The Catholic Church and the Holocaust

By Fischel, Jack | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

The Catholic Church and the Holocaust

Fischel, Jack, The Virginia Quarterly Review

THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE HOLOCAUST Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair. By Daniel Goldhagen. Alfred Knopf. $25.00.

There is probably no more contentious issue between Catholics and Jews than that over the role played by Pope Pius XII in his reaction to the destruction of European Jewry during the Holocaust. Ever since the 1963 stage production of Rolf Hochuth's controversial play The Deputy indicted the pope for his failure to publicly protest the mass murder of the Jews during the Holocaust, the debate has raged between the pontiffs defenders and his detractors. In recent years a plethora of books and articles have appeared which have joined the issue of not only the pope's response to the Holocaust, but that of the complicity of the Catholic Church as an institution in making possible the conditions that allowed for the murder of millions of Jews in the heart of Christian Europe. Although many books about the Holocaust have been written by Jewish historians, when it comes to the matter of Pius XII and the Catholic Church, a great many historians who are Catholic have weighed in the debate. Some of Pope Pius XII's harshest critics have come from Christian scholars such as James Carroll, John Cornwell, Michael Phayer, Gary Wills, and Susan Zuccotti.

This is not to say that Jewish historians have not joined the fray. In recent years the most damning book that points to the connection between Catholic anti-Judaism and Hitler's racial anti-Semitism was David Kerzer's Popen Against the Jews (Knopf, 2001), which detailed the vicious anti-Jewish propaganda that emanated from the Vatican from the 19th century through the Hitler years. The most recent scholar to enter this battle is Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, no stranger to controversy as a result of Hitler's Witting Executioners (Knopf, 1996), in which he argued that far from being victims of peer pressure, or fearful of punishment from their superiors in the Wehrmacht, ordinary German soldiers slaughtered Jews because, moved by anti-Semitism, they believed killing Jews was just, right and necessary.

In A Moral Reckoning, Goldhagen applies this thesis to the so-called "silence" of the Catholic Church during the Holocaust. Many of his arguments had already been made in his controversial article "What Would Jesus Have Done?" (Neio Republic, Jan. 21, 2002), wherein he depicted the Catholic Church as "the central spiritual, moral and instructional institution of European civilization," and that it "harbors antisemitism at its core, as an integral part of its doctrine, its theology, and its liturgy." Goldhagen rejects the distinction made by many historians between religious anti-Judaism and racial anti-Semitism. For Goldhagen racial anti-Semitism represents old wine in new bottles. Centuries of the Church's teaching of contempt about Jews had conditioned Christian Europe to view Jews as the personification of evil. When it came to the Jews, Nazi anti-Semitism substituted racial categories for the religious demonology associated with the medieval church. For this reason Goldhagen rejects the argument made in We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, the Catholic Church's 1998 statement on the Holocaust, wherein the Holy see declared that the Shoah was the work of a thoroughly modern neo-pagan regime, and that its anti-Semitism had its roots outside of Christianity. Goldhagen challenges this assertion, and argues that the Church failed the Jews during the Holocaust because they believed in an "eliminationist" anti-Semitism or the desire, not necessarily a lethal one, to rid society of Jews and their influence. Centuries of Church teaching, contends Goldhagen, taught most churchmen that Jews were evil, and therefore harmful to the community. This was especially true of those Catholics who associated Jews with Communism, which the Church viewed as a greater evil than that of Nazism. It is not only the silence of the Church during the Nazi genocide that seems to trouble Goldhagen, but also its indifference to the decrees and the persecution of the Jews that drove them from German society during the decade of the 1930s. …

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