Pope John Paul II's apology for the Holocaust, commemorated on an Israeli stamp.
Pope John Paul II's apology for the Holocaust, commemorated on an Israeli stamp.

In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II apologized to the Jewish people. He traveled to Israel and placed a note in the sacred Western Wall asking forgiveness for the Catholic Church. What did the Church have to apologize for? Since the Middle Ages the Catholic Church persecuted, tortured and killed Jews, or did nothing to stop such violence when it happened. The Church’s anti-Jewish policies continued into the 20th Century.

Persecution of Jews in the Middle Ages

Roman Emperor Constantine, who adopted Christianity and limited Jewish rights.
Roman Emperor Constantine, who adopted Christianity and limited Jewish rights.

Roman Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity in 312 and limited Jewish rights. Nonetheless, Roman policy was tolerant toward Jews. (Jewish Virtual Library: Church, When the Empire collapsed in the 5th century, the Church took St. Augustine’s view: Jews were second-class citizens but deserved protection as “witnesses” to Christ’s divinity. Everything changed in 1066. Crusaders on their way through Europe to Palestine slaughtered Jews en masse. Pope Urban II, founder of the Crusades, ignored the atrocities. Under Muslim rule in Spain, Jews enjoyed a great degree of freedom and social status. When the Islamic empire fell in the 13th century, Church persecution of European Jews became total.

Blood Libel, the Inquisition and the Church

Jews were expelled from their homes, ghettoized and forced by the Church to wear identifying “badges.” "Blood libel,” the calumny that Jews murdered Christian children draining their blood to bake matzah, was widespread. One supposed victim of this “ritual” was a child named Simon. Though murdered by Christians seeking to blame Jews, the Pope sainted Simon as a martyr. Spain expelled Jewish citizens in 1492. The Inquisition gave them a choice: conversion or torture. Those who refused or were suspected of insincere conversion, were burned at the stake. Despite occasional Vatican objections, the persecutions continued into the 19th century.

The 20th Century and The Holocaust

Hitler struck a deal with the Vatican to take Catholics out of German politics.
Hitler struck a deal with the Vatican to take Catholics out of German politics.

In 1904, Pope Pius X stated that the Church “cannot recognize the Jewish people” whose religion no longer “enjoys any validity.” When Nazis rose to power in 1933, the German Church fought them until the Vatican struck a deal with Hitler. Catholics were banned from German politics. The agreement was negotiated Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who became Pope in 1939. He was informed early on of the Nazi genocide, but never spoke against the Holocaust. Despite behind-the-scenes efforts to save some Jews, particularly those who converted to Christianity, the pope stood by even as more than 1,000 Jews were rounded up in Rome itself and shipped to Auschwitz. As the Nazis faced defeat, Vatican officials aided the “rat lines” that helped thousands of war criminals to escape to South America.

The Church Begins to Heal the Wounds

Pope Francis has pledged to continue healing wounds in Jewish-Catholic relations.
Pope Francis has pledged to continue healing wounds in Jewish-Catholic relations.

Pope John Paul II apologized in Jerusalem for Church inaction during the Holocaust. He was building on the Vatican’s Nostra Aetate of 1965, in which the Church for the first time stated that the Jews could not be blamed for the death of Jesus Christ. Pope Benedict XVII in 2011 re-emphasized the position that the Jews did not kill Christ and visited Israel as well. Jewish leaders welcomed the “historic reconciliation.” In 2013, Benedict XVII’s successor, Pope Francis, announced plans to “contribute to the progress that Jewish-Catholic relations have seen.” In response, Israeli President Shimon Peres declared that Jewish-Catholic relations were “at their best in the last 2,000 years.”