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

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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.

Robert S. Wistrich is director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center. His most recent book is Hitler and the Holocaust (Modern Library, 2002).

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