Jewish Journal

Day of ‘Reckoning’

An exploration of the connection between the Roman Catholic Church and the Holocaust is well-researched but disappointing.

by Michael Berenbaum

Posted on Jan. 16, 2003 at 7:00 pm

"A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair" by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. (Knopf, 2002). $25

After provoking a furious debate over the role of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust with his book, "Hitler's Willing Executioners" (Vintage, 1995) Daniel Goldhagen tackles an even more explosive subject, the role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust, in his new book, "A Moral Reckoning." The power of the book is neither in the answers it gives nor the evidence it marshals, but in the questions it poses. None is more central than the one that frames the book: "What must a religion of love and goodness do to confront its history of hatred and harm, to make amends with its victims and to right itself so that it is no longer the source of a hatred and harm that, whatever its past, it would no longer endorse?" Goldhagen approaches the question in three parts: Clarifying the Conduct, Judging the Culpability and Repairing the Harm.

Clarifying the Conduct:

What the pope knew Of Pope Pius XII, Goldhagen asks: What did the pope know of the ongoing slaughter of the Jews? What could he have done about it? What did he do, what didn't he do and why? Curiously, the bulk of the Vatican archives related to the Holocaust remain closed except to selected scholars. But Goldhagen relies upon the work of historians such as David Kertzer, James Carroll and Susan Zucotti, who have done original research in the archives that are available, to answer these questions forcefully.

The wartime pope knew. He could have done much. He did little. The church's response was ambiguous and ambivalent. And it established a climate of anti-Semitism that enabled the murderers to murder.

Goldhagen argues that Pius XII offered no protest, though he knew the broad contours of destruction. Early in his papacy, Pius XII refused to issue what has now become known as the hidden encyclical condemning racism and anti-Semitism, an imperfect -- albeit unambiguous -- document drafted for Pope Pius XI, his predecessor, and under review by the ailing pontiff when he died.

The behavior of the pontiff and the institution he led, are subject to scorching criticism by Goldhagen, much of it -- but not all of it -- justified.

Nowhere is Goldhagen more persuasive than when he contrasts the Roman Catholic Church's behavior with the Danish Church, French Catholic bishops, the Orthodox Bulgarian Synod of Bishops, the Greek Orthodox bishop of Athens and even the bishop of Trieste who protested on behalf of the Jews. Clearly, more was at stake for the pope -- much more -- but the standing of the Roman Catholic Church only intensified its responsibility.

Judging the Culpability:

Why was the leader of the Roman Catholic Church so indifferent?

Here Goldhagen is on familiar ground -- but a reader wouldn't know it from his writing. Simply put, he argues that the church wanted a completely Christian Europe and therefore was not unhappy at the elimination of the Jews, while disapproving of the methods that the Germans employed. The church wanted to eliminate the Jews by conversion; the Germans by extermination.

In this, the church was motivated by the theological tradition of supercessionism, the belief that the church had come to fulfill Judaism and to replace it, denying all legitimacy to the ongoing life of the Jewish people. The belief that Jews had crucified Jesus meant that genocide is an appropriate punishment for deicide. As a result, Goldhagen says in a hard-hitting but unoriginal manner, a tradition of enmity found its place in Christianity. Jews were associated with the devil and with all forms of evil, and charged with the most basic of all accusations: that Jews crucified Jesus Christ and accepted responsibility for all future generations. Goldhagen calls this the Church's "Bible Problem," noting that many verses in the Gospels "defame the Jews" -- 450 verses in the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles alone.

Goldhagen does not inform his readers that the Christian "Bible Problem" impacts far more on mainline Protestants and evangelical fundamentalists than on Roman Catholics, whose church traditions mediate direct biblical contact. And yet, evangelicals are, today, Israel's most vociferous supporters.

Indeed, there have been scores of works by Christian scholars, theologians, church officials and academics, Protestant and Roman Catholic alike (and Jewish scholars of the first century and of anti-Semitism) seeking to overturn anti-Semitic elements of Christianity, to discredit supercessionism and to accept the ongoing life of the Jewish people, both in its political (Zionist) and in its spiritual manifestations. Most recently, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States came out against proselytizing the Jews, a position the Baptists cannot accept.

