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Cardinal Sins

Reviewed by Robert S. Wistrich

A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Duty of Repair
by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
Alfred A. Knopf, 362 pages



Since the turn of the millennium, there has been a rash of new books on Catholic-Jewish relations, especially on the role of Pope Pius XII and the Vatican during the Holocaust. Most of these works were written by Catholic critics like the British journalist John Cornwell, the Italian historian Giovanni Miccoli, and American scholars such as Susan Zuccotti, Michael Phayer, and James Carroll. They have exposed with implacable analytical rigor and moral passion the sins of commission and omission that can be laid at the door of the Catholic Church for its behavior towards the Jews during World War II.
In his controversial new work, A Moral Reckoning, Daniel Jonah Gold­hagens treatment of Church anti-Semitism relies largely on secondary literature, especially on these recent works. But his indictment is more sweeping and comprehensive than most of his predecessors, slamming not only the anti-Semitic beliefs and ׂsilence׃ of Pius XII during the Holocaust, but the entire history of the Church. According to his account, the Catholic Church has been the primary purveyor of anti-Semitism in the world for the past two millennia, a sin which began with the Christian Bible itself and continues up to the present day.
In particular he draws our attention to “the Christian Bibles assault on the Jews,” the damaging anti-Semitic content of so much material which can be found in this sacred text, which Christians regard as the infallible word of God. The underlying structure of the New Testament narratives, he asserts, is intrinsically defamatory and libelous, since it presents Jews as the “ontological enemy of Jesus and God.” Goldhagen rightly points out the devastating consequences of false accusations in the New Testament which attribute “noxious qualities and malfeasance” to the Jews, presenting them as Christ-killers and the offspring of Satan. One of his demands for moral reparation by the Church is that such libelous and “hate-inducing passages about Jews” be expurgated. At the very least, he suggests, every Christian Bible should contain a running commentary correcting the texts erroneous assertions, and including disclaimers regarding its many anti-Semitic passages.
However, Goldhagens account of two millennia of Christian anti-Semitism scarcely breaks new ground. We are reminded how the medieval Crusaders put entire Jewish communities to the sword, and how the Church forbade Jews to marry Christians and to enter key professions, and how it restricted them to cramped ghettos. As is well known from decades of scholarship, the Church continually sought to restrict and isolate Jews from Christian society—that is, when it could not convert them. It did this through its bigoted preaching, incitement, and encouragement of anti-Jewish legislation.
All this is perfectly true. But Goldhagen goes further. For him, this policy constitutes “eliminationist” anti-Semitism, a form of social and religious “elimination” rather than physical killing. He does not, however, explain why the Catholic Church, if it was truly “eliminationist” in its Jew-hatred, did not advance towards a “final solution” at the very peak of its power and influence in the Middle Ages. In effect, he suggests a linear progression from Catholic anti-Semitism to the Third Reich, which lacks any adequate feel for historical nuance.
The book is also on questionable ground in asserting that Catholic and Nazi anti-Semitism in the 1930s were identical—for example, in their linkage of Jews with Communism as the godless threat to the survival of the Church. Certainly, there were Catholics throughout Europe who were seduced by the Nazi onslaught against Bolshevism, “materialism,” liberalism, and the “Jewish spirit.” But the Catholic war against the Jews (despicable though it often was) cannot be equated with Nazism, any more than National Socialism itself should be described as a Christian phenomenon or reduced to the category of an updated spawn of earlier Catholic teaching. The cross begat the swastika only in the very broad sense that Nazi anti-Semitism would never have taken hold in German or European consciousness without the millennial hatred originally instilled by Christianity. To say this is not the same as implying that Auschwitz was somehow pre-programmed in Christian theological doctrine.
 
Furthermore, in his overeagerness to establish a direct link between Catholic and Nazi anti-Semitism, the author virtually ignores the harsh anti-Christian ideology of the Third Reichs leadership. Their hatred of Jews was explicitly racist, not Christian, directed at Jews as “sub-humans,” vermin, and bacilli, not at “Christ-killers.” Pseudo-scientific, anti-Christian racism and the Nazi belief in the “Aryan” myth were constantly inculcated into the SS, the Hitler Youth, and other sectors of German society, among other things with the clear intent of weakening the hold of the Christian churches.
Moreover, Nazi ideology and totalitarian praxis in the Reich consistently rejected the escape route of conversion offered by Christianity. In­stead, it sent baptized Jews to the death camps with the same ruthlessness with which it sent their former co-religionists. These were not incidental or minor differences but reflected a fundamental chasm between Christianity and Nazism, which, tragically enough, the churches failed to maintain during the 1930s and the Holocaust years. This theoretical gulf should not be denied because of the Churchs moral collapse during the war; rather, it should be underscored.
Goldhagen also oversimplifies the larger picture by suggesting that the Jesuit periodical Civilta Cattolica (a semi-official mouthpiece of the Vatican at the time) was little better in its crude anti-Semitism than Der Sturmer. Other historiansׁincluding David Kertzer and Susan Zuccottiׁhave already pointed to the racist libels against the Jews in this Jesuit publication. This is already a terrible enough stain on the Church. But what is gained by superficially comparing Civilta Cattolica with Julius Streichers abominations?
Goldhagens implacable indictment of Christianity is also too exclusively focused on the sins of the Catholic Church. In Germany, for example, which was two-thirds Lutheran, Protestant regions voted far more massively for the Nazis than did Catholic regions. One-third of German Protestant believers joined the thoroughly Nazified Deutsche Christen (German Christians), a movement which combined anti-Semitic race doctrines with the Gospel. Nothing comparable happened with the Catholics in Germany. Nor does it make sense to contrast the admirable record of Danish Lutherans during the war with Catholic failings, unless one seriously addresses the massive surrender of German Lutherans to Nazism in the heartland of the “final solution.” In fact, Goldhagen never explains why Lutheranism could help to produce a virulent, Nazi-style anti-Semitism in Germany while saving Jewish lives in Denmark. Nor does he evoke the record of Orthodox Christians in the East, especially in Russia and Romania, where they played a major part in disseminating the most vicious forms of anti-Semitism before the Holocaust. “Holy Russia” was, after all, the worst persecutor of Jews before 1918, its violence and cruelty dwarfing that of papal Rome.
The books black-and-white treatment of Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli) also leaves much to be desired. Goldhagen is far too ready to swallow Cornwells dubious argument that Pacelli was a convinced anti-Semite from at least 1919; that he was “more a collaborator” (like Petain or Quisling) than a victim of Nazism; and that he was a cynical opportunist who retrospectively painted himself as an ally of the Jews after 1945. The reality was far more complex than that. Nor was Pius XIIs “silence” about Jews as absolute as one might imagine from reading this book. Even if it was clearly belated and inadequate, Pius XIIs intervention in Hungary in 1944 did help to save Jewish lives in Budapest, and Susan Zuccottis debunking of Vatican claims to have assisted Italian Jews, on which Goldhagen heavily relies, is not necessarily the last word on the subject.


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