Rabbi Berel WeinRabbi Berel Wein is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator, admired the world over for his audio tapes/CDs, videos and books, particularly on Jewish history.
The new Pope of Rome, a 76-year-old Argentinian cardinal, ascends his throne with a murky past. Rumors have always swerved about him and his behavior during the terrible period of “The Dirty War” that engulfed Argentina, when the country was controlled by the military juntas.
The cardinal was accused of complicity and of notable silence during that sad period of time that consumed tens of thousands of Argentinian lives. The rabbis of the Talmud wryly remarked that leaders of the community always have a whiff of scandal in their past. With political and temporal leaders this is often viewed as being natural if not even necessary for successful governance.
However, when one seeks to be viewed as being the moral force of humankind, which is the role that the latter popes have ascribed to themselves, a troubled past weakens any moral message in the future. The last pope, Joseph Ratzinger, was always haunted by his membership, as a young man, in Hitler’s Nazi Youth organization.
Eugenuo Pacelli, the World War II pope, had previously in the 1930’s negotiated a Concordat with Hitler, accepting his rule, cruelty and murder in turn for the promised protection of Catholic institutions and assets in Germany. Such a person could hardly be expected to later take any strong stand against the extermination of millions of Jews. In fact, he remained silent about it during the entire war. That can hardly be construed as moral leadership or as justifying one’s posing as the conscience of human values.
But let us be fair to this new pope and give him all benefits of doubt. The world certainly needs a moral voice as Western civilization continues to wallow in a quagmire of hedonism, lust and moral equivalency. This new pope is reputed to have been a champion of the rights of the poor in Argentina.
I have always felt that the greatest of the rights of the poor is the right to no longer be poor. Education and social equality are steps that raise people from poverty. In the past, the Church has not been an exemplary leader in these areas. Perhaps it will be more forthcoming on these issues under the leadership of its new pope.
Questions of continuing priestly celibacy, the treatment of women, the confronting of Islamic terrorism, clergy pedophilia and significant financial impropriety plague the Church. Can or will the new pope truly and realistically address these problems is the question that will define his papacy. The previous pope was unable or unwilling to do so and quit.
It is a daunting task that faces the new pope, if he is prepared to undertake it. Of course the Church cannot be reformed overnight. I once read that it takes an aircraft carrier forty-five miles of sea travel to turn itself around. An institution as ponderous as the Church will require time and distance to turn itself around. Yet a beginning must be made if the papacy is to have true moral influence in human society.
The Jews are and always have been a special problem for the Church. The renewal of Jewish life after World War II and the establishment and success of the State of Israel have posed both opportunities and difficulties for the Church. The fact that the Vatican and Israel have normal diplomatic relations with each other represents an enormous sea change in Catholic theology and Vatican diplomacy.
The Jews should, as much as possible, cultivate good relations with the Vatican. After all, it represents over one billion people in the world that we also live in. Yet its past relations with us are so sordid and bloody that more must be done by the Church to combat the current anti-Semitism prevalent in so many Catholic countries.
Strong and continuing pressure and public statements from the pope are necessary to change religious stereotypes as well as previous Church doctrines and teachings. The Church is anything but naïve and it certainly realizes that anti-Israel pronouncements only fuel the anti-Semitism that is, unfortunately, still so prevalent in the Catholic world.
The Church can help bring about a settlement of issues in our part of the world but it can only do so if it is truly neutral and discards its past prejudicial attitude against Judaism, Jews and Jewish rights regarding the Land of Israel. We will have to wait and see if the new pope deals with this matter at all during his tenure.