In January, when Pope Benedict XVI reversed the 1988 excommunication of four bishops of an ultra-traditionalist Catholic group called the Society of St. Pius X , he probably knew it would ignite a firestorm. The church has significant unresolved problems with the society, among them its gross disobedience to the previous Pope. Benedict was determined to try to end a schism with a movement that exhibits a fervent piety he shares and is trying to encourage in Europe, where SSPX is strongest. But almost simultaneous with the Pope’s announcement, a Swedish-TV interview surfaced in which SSPX bishop Richard Williamson matter-of-factly denied the existence of the Nazi gas chambers. The ensuing international outcry forced the Vatican to release a generalized condemnation of Holocaust denial–though it didn’t rule out Williamson’s return as a Roman Catholic bishop.
Then an unlikely figure entered the fray: Angela Merkel. German Chancellors don’t usually weigh in on church matters, she said. But when the Vatican gave “the impression that it could be possible to deny that the Holocaust happened,” she felt compelled to demand that the Pope repudiate the idea, lest it affect relations with “the Jewish people as a whole.” In essence, Merkel was tutoring the German Pope on his responsibilities to the Jews. On May 11, Benedict arrives in Israel during an eight-day visit to the Holy Land, his first since becoming Pontiff. The trip is a near carbon copy of one made by his predecessor John Paul II in 2000. The Vatican hopes to use the trip to build on its 44-year rapprochement with the world’s Jews after centuries of conflict and persecution. During his papacy, John Paul became the first modern Pope to visit a synagogue, recognize the state of Israel and apologize for the role Christians played in the Holocaust. But since Benedict’s election, his relations with Jews–although similar in broad outline to John Paul’s–have been plagued by mixed messages that have caused critics to wonder whether he has botched the opportunity to redress past shortcomings and strengthen the church’s ties to the Jewish people. Like John Paul, Benedict came of age in one of the Holocaust’s European slaughterhouses, and many expected that the Bavarian, like the Pole, could turn his somber history into a special authority for combatting anti-Semitism and pursuing the pro-Jewish reforms the church enacted at the Second Vatican Council in 1965. But he hasn’t done so. Instead, says David Gibson, the author of The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World, “here’s a Pope who grew up under the Nazis, who witnessed this whole thing, a man with such an acute and vivid sense of language and experiences–and yet for whom one of the great dramas of the 20th century is somehow invisible in what he communicates.”