Continuing the Conversation

By Johnson, Luke Timothy | Commonweal, March 8, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Continuing the Conversation


Johnson, Luke Timothy, Commonweal


The church & anti-Semitism Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's recent lengthy article in the New Republic (January 21), "What Would Jesus Have Done? Pope Pius XII, the Catholic Church, and the Holocaust," has already generated a vigorous response in the same journal from Andrew Sullivan ("Mortal Sin," January 28) and a sharp retort to Sullivan by the New Republic's literary editor Leon Wieseltier ("Slander," February 4). Goldhagen's piece appears to be a chapter from his forthcoming book, A Moral Reckoning: The Catholic Church during the Holocaust (Knopf). If the book has the same prosecutorial tone as the essay, it will undoubtedly generate still more response, especially since it appears as the latest in a series of ever-sharper attacks by both Jewish and Catholic writers on the role the Roman Catholic Church allegedly played in the Holocaust. Goldhagen, author of Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust approvingly cites John Cornwell's Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, David Kertzer's The Popes against the Jews: The Vatican's Role in the Rise of Anti-Semitism, Garry Wills's Papal Sins: Structures of Deceit, and James Carroll's Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews to make his point.

The basic facts at issue have been known for some time. The Catholic Church in Europe has a long, shameful history of anti-Jewish rhetoric and behavior. The papacy was, at the very least, nonheroic in the face of Nazism. Many German and Polish Catholics, not to mention Slovenians and others, saw no real distinction between what they had heard about Jews from the pulpit and what they heard through the instruments of Nazi propaganda, and willingly took part in the Holocaust's machinery of destruction.

What strikes the observer about recent exchanges, however, is the sharply personal tone of anger. Goldhagen's essay reads more like a prosecutor's brief than a historian's analysis. It concludes with an indictment, not simply of historical figures like Pius XII, but of Catholicism as such, since, in his phrase, "the disparagement of the Jews became central to Christianity," the church is "centrally animated by the notion that all Jews were Christ-killers," and the continued use of the symbol of the cross "is likely to continue to provoke antipathy toward Jews." He ends by calling for a verdict: "What should be the future of this church that has not fully faced its anti-Semitic history, that still has anti-Semitic elements embedded in its doctrine and theology, and that still claims to be the exclusive path to salvation?"

The reader can scarcely miss detecting beneath the charges against Pius IX, Pius XII, and John Paul II an indictment of Catholicism as such. Catholic Christianity is rotten to the core and cannot cease being anti-Semitic unless it ceases existing altogether. Goldhagen drops history for ontology. His essentialism is the obverse of the anti-Semitism that fails to distinguish between the actions of specific Jews and the supposed "character" of the entire tradition. Goldhagen comes close, in short, to reverse demonism.

Sullivan, a Catholic, notes just this about Goldhagen's rhetoric. And against Goldhagen's claim that there is no relevant moral distinction between the church and Nazism, Sullivan insists that there was. Catholic doctrine was never officially racist. Catholicism sinned by omission rather than by commission. But Sullivan makes the mistake of personalizing the issue by showing his irritation at Goldhagen's implication that the church's siding with Hitler was joining forces with the anti-Christ. He calls this the sort of smear he had to endure in a Protestant high school in England. Why a mistake? Because it trivializes the Holocaust by comparing it to the abuse suffered in high school hallways.

Sullivan's distinctions and qualifications, in turn, give Wieseltier the chance to observe, "Whether or not medieval anti-Judaism and modern anti-Semitism go together intellectually, they went together historically.

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