John Paul II on Friday blamed centuries of anti-Jewish prejudice for "deadening" Christian resistance to the Nazi persecution of Jews _ but steered clear of blaming the church itself.
"Humanity had a right to expect" more defiance from the "disciples of Christ," he said in a ringing condemnation of anti-Semitism.
But in his speech to a Vatican seminar on anti-Jewish currents in Christian theology, the pontiff stopped short of confronting the issue of church complicity in the Holocaust through silence or inaction, as some critics charge.
After the French church last month apologized for remaining silent during the persecution and deportation of Jews by the pro-Nazi Vichy regime, there was speculation John Paul might do the same for the church as a whole.
"I had hoped that the pope's statement would approach that kind of admission, as an acceptance of responsibility," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Los Angeles-based group that battles anti-Semitism.
But Hier called the pope's speech a breath of fresh air. "Had the church said this hundreds of years ago, so much suffering would have been spared in the world," he said.
The pope's condemnation of anti-Semitism was not new, and this pope is widely credited with repairing relations with those he calls Christianity's "older brothers." A recent guide issued by the Vatican on how to teach Church doctrine worldwide set the overcoming of anti-Semitism as a goal.
But his comment on anti-Semitism's theological origins was a step in his quest for an accounting of Catholic misdeeds as Christianity's Third Millennium approaches.
John Paul said wrong or unfair interpretations of the New Testament had created hostility toward the Jews in the Christian world.
"I do not say on the part of the church as such," John Paul emphasized.
Those Gospel-based prejudices "helped in deadening consciences, so that when the wave of persecutions inspired by a pagan anti-Semitism flooded Europe .
. the spiritual resistance" was weak, the pope said in a reference to Nazism.
"Anti-Semitism is without any justification and absolutely to be condemned," he said.
John Paul told the 60 scholars from around the world, mostly theologians, that their work would deepen the dialogue between Catholics and Jews and help a "purification of memory."
Some in the church believe that the pope has gone too far in making apologies. John Paul's statement that he was not speaking "on the part of the church as such" was an attempt to mollify that group, Vatican officials said.
In another key passage, John Paul stressed Christ's Jewish nature.
The figure of the Lord would lose his identity if detached from the fact that Christ was a Jew and lived in a Jewish milieu, he said.
The church in 1965 officially discarded the teaching that the Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.
An open wound in relations between the church and many Jews is the record of the World War II pope, Pius XII.
Critics say he failed to intervene to stop the persecution of Jews, though his defenders argue that he felt he could be more effective by keeping ties with belligerents and not endangering Catholic or Jewish communities in Germany and elsewhere.