Azure no. 16, Winter 5764 / 2004

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.
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).