VATICAN (CWN) -- Vatican officials have been disappointed by the mostly negative reaction of world Jewish leaders to the new Vatican document on the Holocaust which was released on Monday. Having hoped that the Church statement would promote reconciliation, they are concerned that the gesture has been widely rejected.

      Nevertheless, Vatican officials involved in dialogue with the Jewish world are looking forward to an unprecedented meeting at the Vatican, scheduled for next week (March 23-26) of the International Jewish Commission on Inter-religious Consultation). Church officials suggest that the meeting might offer new opportunities to clarify statements and clear up misunderstandings, perhaps leading to the promulgation of some joint declaration.

      In an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Father Remi Hoeckman-- the secretary for the commission which produced the document-- expressed what seemed to be a widely held belief at the Vatican. "We are not unhappy with the reactions," he said. "Those Jews who read the text with an open heart appreciated it. Others, led by bad information or bad intentions, returned to the old polemics."

      One important official, Father Georges Cottier, went further. While emphasizing that he was speaking only for himself, the Theologian to the Pontifical Household described his own reaction to the Jewish response as "bitter." He continued: "To reduce the document to the question of Pius XII is to lose sight of what represents the center point of the text: the firm condemnation of the Holocaust."

      The Vatican document defended the record of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust-- a fact which provoked sharply negative comments from some Jewish leaders, especially in Italy. But Father Cottier argued that the criticisms of Pius XII are "without any foundation." He insisted: "They are calumnies because we know how much that pope did to save so many Jewish lives."

      Father Hoeckman underlined that message, pointing out that many Jewish leaders of the same epoch had praised Pius XII for his efforts to protect Jews. Father Hoeckman insisted that the focus on Pius XII was exactly the sort of polemical debate which the new document sought to avoid. He pointed out that criticism of Pope Pius XII began in earnest only after the appearance of the play The Deputy, by Rolf Hocchuth, in 1963; thus an act of fiction created a "black legend" which overcame the evidence of history and the testimony of Jewish leaders who were on the scene at the time.

      Meanwhile, in Paris, French far-right party leader Jean Marie Le Pen on Wednesday rejected a new Vatican document that acknowledged the complicity of some Catholics in the work of the Holocaust during World War II.

      Le Pen said the issue of the responsibility of some Christians for the death of six million Jews and hundreds of thousands of others in concentration camps was "the Pope's problem." "I don't feel any blame and therefore I have no need to repent," he said. Le Pen has been accused anti-Semitism and xenophobia for his political stance against foreigners in France. In January, a Paris magistrate ordered an investigation into Le Pen's comments that the concentration camps are "a mere detail" of history. If found guilty of "disputing crimes against humanity," he could be fined and face up to a year in jail.

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March 19, 1998 volume 9, no. 56         DAILY CATHOLIC