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The Pope's Uncivil Critics

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 15, 2009


During this past week, as Pope Benedict XVI has carried out his "pilgrimage of peace" to the Holy Land, we have witnessed an unseemly torrent of criticism directed against the Holy Father, primarily because of what he did not say during his visit to Yad Vashem.

Like any public figure, the Pope must be prepared to face criticism. (In fact, he has responded with remarkable poise and equanimity, considering the barrage of hostility that he has faced.) But responsible criticism should be tempered by civility. This week, the Pope's critics have shown no such constraint.

The criticism began in earnest on Monday, after the Pope's arrival in Jerusalem and his visit to the Holocaust memorial. But really it had already begun before he left Rome. Indeed the criticism of the Pontiff has come in an unrelenting stream for months, with pundits constantly citing the "gaffes" the Pope has made in public remarks-- although it is far from self-evident that his remarks have been "gaffes" at all. In the final days leading up to his latest voyage, the question being asked in countless different ways was whether the Pope would avoid such "gaffes" in Israel, and whether his performance in the Holy Land would be impressive enough to atone for his previous offenses.

So the critical tone had already been established; the editorial writers were poised to pounce on any rhetorical misstep. In all likelihood he would have been scolded no matter what he said; there were no magic words that could have placated his avowed enemies.

In any event, when the Pope visited Yad Vashem, and delivered a moving testimony to the eternal memory of the Holocaust victims, Israeli politicians and journalists pronounced his speech unacceptable. It was too dry and academic, they said. He should have expressed more remorse: on behalf of himself, his German homeland, and his Catholic Church. The speech, they said, was altogether unsatisfactory.

Writing for the National Catholic Reporter, the perceptive John Allen observed that it was very easy to predict what Jewish listeners wanted to hear in the Pope's address. They wanted an acknowledgement and condemnation of Christian anti-Semitism, a personal reference to the Pope's own childhood in Nazi Germany, and an explanation of the Pope's move toward reconciliation with the notorious Holocaust-denier, Bishop Richard Williamson. The Pope's address never touched on any of those topics, Allen notes. True enough.

Now if it is easy to predict what a Jewish audience wanted to hear, it is reasonable to assume that Pope Benedict-- a man of well above average intellectual powers, with plenty of intelligent counselors to advise him-- could have made the same prediction. The Pope knew what the audience wanted to hear. He decided to say something else.

At this point, an intelligent listener should ask why the Pope chose not to deliver the speech his audience wanted. Perhaps the Pontiff realized that no matter how hard he tried, he would not satisfy his critics. Or perhaps he felt that he had a more important message to deliver. So it behooves us to pay careful attention to what he did say, to see whether he indicates something more about his intentions.

In that address at Yad Vashem, the Pope spoke at length about the names of the Holocaust victims. Each one was a unique individual, he stressed; each one had a family, a history, a background, personal affections and aspirations. Each individual was loved by God. The Holocaust was not only an immense political tragedy; it was also a series of millions of individual tragedies. Each life was sacred; each memory is eternal.

With this speech the Pope was offering a new perspective on the Holocaust: something unexpected, something unique. He was grappling with the immensity of the horror by examining it in the individual details. He was thinking about each of the Holocaust victims-- almost one by one, as it were-- rather than treating them as an abstract class. He was paying tribute to their memory, rather than using them as pawns in a contemporary political game. He might have satisfied his critics with a different sort of speech, but he might not have satisfied the debt he owed to their memory.

So the Pope's tribute was not what his listeners expected, and perhaps not even what they would have preferred, but it was his tribute: an intensely personal testimony. He chose not to read from the informal script prepared by the pundits. He chose to say the unexpected.

Reading that speech, an analyst might conceivably say that the Pope's message was unclear, that his delivery was uninspired, that his effort fell flat. Those would be legitimate criticisms. But to suggest that the Pope's speech conveyed a lack of goodwill toward the Jewish people is to show a deep hostility toward the Pontiff: a bias that twists the facts, to give them the worst possible interpretation.

Did the Pope fail to condemn the Holocaust? He certainly spoke about the inhumanity of the Nazi ideology. But if he did not condemn the Holocaust in so many words at Yad Vashem, he has been abundantly clear in condemning it in his past speeches-- most notably at Auschwitz. Did he fail to apologize for Christian anti-Semitism? Again, he has delivered that message frequently in the past. Was he obligated to repeat those condemnations during his visit to Jerusalem? Friendly interlocutors-- indeed, even merely civil interlocutors-- do not expect someone constantly to reiterate what he has already said.

As they prepared their background stories, leading up to the Pope's trip, journalists speculated about what the Pontiff might say at Yad Vashem. Their speculation generally proved inaccurate. But that speculation was based on their knowledge of the Pope's record: of what he has said and written in the past. That record is clear; how many times does the record need to be played?

Similarly, how many times does the Pope need to explain his personal record as an involuntary participant in the Hitler Youth movement? (The Vatican's chief spokesman unfortunately clouded the issue by making the argument that the Pope was never a member of Hitler Youth-- thereby contradicting the testimony of the Pope himself.) Anyone who approaches the evidence with objectivity and goodwill recognizes that the young Joseph Ratzinger was enrolled against his own will, and never took an active role in the Nazi movement, even as a child. There is nothing more to explain; it's time to move on.

Pope Benedict traveled to the Holy Land hoping to advance the cause of inter-religious dialogue. Honest dialogue requires that the participants approach one another in good faith, prepared to give each other the benefit of the doubt, trying to see each other's arguments in the best possible light. What we have seen too often during this past week is something quite different: a deliberate effort to find fault, an untoward penchant for taking offense, an abject failure to listen. In short, incivility.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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