OVER THE past four decades, the attitude of the Catholic Church toward Judaism and the Jews has undergone a sea change. On the theological level, the decisive event was the Second Vatican Council, which in 1965 finally lifted the collective charge of deicide against the Jewish people, reversing the longstanding Augustinian view that the Jews would eternally bear the mark of Cain. But of no less importance has been the current Pope’s personal commitment to reconciliation. Since his election in 1978, John Paul II has repeatedly broken new ground in relations with the Jewish community, becoming the first bishop of Rome to visit a synagogue in the Eternal City, establishing diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the state of Israel, and emphatically denouncing anti-Semitism.
Indeed, no other Pope has had so direct an experience of Jewish life and suffering. As a youth growing up in the small Polish town of Wadowice, Karol Wojtyla (as John Paul II was then named) counted Jews among his closest friends and came to know the rhythms of Jewish observance and family life.
He would later witness firsthand the Nazi murder of Poland’s Jews. Speaking of his hometown in 1994, John Paul II remarked that it was “from there that I have this attitude of community, of communal feelings about the Jews.” These recollections inform his repeated reminder to Catholics that Europe’s Jews were exterminated “only for the reason that they were Jews”–a bitter and sorrowful truth that seems to have become part of his most intimate credo.
Against this record of institutional progress and personal sympathy, however, must be set the Church’s less than felicitous handling of a range of issues related to the Holocaust. The death camp at Auschwitz has been a particular source of contentiousness, first with the establishment there of a Carmelite convent in the 1980’s and more recently with the proliferation on its grounds of memorial crosses erected by militant local Catholics. Both episodes have been seen as efforts to reorder historical truth–comparatively few Catholics were killed at the camp–and, perhaps worse, to appropriate the millions of Jewish dead into the sacred drama of Christian martyrdom. Similarly controversial was John Paul II’s canonization of Father Maximillian Kolbe, a Polish Catholic priest who had opposed the Nazis but was also the founder of a viciously anti-Semitic newspaper in prewar Poland. Nor were matters helped by the Pope’s canonization last October of Edith Stein, a German Jewish intellectual who converted to Catholicism and became a nun but was nonetheless consigned by the Nazis as a Jew to Auschwitz, where she perished in the gas chamber.
If these incidents seemed to reveal a lack of sensitivity to Jewish feelings, let alone to the separate integrity of Jewish history, no less disappointing has been the Church’s effort to come to terms with its own actions during the Holocaust. The Vatican’s first authoritative statement on this subject, a fourteen-page document that had been over a decade in the making, was issued a little over a year ago under the title We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah. Clearly to the dismay of Church authorities, however, it was greeted with only lukewarm appreciation by Jewish organizations, which, while hailing the Church’s genuine desire for self-examination and repentance, faulted its unwillingness to confront unpleasant truths.
Although this episode has attracted its share of attention in the general press, We Remember itself has so far received relatively little in the way of sustained analysis. But both the document and the response to it–as well as the ongoing response to the response–offer a good barometer of the Church’s evolving relationship with the Jewish people.
MAKING ITS sympathies clear from the start, We Remember refers to the murder of European Jewry as the Shoah–the Hebrew word meaning “catastrophe.” The event, declares the Vatican statement, was an “unspeakable tragedy,” one that “can never be forgotten.” Moreover, the document continues, although the obligation to recall and understand the Shoah falls upon everyone, it is felt with particular urgency by the Church, not only because of its “very close bonds of spiritual kinship with the Jewish people” but also because of its “remembrance of the injustices of the past.”
With respect to those injustices, We Remember is forthright. The Shoah took place, it acknowledges, “in countries of longstanding Christian civilization,” countries where anti-Jewish sentiment and practices were common. Over the centuries, the Jews of Europe had faced “generalized discrimination,” expulsions, forced conversions, and scape-goating that at times resulted in “violence, looting, even massacres.” Nor was this hostility somehow accidental to Christianity. Behind much of it, the Vatican statement observes, were “erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament” concerning the “alleged culpability” of the Jews for the death of Jesus.
But then, during the 19th century, things changed. The anti-Jewish animus, formerly based in religion, mutated, according to the Vatican statement, into a set of prejudices whose origins were sociological or political, springing from “a false and exacerbated nationalism” and from anxiety about Jewish “influence.” Emerging at roughly the same time, and of particular importance for later developments, were certain “pseudoscientific” ideas about superior and inferior peoples, ideas that “denied the unity of the human race.”
What Nazism added to this virulent mix, We Remember continues, was a totalitarian ideology that assigned an “absolute status” to the German state and people. Refusing “to acknowledge any transcendent reality as the… criterion of moral good,” the Nazis saw fit not only to attempt to destroy the Jews–witnesses “to the one God and the Law of the Covenant”–but also to reject Christianity and the Church. The Shoah, in short, “was the work of a thoroughly modern neopagan regime” whose racist anti-Semitism must be sharply distinguished from the anti-Judaism “of which, unfortunately, Christians also have been guilty.”