Goldhagen does not seem to understand the tools available to religions to transform elements of their own tradition by commentaries and by building up other teachings and thus, adjust to changing times and values, even as they stress that nothing sacred has been altered. In the end, Goldhagen contends that the church undermines the integrity of the sacred text by pretending that the Christian Bible is not a profoundly anti-Semitic text. It must declare "the falsehoods false and sinful, and remove them from the text." They are not the word of God, because neither God nor Jesus would tell such lies.

Goldhagen exhibits little understanding that religions don't quite act that way. He also does not describe what John Cuddihy has described as the ongoing "ordeal of civility" in a world in which interreligious civility is now essential to our collective survival. The Catholic Church may now not be the enemy, but the example.

And perhaps, too, Goldhagen pays too much attention to the written word, completely ignoring symbolic actions.

When Pope John XXIII stopped at a Roman synagogue and greeted its Shabbat worshippers, when Pope John Paul II worshipped at a Roman Synagogue and treated the Jewish service as an act of devotion to God and when John Paul II visited Israel and prayed at the Western Wall and condemned anti-Semitism as anti-Christian -- these were all gestures of immense significance.

We have come a long way from disputations.

Some of Goldhagen's judgments are measured. But they become somewhat invisible given the nature of his protest. He knows that the Roman Catholic Church rejected Nazi racism because it believed in the power of redemption: Jews could convert. The church, he emphasizes, shared the goal of eliminating the Jews, but could not sanction the means.

Why, then, did they ultimately not act to prevent the Final Solution? He offers three basic reasons: They believed Jews to be evil and harmful; they did not object in principle to the punishment of Jews; and they lacked empathy for Jews. As Irving Greenberg pointed out three decades ago, the more devout a country -- the more it regarded the Jew as other -- the greater the percentage of Jewish victims.

Repairing the Harm: What must  be done to make amends?

According to Goldhagen, the Vatican needs to give up and cease diplomatic relations with other states. It must stop calculating its place in the world politically. The Roman Catholic Church must embrace religious pluralism; it must eliminate doctrine of papal infallibility and view the Jewish way to God as being as legitimate as the Catholic way, understanding that the ultimate salvation of Christians is in no way dependent upon the actions of Jews. And it must rewrite the Christian Bible eliminating anti-Semitic elements.

Goldhagen writes: "Until the Catholic Church inscribes in its official doctrine reformed statements of the sort that I have discussed and until the church announces them loudly and emphatically so that there is no doubt, we should not mistake the theological reflections of some Catholics or hints by the church, as anything but what they are: laudable personal reflections and intimations."

But they are also key ingredients to spurring change.

I suspect where I most differ with Goldhagen is not at his rage at the past, but his assessment of the contemporary Roman Catholic Church. For 15 years I taught at Georgetown University, a Jesuit -- and arguably therefore a Roman Catholic -- university, and met students who had been products of American Roman Catholic parochial education. Beginning in 1984, less than two decades after Vatican II, when I gave a lecture on anti-Semitism, my Roman Catholic students had never heard of Jews as Christ-killers. The changes initiated in the aftermath of the Vatican council had taken root in schools and seminaries and in the hearts and souls of my fellow theologians.

So I look differently at certain documents such as "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah," whose overall content is good, but in which not everything that should be said is said; in which there are attempts to save face and to neutralize conservative and even reactionary elements that must approve of such documents. Just look at the threat of a heresy trial for Rabbi Jonathan Sacks by his Haredi colleagues to understand how far along the path toward religious pluralism the Roman Catholic Church has come under the current pope.

In the end, "A Moral Reckoning" is disappointing. The anger is genuine; the scholarship is derivative, but, at points, unreliable. Time and again it ascribes but does not document motivations. Material is often presented in its harshest light while more nuanced interpretations may be more accurate. Its prescriptions are unrealistic. It displays no knowledge of major areas of post-Holocaust theology. And it is uncharitable to genuine efforts by behalf of many within the Catholic Church to confront their past and to do better.

The Ziering Institute is hosting a three-part dialogue among Roman Catholic, Protestant and Jewish theologians, philosophers and historians called, "The Vatican, The Pope and The Holocaust." The first will be on Jan. 22 at 7:30 p.m. Gindi Auditorium, the University of Judaism, 15600 Mullholland Drive, Bel Air, (310) 476-9777 ext 445.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism, an adjunct professor of theology at the UJ, former president and CEO of the Survivor of the Shoah Visual History Foundation and former project director and director of the Research Institute at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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