Lewy when he was in town to speak at Boston College.

If you’re interested in Catholic-Jewish relations, you should read the whole Q&A.

Here are a few snippets:

*****

Q: You’ve been at the Vatican for a year. What have you learned?
A: From the books you can see that it is an absolute monarchy, but it is not. Far, far from that. Structural absolute monarchy doesn’t mean that the monarch is trying to exercise, on every day basis, his authority. You are reducing your authority if you are using it too often.

Q: There was some criticism of the way he (POPE BENEDICT XVI) characterized the Holocaust.
A: People who were expressing those disappointments, which to my mind were unjustified, were on second or third thought retracting them. It didn’t cast a real shadow on the visit. It was filling the columns in the press for one or two days. The speeches of the pope were of enormous importance to everybody, not only to us, but to everybody. What he contributed at Yad Vashem was a completely different approach which was an enrichment to the culture of memory, and it was almost a wake-up from an unexpected corner for people to think a little bit differently, and not to expect a ritual. This pope is not one who is getting into existing patterns of rituals – it’s not a challenge for him intellectually – so he would like really to set his mind and contribute his own thoughts, which are rather deep thoughts about what Yad Vashem means.

Q: Do you have a position on Pius XII’s historic role?
A: Historically speaking, I think he was neither a hero nor a villain. It is probably the right thing to think of a more balanced view of him. The problem is that we are looking at him through the filter of a post-conciliar church. He is definitely a protagonist of the pre-conciliar church, and the pre-conciliar church has, as its main assignment, to seek all possible means to salvation for its own flock. He is not a pope for the Jews; he is not a pope for the Mohammedans; he is not a pope for everyone who was not Catholic. ‘My main task is to save the souls of the Catholic Church.’ This is why he did a concordat with the Germans. He didn’t make a concordat because he was Hitler’s pope. This is a mistaken concept. He did it in order to survive, to make it happen that the church can survive a godless regime. This was the term that they used. He tried also to make a concordat with the Soviet Union, but the Russian Orthodox Church didn’t like this idea. It is wrong to look for any affinity between him and the Nazis.

It is also wrong to say that he didn’t save Jews. Everybody who knows the history of those who were saved among Roman Jewry knows that they hid in the church, they hid in Roman monasteries, in the Vatican itself people were hidden. To look for written evidence, an order of the pope, well…this is odd. This is not how it works.

The week that I missed

I’m back. Hope you had a good week.

I’m about half way through my 1,500 new emails. The worst part is that my email storage is full and I can’t send any emails until I empty it out.

So if you’re waiting for a response from me — as so many people are — please keep waiting.

Here are some odds and ends as I try to catch up with the news:

1. While I was on furlough, I read a stack of magazines from the past few months. In the Jan. 5 New Yorker, there was a quirky story about two rabbis who fly around China checking out factories that produce kosher food. Over $1 1/4 billion worth of kosher-certified foods are exported from China every year. Who knew?

Anyway, the article noted that one of the rabbis was drinking a Coke, and that the Orthodox Union has certified Coca-Cola as kosher since 1993. The article raised a very interesting question: How can you certify a product when its formula is a closely guarded secret? The answer: “Grunberg explained that the Coca-Cola Company presents the O.U. with a long list of ingredients to be approved, including some that are red herrings, just to foil any industrial spies who might be masquerading as rabbis.”

Fascinating, no?

2. I was in Macys buying socks and noticed a T-shirt that said: “FREE speech thought religion expression”

It had a very interesting design for some reason I checked the tag: “Made in Pakistan”

I couldn’t help wondering where in Pakistan it was made? Whose factory? Do the people there believe in all those freedoms — or even know what they are? What would the Taliban think?

3. I wrestled with whether or not I have to see “Angels & Demons.” I don’t think I do. Although it’s the number one movie this week, I haven’t heard any serious talk about the plot or any connections between the story and the real world.