Indeed, in order to emphasize the saliency during the Shoah itself of the Church’s “constant teaching” concerning the “equal dignity of all races and peoples,” We Remember cites several Church leaders for their acts of resistance and rescue. Three German churchmen are singled out for their opposition to National Socialism, as are Pius XI and Pius XII, the two Popes who held office during the Nazi era. Pius XII in particular is praised for what he did “personally or through his representatives to save hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives.”
At the same time, We Remember also concedes that many members of the Church in Nazi-occupied Europe did not do everything in their power to help the persecuted Jews. “The spiritual resistance and concrete action of other Christians,” it laments, “was not that which might have been expected from Christ’s followers.” Appalled though these ordinary Catholics may have been by the assault on their Jewish neighbors, they “were not strong enough to raise their voices in protest.” For the “errors and failures” of its “sons and daughters,” the Church proclaims its deep regret, describing its present statement, in another echo of Hebrew sources, as an act of teshuvah–repentance.
Finally, looking to the future of Jewish-Christian relations, We Remember concludes by urging Catholics to attend both to the “Hebrew roots of their faith” and to the “salutary warning” of the Shoah: that “the spoiled seeds of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism must never again be allowed to take root in any human heart.”
WHATEVER ONE’S final judgment of this mea culpa, one cannot but commend both its tone and its basic aims. Throughout, the long history of Christian persecution of the Jews is discussed with candor and in a spirit of contrition. As for the Shoah itself, it is evoked in terms that leave no doubt as to the Church’s recognition of its horror, as well as its repudiation of any effort to deny or trivialize the event. (In the United States, Patrick J. Buchanan may be the best-known Catholic guilty of this relativizing tendency.) Nor is there any mistaking the sincerity of John Paul II when in a letter accompanying We Remember he declares his hope that the statement will help to avert any future recurrence of “the unspeakable iniquity of the Shoah.”
But there is a good deal more to be said about the moral and historical worth of We Remember–and much of it, unfortunately, is not especially flattering to the Church’s declared aspirations.
To begin at the most general level, it is impossible to accept the Vatican’s effort to distinguish as sharply as this document does between Christian anti-Judaism and modern anti-Semitism. While it is tree that the factors cited in We Remember–from nationalism to race “science” to inflated ideas of Jewish influence–did play an important role in the emergence of anti-Semitic ideologies in the 19th century, these ideologies presupposed a cultural framework that had been fashioned by centuries of medieval Christian theology, ecclesiastical policy, and popular religious myth.
A partial list of the relevant precedents–none of which makes an appearance in We Remember–would include the demonization of the Jews by the early Church fathers; the vast library of medieval polemical literature known as “against the Jews” (adversus judaeos); and the endlessly promulgated images of the Jew as Satan, anti-Christ, Judas, or Ahasuerus, the “Wandering Jew” condemned to eternal exile for his deadly sins. A number of the Holy See’s legislative actions against the Jews have also echoed fatefully down the ages. One thinks in particular of the order issued by Pope Innocent III and the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) requiring Jews to wear distinctive garb and yellow badges, and of the decision by a succession of 16th-century Popes to confine the Jews of Rome and the papal states to ghettos.
There is, of course, some validity to We Remember’s claim that Nazism, by virtue of its “neopaganism,” stood outside the Christian tradition. Hitler was contemptuous of the “effeminate pity-ethics” of Judeo-Christianity, which he saw as completely antithetical to the Nazi movement’s “heroic belief in God in nature, God in our people, in our destiny, in our blood.” Surveying the Third Reich, one easily finds evidence of this primitivistic cult of vitality and struggle: in Nazi art and architecture, in the ideology of the Hitler Youth, in the determination of Heinrich Himmler to cultivate a perfect warrior-race of blonde, blue-eyed Germanic heroes, and in the work of volkisch sectarians like Alfred Rosenberg, who dreamed of a new Germanic religion.
Pagans though they may have been, however, the Nazis did not hesitate to draw upon Christian rhetoric and symbolism to bolster their new political religion–and nowhere more so than in their war against the Jews. Christian motifs abound in a typical anti-Semitic rag like Julius Streicher’s Der Sturmer. One finds there the crucifixion (“Golgotha has not yet been revenged”), the image of the eternally cursed people, the usurious Jew squeezing the poor peasant dry, the Jew as the “devil in human disguise” and as the ritual murderer of Christian children. Nazism radicalized these popular stereotypes drawn from the Christian Middle Ages, but it did not invent them.(*)
The Vatican document is by no means mistaken to argue that the ideology of the Third Reich was profoundly anti-Christian; nor is it wrong to draw a distinction between Christian and Nazi anti-Semitism. But the differe
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