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Kurt Waldheim: Papal Knight?

Last month, Pope John Paul II awarded a papal knighthood, the Order of Pius IX, to former Austrian President and onetime U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim. The action, which took place in Vienna rather than in Rome, was not noted in the usual Vatican bulletins and is only now receiving wide notice.

Waldheim became an international pariah when his wartime collaboration with the Nazis came to light. A panel of historians commissioned by his own government to investigate his record concluded that he “repeatedly went along with unlawful acts” and that his claim that he knew nothing about deportation of Greek and Yugoslav civilians to Nazi death camps could not be believed. The U.S. Justice Department, as it put Waldheim on a not-welcome list, stated that he was implicated “in (wartime) acts which clearly constitute persecution under established legal precedent.”

In 1987, the Pope’s decision merely to grant Waldheim an audience became a scandal. At the time, Vatican spokesmen insisted that there was nothing personal about this decision: The Pope was simply following protocol in receiving the president of a country that the pontiff had visited.

That explanation, scarcely credible at the time, has lost all credibility now. Whatever justification there was for receiving Waldheim, there is none for honoring him, even for his U.N. work. Had his collaboration been known, he would never have been appointed to any high-ranking U.N. post. The papal action is particularly inflammatory just now because of longstanding Serbian claims that the Croatian Catholic clergy collaborated with the Nazis in persecuting the Serbs.

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The Pope’s action is baffling, to say the least. Israel, which protested, was right to do so. The United States should protest as well. And Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles should at least privately make the Vatican aware of the local impact of this action. After the scandal of the 1987 meeting, a group of Los Angeles Jewish and Catholic leaders headed by Rabbi Alfred Wolf and Msgr. Royale M. Vadakin, representing Cardinal Mahony, worked hard to repair relations. The Vatican, with this new incomprehensible action, has now made good Catholic-Jewish relations that much harder to maintain.


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