The pope has addressed the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, citing the Holocaust as the grimmest recent experience of national godlessness. He has done so in a letter of striking impact, marred only by the timing.
When the pope consented to an interview with Kurt Waldheim a few weeks ago, his doing so was offensive not only to Jews but to others who have developed a contempt for Waldheim based in part on his having concealed what he did during the war years and in part on what it is alleged he actually did during the war years. What then happened was that King Democracy spoke in Austria and elected him its president. Although the nations of the world had been pretty competent in boycotting Austria's president, inevitably he would show up in some of the corridors of ceremonial power. That the pope's should be one distressed the many.
But what actually then happened distressed the most. The pope recounted in a ritual hyperbole that accompanies toasts to chiefs of state the glorious achievements of Kurt Waldheim as secretary-general of the United Nations. Now, this might itself have brought blushes to the cheeks of practiced men of affairs. Waldheim was happy in the company of men and women who participate in the activity of the most concentrated center of hypocrisy ever convened for a protracted period in the history of mankind. The only institution one can think of offhand that would sit by idly and perhaps even applaud another Holocaust is the United Nations.
There has been genocide during the life of the United Nations, notably in Cambodia, where a heavier percentage of the population was extinguished than of the Jewish population during the Holocaust without protests from the United Nations. Indeed, the U.N. is the Willow Run of anti-Semitism, as anyone will note who spends a little time there. (I spent three months there as a U.S. delegate in 1973. It was like viewing the Protocols of Zion as a daily serial.)
Still, all chiefs of state and all the traveling popes are expected to come to the U.N. every now and then and treat it as though it were a convention of Eagle Scouts bent on bringing peace and plenty to the world. Kurt Waldheim had no problem in heading an institution that steadfastly refuses to act on such sentiments as created the Holocaust, which sentiments are protected among other things by a nuclear umbrella. There are no words any chief of state could use in greeting Andropov or Chernenko or Gorbachev that would offend any active American lobby.
What mars the pope's letter reminding the conscience of the world of the horrors of Nazi Germany is its appearance at this particular moment. It is everywhere understood as propitiation for his meeting with Waldheim. The lead sentence in The New York Times declared it to be ''a conciliatory gesture toward Jews angered by his audience with'' Waldheim. What irritates is any suggestion that it required such a letter to convince the moralists of this world that the pope's attitude toward the Holocaust was other than everyone who has studied Pope John Paul knows it to be.
The pope's sincerity in deploring brutality can never be convincingly questioned, and we are left with the impression that it was required of him that he speak now, lest when he arrives in Florida in a couple of weeks he be boycotted on the grounds that his attitude toward the Holocaust is suspect. There are Christians and probably a good many Jews who feel that whatever the arguments for or against meeting President Waldheim and garlanding his record as secretary-general of the United Nations, the pope's propitiation suggests that he had a conscience that deserved to be troubled. The word that comes to mind is that he has been manipulated, and there are those who don't much like it when the pope is manipulated.
All of which will come and go. One hopes that the sentiments he expressed will burn in the mind. ''In this spirit of peace and universal fraternal solidarity I am preparing to renew to you,'' he wrote to the American bishops, ''and to the beloved Jewish community in the United States the joyful proclamation of peace, the Shalom announced by the prophets and awaited by the whole world. I express the hope that this peace will well up like a stream of living water from the bosom of Jerusalem and that there may be accomplished that which was foretold by Zechariah: 'The Lord shall become King over the whole earth; on that day the Lord shall be the only one, and His name the only one.' ''