FACING ANTI-SEMITISM : Apology, Yes; Apostasy, No

By Garvey, John | Commonweal, March 8, 2002 | Go to article overview

FACING ANTI-SEMITISM : Apology, Yes; Apostasy, No


Garvey, John, Commonweal


In the January 21 issue of the New Republic, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, author of Hitler's Willing Executioners (Knopf), offered a sizable chunk of his new book, A Moral Reckoning: The Catholic Church during the Holocaust and Today. While I agree with those who think the Catholic and other Christian churches were more often than not cowardly, if not complicit, during the Nazi era, the Goldhagen piece is selective in its marshaling of the facts, and bigoted in its presentation. Goldhagen, for example, says that the church of Pius XII was "an institutional culture centrally animated by the notion that all Jews were Christ-killers and responsible for many of the perceived evils of modernity." He likes things central: he says that "the disparagement of the Jews became central to Christianity." Vicious as Christian anti-Semitism often was, it was hardly central. At another point he calls the parable of the Good Samaritan an assertion of the superiority of Christian morality over Jewish morality. I had never noticed that the Samaritan was Christian--Goldhagen is, at least, a novel exegete. In discussing the canonization of Edith Stein, he writes, "The Germans killed her not because she was Catholic or a nun, which they deemed irrelevant, but because she had been born a Jew. So the church has sent her on the path to sainthood under the false pretext that she was a Holocaust martyr to her faith." He seems to expect the church to accept the German reasoning in this case.

Goldhagen predictably offers James Carroll as his kind of Catholic. In Constantine's Sword (Houghton Mifflin), Carroll suggests that the cross itself is a problem, and that it became an important symbol in Christianity only after Constantine made it so. While it is true that the cross was not a major part of the earliest Christian iconography--there are relatively few early images other than the good shepherd and the Greek pun present in the symbol of the fish--the cross was central to Christian theology from the start, and not primarily as a sign of what the Jews had done to Jesus, as Carroll and Goldhagen suggest.

The whole controversy and the replies it generated in the New Republic (Andrew Sullivan took issue with Goldhagen in the January 28 issue, and was in turn challenged in the February 4 issue by Leon Wieseltier) suggest some of the difficulties that surface at various points in what, in this instance, cannot really be called the Christian-Jewish dialogue. It is unfortunate, because in so many ways that dialogue has gone well, with all its hitches. …

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