On March 23, 2000, Pope John Paul II spoke the following words at Yad Vashem:
“As Bishop of Rome and Successor of the Apostle Peter, I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church, motivated by the Gospel law of truth and love and by no political considerations, is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place. The Church rejects racism in any form as a denial of the image of the Creator inherent in every human being (cf. Gen 1:26).
“In this place of solemn remembrance, I fervently pray that our sorrow for the tragedy which the Jewish people suffered in the twentieth century will lead to a new relationship between Christians and Jews. Let us build a new future in which there will be no more anti-Jewish feeling among Christians or anti-Christian feeling among Jews, but rather the mutual respect required of those who adore the one Creator and Lord, and look to Abraham as our common father in faith (cf. We Remember, V).”
Six years later, in May 2006, Pope Benedict XVI, a native of Germany who had directly experienced the Nazi years, speaking at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, invoked the memory of John Paul II.
Walking alone, the 79-year-old pontiff, with head bowed said:
“To speak in this place of horror, in this place where unprecedented mass crimes were committed against God and man is almost impossible — and it is particularly difficult and troubling for a Christian, for a Pope from Germany.
“By destroying Israel, they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful.”
He added “Why, Lord did you remain silent?”
But three years later, in 2009, at Yad Vashem, Pope Benedict did not speak of Nazis and the concentration camps, instead issuing vague evocations of the dead. Of the Holocaust he said “Similarly, she [the Church] draws close to all those who today are subjected to persecution on account of race, color, condition of life or religion.”
The uproar was instant and eclipsed the comfort and reconciliation that Jews and Catholics had found in the Pope’s previous message in Auschwitz. The Pope was harshly criticized in an editorial in the German paper Der Spiegel:
“The pope never mentioned the culprits, or the German words engraved into the floor of the Hall of Remembrance at his feet: Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Majdanek, Theresienstadt. He said nothing about the church’s position on the Holocaust, or about its history of anti-Semitism, which made the Shoah possible in the first place. Instead, he confined himself to mentioning the “deep compassion” of the Catholic Church for “the victims.”
Frankly, whatever the intention, there was a hint of inappropriate moral equivalence.