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The Holocaust and His Catholic Problem

A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair

By Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

Knoff, 362 pages, $25.

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The power of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s latest book, “A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair,” is neither in the answers it gives nor the evidence it marshals but in the questions it poses. And no question 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?”

The book is divided into three major sections: “Clarifying the Conduct,” “Judging the Culpability” and “Repairing the Harm.” Relying upon the work of previous historians (though not theologians) including David Kertzer, James Carroll and Susan Zucotti, all of whom did original research in available archives — the bulk of the Vatican Archives related to the Holocaust remain closed to all but selected scholars — Goldhagen offers forceful answers to questions that have lingered for more than half a century. Both the institution of the Roman Catholic Church and its wartime leader, Pope Pius XII, are put under Goldhagen’s unforgiving microscope; the book is an indictment of them both.

Of the pope, Goldhagen asks: What did he know of the ongoing slaughter of the Jews? What did he do, or not do, and why? And, finally, what could he have done? Goldhagen’s answers: The pope knew a lot, did little and could have done much. According to “A Moral Reckoning,” the Church committed not only sins of commission but those of omission as well. It established a climate of antisemitism that enabled the murderers to murder, making it more a collaborator than a victim of the Nazis. After the war, it aided escaping Nazi war criminals and refused to forcefully condemn the Holocaust or its perpetrators. Even today, Goldhagen argues, it won’t face the painful truth directly.

Goldhagen argues that Pius XII offered no protest, though he knew the broad contours of destruction. Goldhagen is most persuasive when he contrasts the Roman Catholic Church’s behavior with the benevolence of the Danish Church, French Catholic bishops, the Orthodox Bulgarian synod, Greek Orthodox bishop of Athens and even the bishop of Trieste. Clearly, much more was at stake for the pope, but the standing of the Roman Catholic Church only intensified its responsibility.

How much of this scorching criticism is justified? Much of it, in my opinion — but not all.

I agree that the Vatican knew much; I suspect that once Vatican archives are open we will learn that the pope had reliable and timely information from his own sources — bishops, priests and papal nuncios — that permitted him to grasp the full measure of what was happening. Nor is there any denying that early in his papacy, Pious XII refused to issue what has become known as the “hidden encyclical,” a Church paper condemning racism and antisemitism. It was an imperfect document drafted for his predecessor, yet the pontiff’s rejection of it is still striking. Why was he, and the institution he led, so dangerously ambivalent about the Jews?

Here Goldhagen offers an established answer: the theological tradition of supercessionism, the belief that Catholicism had replaced Judaism as the path to salvation, and one that denied legitimacy to the ongoing life of the Jewish people. The Church wanted to eliminate the Jews by conversion; the Germans by extermination. This theory is not new. For more than four decades, the theologian and historian of religion Richard Rubenstein has been arguing that the Church, which sought a completely Christian Europe, might have disapproved of the Nazis’ methods but was not unhappy with the results. Goldhagen also attacks what he calls the Church’s “Bible Problem,” the scriptural basis for a tradition of enmity, including an association of Jews with the devil and with all forms of evil and — the most basic of all accusations — the charge that the blood of Jesus Christ was on the hands of the Jews.

According to Goldhagen, many verses in the Gospels “defame the Jews.” He even counts them: 40 in Mark, 60 in Luke, 80 in Mathew, 130 in John, 140 in Acts of the Apostles, and some 450 verses in the five books. Goldhagen contends that the Church does not maintain the integrity of the sacred text by pretending that the Christian Bible is not a profoundly antisemitic 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.

But what Goldhagen fails to tell his reader is that the “Bible Problem” has a far greater impact on Protestants and evangelical fundamentalists, who are today Israel’s most vociferous supporters, than it does on Roman Catholics. Protestants approach the Christian Scripture directly. For Roman Catholics, a direct encounter is mediated by Church traditions and Church teachings so the “Bible Problem” impacts far more on Protestants — and most especially on fundamentalists who regard Christian Scripture as the word of God — than it does on Roman Catholics.

Also, there has been a good deal of work by both Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars seeking to overturn antisemitic elements of Christianity, to discredit supercessionism and to accept the ongoing life of the Jewish people, as Jews, both in its political (Zionist) and spiritual manifestations. Most recently, for example, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States came out against proselytizing the Jews — a position the pro-Israel Baptists will not accept.

Some — but not all — of Goldhagen’s judgments are measured. He knows that the Roman Catholic Church rejected Nazi racism because it believed in the power of redemption. Jews could convert. And he accepts that Christianity was a necessary — not a sufficient — condition for the Holocaust. Without Christianity and the long tradition of enmity, Jews would not have been the chosen victim, though the Nazis built on religious and political antisemitism with their own form of racial antisemitism and without the Nazis there would have been no Holocaust. The Church did not sanction the methods that were employed, nor could it, even though it may have shared the goal of eliminating the Jews.

But, ultimately, he fails to understand that religious transformation is achieved through traditional elements — fresh commentaries on scripture, novel interpretations of rituals — even as the proponents of such change stress that nothing has changed, nothing sacred has been altered.

For example, his hero and mine, Archbishop Roncalli, who later became Pope John XXIII, built a legacy of friendship with the Jews not by rejecting his Catholicism, but by emphasizing others aspects of its religious tradition — most specifically, the notion of Jews as God’s creations, deserving of love and dignity. Thus, as apostolic delegate in Istanbul throughout the war years, he worked with Yishuv emissaries in an attempt to save the Jews. He wrote documents arguing that Jews were co-religionists and fellow countrymen of Jesus — quasi-official papers that eventually helped save some Jewish lives.

What must be done to make amends? Goldhagen’s strict prescription calls for the Vatican to cease diplomatic relations with other countries; to embrace religious pluralism; eliminate the doctrine of papal infallibility and, last, view the Jewish way to God as being as legitimate as the Catholic way, with an understanding that the ultimate salvation of Christians is in no way dependent upon the actions of Jews.

“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,” Goldhagen writes, “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.”

Unfortunately, religions don’t quite act that way, nor should they. Goldhagen, in his zeal to assign blame, has analyzed documents while completely ignoring symbolic actions. When Pope John XXIII stopped at a Roman synagogue and greeted its Sabbath worshipers, his symbolic action was small but quite significant. When Pope John Paul II worshiped at the same Roman synagogue and treated the Jewish service as an act of devotion to God, the synagogue as a house of worship and the chief rabbi as a fellow religious leader, that too was also a symbolic act — larger and even more significant. When that same pope visited Israel, prayed at the Western Wall and condemned antisemitism as anti-Christian in front of the cameras of CNN, that too was a gesture of immense significance. When he went to the Chief Rabbinate to visit his religious counterparts in their offices, even charedi, or ultra-Orthodox, rabbis understood that the act had meaning.

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 institution. Many of the students had been products of American Roman Catholic parochial education, and none of them had been taught to see Jews as Christ-killers. That entire tradition was alien to them, though it remained a sensitive topic for my Jewish students. The changes initiated in the aftermath of the 1965 promulgation of Nostra Aetate had taken root in schools and seminaries and in the hearts and souls not just of my students, but also of my fellow theologians. So I look differently at certain documents 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 document.

In the end, “A Moral Reckoning” is disappointing. The anger is genuine, but the scholarship derivative and the author’s motivations suspect. Material is often presented in its harshest light, leaving a reader suspicious that a more nuanced interpretation might, in fact, be more accurate. Its prescriptions are unrealistic. It displays no knowledge of major areas of post-Holocaust theology. Finally, it is uncharitable to genuine efforts by many within the Catholic Church to confront their past and to do better.

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

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