I read “The Da Vinci Code,” saw the movie and wrote about it several times because I heard people wondering whether the plot was true — or based in truth or somehow connected to truth. Many people read it as historical fiction.

Not so with A&D, I think. We’ll see how things develop — and whether I need to see Tom Hanks running around like a mad man. I hope he got a different haircut this time out.

4. I read some of the coverage of B16’s trip to the Holy Land. Somehow, neither what he said nor the reactions to what he said surprised me. Some Israelis were not satisifed with his comments about the Holocaust. Well, B16’s not a great communicator. When it comes to highly symbolic moments, people still expect JPII. But B16 is a different guy.

He favors a Palestinian state and finds the Wall to be a sad sight? Who could be surprised by that?

Benedict is 82 and gave 28 speeches during the trip. He had no major gaffes that I’m aware of. Give the guy some credit.

5. The NYS Assembly’s passage of a bill to legalize gay marriage sets the stage for a fascinating debate in the Senate.

The NYS Catholic Conference calls the Assembly’s move “terribly misguided:” “Marriage is not simply a mechanism with which to provide people with benefits. By creating same-sex ‘marriages,’ the state is endorsing the notion that procreation is completely disconnected from marriage and that a nontraditional family structure serves a child as well as a traditional one.”

The Orthodox Union is “gravely disappointed:” “Legal scholars on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate agree that codifying same-sex marriage without providing robust religious accommodations and exemptions will create widespread and unnecessary legal conflict that will “reverberate across the legal and religious landscape.” We have already seen religious congregations, social welfare agencies and youth groups which object to same-sex unions penalized by authorities in states where such unions have been legalized.”

6. I wish I was around last week to write something about Obama’s Big Day at Notre Dame, which crystallizes the Catholic Church’s struggles over abortion like nothing else (Yes, I know that many Catholics would say that there is no struggle and that Catholics who disagree are dead wrong).

I haven’t had a chance yet to really digest Obama’s remarks. Maybe after I clean out my emails…

7. Finally, I am a finalist for the Religion Writer of the Year Award given out by the Religion Newswriters Assocation. A nice thing.

Vatican: Bishop Williamson not back in

Yesterday, Bishop Richard Williamson apologized, sort of, for his Holocaust-denying interview.

He said: “Observing these consequences I can truthfully say that I regret having made such remarks, and that if I had known beforehand the full harm and hurt to which they would give rise, especially to the Church, but also to survivors and relatives of victims of injustice under the Third Reich, I would not have made them.”

But the Vatican said today that Williamson did not go far enough.

From the AP’s Nicole Winfield:

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican said Friday that the apology issued by an ultraconservative bishop who denied the Holocaust was not good enough to admit him into the Catholic Church as a clergyman.

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said Bishop Richard Williamson’s statement “doesn’t appear to respect the conditions” the Vatican set out for him.

In an interview broadcast last month on Swedish state TV, Williamson denied 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, saying 200,000 or 300,000 were murdered. He said none were gassed.

Williamson apologized for his remarks on Thursday, saying he would never have made them if he had known “the full harm and hurt to which they would give rise.”

But he did not say his comments had been erroneous, nor that he no longer believed them.

Williamson’s initial remarks sparked widespread outrage among Jewish groups and others. The interview was broadcast just days before the Vatican announced that it was lifting his excommunication and that of three other bishops.

The four, members of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, had been excommunicated after being consecrated as bishops without papal consent in 1988.

Bowing to the criticism, the Vatican on Feb. 4 demanded that Williamson “absolutely and unequivocally distance himself from his remarks about the Shoah if he is to be admitted to episcopal functions in the church.” Shoah is the Hebrew term for the Holocaust.

In his statement Friday, Lombardi noted that Williamson’s comments were not addressed to Pope Benedict XVI or to the Vatican’s Ecclesia Dei commission, which has been dealing with the Society of St. Pius X ever since its bishops were excommunicated. Continue reading