e-mail us
Vatican official criticizes Jews

NCR Staff

A German Jesuit responsible for the cause of Pope Pius XII’s canonization said that Jews were the “managers” of Soviet communism in its initial stages and that Jews who criticize the wartime pope may be “massive accomplices in the destruction of the Catholic church.”

Jesuit Fr. Kurt-Peter Gumpel also told reporters that Jesus and Mary were slandered in the Talmud, a collection of rabbinical teachings.

In a telephone interview with NCR Dec. 3, Gumpel acknowledged making the statements to Austrian journalists in late November but said they had been “totally taken out of context.”

Publication of the remarks in the Austrian press triggered swift criticism from both Jewish and Catholic leaders in that nation -- criticism that Gumpel now says is premature and based on an “unpleasant” and “inaccurate” account of what he said.

Several Jewish groups have asked that the church delay beatification of Pius XII until Vatican archives for the World War II era can be examined by outside experts. Some have criticized the pope, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, for not clearly condemning the Nazis.

Gumpel, a former official of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints who still handles Pius XII’s case, has been widely quoted in the media as a Vatican spokesperson.

His controversial comments came in an interview with Austrian journalists visiting Rome to cover the ad limina visit of that nation’s bishops. The comments appeared in the Vienna-based newspaper Der Standard Nov. 23.

Gumpel is quoted as saying that Jewish criticism of Pius XII “makes one wonder what the Jewish faction has against Catholics.”

Managers of communism

After claiming that the Talmud “rages against” Jesus and Mary, Gumpel went on to say that “The Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels has Jewish origins, as well as the assertion that religion is the opiate of the masses.”

He said, “Eighty percent of the initial Soviet regime was Jewish, so Jews were the managers of communism.”

Reached at the Jesuit residence in Rome, Gumpel told NCR that his remarks had been distorted. “It is not a question of attributing these things to Jews in general. That would be false and unfair.

“But since the Catholic church is making an examination of conscience, what I said is that we would appreciate it if that would happen on the other side as well. Some Jews have greatly damaged the Catholic church,” he said.

Gumpel said that if someone were to see the full text of his remarks, it would be “unreasonable” to interpret any of them as anti-Semitic. “Psychologically, I can understand anything,” Gumpel said. “But logically I cannot understand how someone could reach that conclusion.”

With respect to the assertions about communism, Gumpel said, “It is a historical fact that many of the Bolsheviks who persecuted the Catholic church as well as the Orthodox church in Russia were Jews. That is the simple truth.”

Gumpel also repeated his criticism of the Talmud. “If you’ve read the Talmud as I have, you know that it says the most hateful things about Jesus and Our Lady, suggesting that she was a public woman, an adulteress,” Gumpel said. “It would be helpful for Jews to say that they would not say these things today. Wouldn’t that be a sign of goodwill?”

Gumpel said, “One should not present these things in black and white. But what I am saying is that it would be a good idea for both parties, Jews as well as Catholics, to admit guilt.”

In this context, Gumpel referred to Jewish criticism of the beatification of Croatian Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac and the canonization of Edith Stein as “attacks on Roman Catholicism.” In the case of Stepinac, Gumpel said the cardinal had saved thousands of Jews, in some cases sheltering them in his own cathedral. Of Stein, a Jewish woman who became a Catholic nun and died in a Nazi death camp, Gumpel said that he possessed Gestapo documents showing that her arrest was a formal consequence of the Dutch bishops’ condemnation of the Nazis.

Gumpel also said that the recent request of Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See, Aaron Lopez, that the beatification of Pius XII be delayed 50 years, was either “imprudent or provocative.” If the Israeli ambassador knew that the Vatican had published 8,000 pages on Pius’ wartime record and made his comment anyway, Gumpel said it amounted to a “deliberate insult.”

“I am certainly not anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic,” Gumpel said. “I have many Jewish friends.” He also said that at least one Jew had written him in support after the Der Standard article appeared.

Gumpel asserted that the reporter who wrote the Der Standard article was not present at the interview in which he made the comments, but based his story on a tape recording. “From a human point of view, as well as from a journalistic point of view, this is unacceptable,” Gumpel said.

Gumpel said he was preparing a formal response to the story, which has also been reported by Kathpress, the official Catholic news agency in Austria. He said he had demanded a full transcript of the tape recording from Kathpress, which the agency had agreed to provide.

Der Standard reported on Nov. 25 that Paul Chaim Eisenberg, chief rabbi of the Jewish community in Vienna, called Gumpel’s remarks “extraordinarily hurtful, as they travel all the old roads of pure anti-Semitism.”

The Austrian paper also reported that Gerhard Bodendorfer, the head of the coordinating body for Christian-Jewish cooperation in Austria, an ecumenical body founded by the former cardinal of Vienna Franz König, has protested to that nation’s apostolic nuncio and to the Jesuit superior. In his letter Bodendorfer said, “I am amazed that an official collaborator in a highly responsible Vatican position could hold these old, obviously undistilled prejudices that are still hawked today.

“Conspiracy theories about world Judaism combined with anti-communist polemics come out of the lowest drawer of anti-Semitism,” Bodendorfer wrote. “Gumpel’s behavior shows that he obviously did not find in the body of actual church doctrine that such anti-Semitism is clearly and completely condemned.”

Gumpel said he was angry that neither Eisenberg nor Bodendorfer “had the courtesy of contacting me.” He said he intended to respond to each man in writing.

Making a response

“There are still people who, if they see something in print, they believe it,” Gumpel told NCR. He said he had also contacted the Austrian nuncio and the “appropriate Jesuit authorities,” informing them he would be making a response.

Gumpel, 75, was a judge in the Congregation for the Causes of Saints for 11 years. In 1983, he became a “relator,” a curial official responsible for handling the cases of prospective saints. After his official retirement at age 70, he continued to hold responsibility for several cases, including that of Pius XII.

Gumpel’s comments are all the more remarkable since he is said to be of Jewish descent himself. His Jewish ancestry was cited by the bishop of the German diocese of Speyer in an early October statement to the German media. Bishop Anton Schlembach quoted Gumpel in support of Edith Stein’s canonization, saying that Gumpel himself had Jewish ancestry and “had been victimized by oppressive measures.”

Gumpel refused to comment on his family background for NCR, saying he “never spoke of it.” He did confirm, however, that members of his family had been persecuted and even killed by the Nazis, so he “understands the suffering of the Jewish people.” During World War II, Gumpel, then 14, fled Germany for Holland, as did Stein.

Gumpel has long been a defender of Pius XII. In response to Lopez’s request for a delay in canonization, The New York Times quoted Gumpel on Nov. 5 as saying, “These attacks and insults by some groups are counterproductive. I would not be surprised if it led to a rise in anti-Semitic feeling.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 11, 1998