Meikel Canawatti, of Bethlehem’s Three Arches Souvenir Shop, seemed to relish the role of roguish Middle Eastern merchant. One of the town’s dwindling community of Christians, he felt badly let down by the Pope. Those accompanying Benedict XVI to Manger Square would be bringing their own lunches — and would have no need of the excellent fare on offer in his family’s restaurants.

Secular interests — economic and political — are just below the surface of religion in this part of the world. This is one of the reasons religion is such a sensitive issue here. Benedict has on occasion shown himself — how can one put it? — less than sure-footed in dealing with the region’s sensitivities, and it was a gaffe-hungry papal press corps that descended on the Holy Land.

For a while, it all seemed to be going so well. The three speeches Benedict delivered on his first day in Israel are really rather beautiful texts. He spoke expressively, and his English was clear. He dealt with anti-Semitism unambiguously, and outlined the Vatican’s support for a two-state solution for the region tactfully but in explicit terms (circumlocution would have offended the Palestinians). At Yad Vashem, he reflected on the importance of individual stories of suffering amid the enormity of the Holocaust. Some of the headlines the following morning took him to task over the Yad Vashem address. As a German of his generation, the argument ran, he should have said something more personal. And Benedict was attacked for saying that Jews were “killed” rather than “murdered” by the Nazis. But many Israelis I spoke to felt that the criticism was inhospitable and ungenerous.

Enter the Vatican’s press spokesman, Fr Frederico Lombardi. Stung by those headlines, Fr Lombardi declared that Benedict had “never, never, never” been in the Hitler Youth. Since the Pope has himself stated the contrary clearly, this proved difficult for the papal spokesman to sustain. So Lombardi rowed back a bit, saying only that the young Joseph Ratzinger had been “obliged” to join. This somehow made things worse. No one serious has, as far as I am aware, ever suggested that Benedict was once an enthusiastic Nazi, but if the Vatican feels compelled to deny something…we had our gaffe — a modest one, certainly, but a gaffe nonetheless.       

The American scholar George Weigel has argued eloquently in these pages that Benedict’s problem lies in the poor quality of his advisers, and the Lombardi debacle lends weight to this. But when something silly like this happens, I find myself drawn to re-examine some of the other, more serious rows Benedict has sparked. The more I reflect on them, the more unsettled I become.

Take the Williamson affair (Richard Williamson is the Holocaust-denying bishop whose excommunication was lifted by the Pope in January). I find myself making a connection with a film I once made, for BBC2’s Newsnight, about Paul Touvier, the leader of the Vichy police force, the Milice, in Lyons during the war. As Klaus Barbie’s opposite number, he would round up French partisans and hand them over to be shot in reprisal for Resistance attacks. At the end of the war, he mysteriously disappeared, and when he was finally arrested in 1989, it emerged that he had been hiding, with his family, in Catholic monasteries around France. The convent in Nice where he was finally tracked down was part of the ultra-traditionalist Lefebvrist sect of which Williamson is a member.   

Right-wing French Catholicism — the tradition which gave us the schismatic Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and his Society of Saint Pius X — has always had a strong strand of anti-Semitism. You can trace it back to the Dreyfus affair. Williamson’s Holocaust denial is not an aberration. It is part of that tradition. No one is more finally attuned to Europe’s cultural currents than this Pope — he took his papal name in honour of Europe’s patron saint. Of course, he is sincere when he says he did not know about Williamson’s views, but why is he so keen to patch things up with these oddballs, with their poisonous intellectual inheritance?

Most Jewish leaders I have spoken to seem happy to accept apologies and move on from all this. The revolution in the relationship between Catholics and Jews over the past four decades or so is probably too settled now to be thrown off course.

It is we Catholics who keep coming back to these matters and gnawing away at them in the way I am doing here. The real argument we are witnessing is not between Catholics and Jews. It is an internal Catholic debate about the direction of the Church, which is being fought out by proxy.

Finally, the racing selections. His Beatitude Archbishop Fouad Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, got very high marks from Vatican watchers for his conduct during the Pope’s trip. The word papabile is being bandied about. You heard it here first, and, with Benedict still looking in remarkably good shape, you should get soaraway odds at the bookies.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"