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

Nevertheless, there is a great deal to agree with in Goldhagens strictures about the “moral blackout” created by Pius XIIs defenders when they avoid any serious discussion of the Vatican’s anti-Semitism before the Holocaust. Indeed, Goldhagen is at his polemical best when unmasking the various “exculpatory strategies” used by Catholic apologists. He is particularly effective in demolishing spurious arguments like the claim that had Pius XII spoken out, Jews would have suffered even more; or that Nazi anti-Semitism had nothing at all to do with its Christian precedents; or that popes and Church leaders, in their role as diplomats, cannot be held to the high ethical standards of justice and love which they profess.
This last point brings me to the more original part of this hard-hitting book, where the author rightly insists on holding the Catholic Church responsible for its inexcusable complicity in the Holocaust. The Churchs moral responsibility to the Jews in the post-Holocaust era should include concern for the well-being and political security of the Jews in Israel. Hence Goldhagen is fully justified in noting the inordinate amount of time it took (almost fifty years) until the Vatican finally recognized the Jewish state, and he is on firm ground in deploring the present popes failure to respond adequately to Bashar al-Assads anti-Semitic diatribes during the papal visit to Damascus in May 2001. Equally, one can sympathize with his call for the systematic eradication of anti-Semitism in the Christian heritage, for greater truth telling, and for an end to the obfuscation apparent in Vatican documents like “We Remember” (1998).
Goldhagen tends to downplay the great changes that have taken place in Roman Catholic theological attitudes towards Jews and Judaism in recent decades. Some critics have complained that he does not do justice to the efforts of Pope John XXIII or to those of the incumbent of St. Peters Chair, Pope John Paul II, who has actively promoted Christian-Jewish dialogue. There is some truth to such objections, yet Goldhagens indictment still seems broadly valid, if at times overstated.
Certainly, the soul-searching that we have thus far seen from the highest levels of the Church—the apologies, expressions of goodwill, conciliatory language, and generalized contrition—is most welcome. But as my experience with the Vaticans refusal to open key archives relating to the Holocaust indicates, a great deal still needs to be done. In 1999, I was invited to take part in a six-member international Catholic-Jewish commission that was created to examine the Vaticans wartime record, with the official blessing (initially, at least) of the pope. This was an illuminating, if at times bruising, experience, which ended with the resignation of the commission in October 2001, in protest at the Vaticans refusal to permit proper access to relevant archives and documents. Even when explicitly confronting the past, it seems, the Catholic Church lacks the vigor and humility necessary for the truth to emerge.
What sort of change, then, is to be asked of the Church? Some of Goldhagens suggestions in this regard seem perfectly reasonable. For example, he is surely right about the need for the Church to do more to correct the “relentless and withering assault on Jews and Judaism” in the New Testament. So, too, the Catholic authorities should name names, explicitly repudiating leaders—popes, bishops, and priests—who failed to act according to the Churchs own standards of justice, charity, and goodness before or during the Holocaust. The Catholic Church should also modify its age-old tradition of real­politik and more thoroughly revise its catechism to purge it of any teaching that still smacks of anti-Semitism. I doubt, however, that Goldhagens other proposalsׁthat the Church abandon papal infallibility, embrace religious pluralism, or actually rewrite the Christian Bibleׁwhile highly desirable in themselves, are at all practicable. It is one thing to demand a reform-oriented overhaul of the “structures of deceit” (as Gary Wills called them), a turning away from authoritarian traditions and repudiation of a horrific anti-Semitic legacy, and another matter entirely to expect Catholics to take an axe to the very core of their faith. Although Goldhagen does not frame his demand for change in explicitly revolutionary terms, it would surely mean the end of Catholicism as it has been historically understood. This would be fiercely resisted and surely defeated.
Such naivete does not detract from the force of Goldhagens book as a passionate moral challenge to the Church. Nevertheless, A Moral Reckoning seems curiously out of tune with the predominant thrust of global anti-Semitism today, which mainly comes not from a declining Catholicism, but from a renascent Islam, the anti-globalist Left, populist anti-Americanism in Europe, and the ressentiment of Western intellectuals who seize on the Palestinian cause to cover up their own moral shallowness. In this context, any attempt to draw a connection between anti-Semitism and Goldhagens depiction of the Catholic Church as a reactionary holdout against liberal modernity seems too facile and “politically correct.”
Is it really true, for example, that a major injection of democratic pluralism would be enough to free the Church from the incubus of religious triumphalism and Jew-hatred? After all, it was a decidedly old-fashioned pope, John XXIII, who in the 1960s initiated the first rapprochement with the Jewish people; it was another “anti-modern” and in some ways “anti-democratic” pontiff, John Paul II, who continued on this path, despite a number of setbacks in recent years. Nor, for that matter, does the fact that many Catholics still cling to an outdated notion of ׂabsolute truth׃ preclude a new respect for Jews. Conservatives no less than liberals in the Catholic Church freely acknowledge today the importance of Christianitys Hebrew roots, the inner connection between the Old and the New Testaments, and the debt that Catholicism owes to its “elder brother.”
Certainly, we still do not have a total “moral reckoning” concerning the Holocaust and Christian responsibility for it, and perhaps we never will. Nevertheless, Catholic anti-Semitism is beginning to wither away as a result of education and the changes of the past forty years. At the same time, more virulent strains of the “longest hatred” are acquiring renewed life. If Catholics and Jews could find some common ground in fighting this “new anti-Semitism” together—directed primarily at Israels very existence—it would do much to heal the tragic scar on the history of Christianity, depicted in this and other recent books on the subject. This would surely be the most significant contemporary form of moral reparation by Catholics, and a real contribution to mending the world that was devastated by the Holocaust.

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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