The Art of Christian Apology: Comparing the French Catholic Church's Apology to the Jews and the Vatican's "We Remember"

By Henry, Patrick | Shofar, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

The Art of Christian Apology: Comparing the French Catholic Church's Apology to the Jews and the Vatican's "We Remember"


Henry, Patrick, Shofar


In the context of apologies made to the Jews for lack of support during the Holocaust, the author compares the September 30, 1997 apology made by the French Catholic Church with the March 16, 1998 Vatican Apology, "We Remember." The French Catholic Church's apology appears probing and honest, unwilling to avoid tough issues. "We Remember," despite its general importance, simply does not admit the true extent of the moral failure of the Church during the Nazi years. In addition, its appraisal of Pope Pius XII is totally one-sided and its distinction between ecclesiastical anti-Judaism and profane antisemitism is too facile and misleading. Regarding the past, this document is self-exonerating and somewhat defensive, while its sincere commitment to the future is admirable and crucially important.

"Forgive us for the curse we falsely attached to their name as Jews. Forgive us for crucifying Thee a second time in their flesh. For we knew not what we did."

Pope John XXIII

In 1995, during the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps, the bishops of many national Catholic churches (in Germany, Poland, and the United States) issued statements of apology and repentance to the Jewish people for having failed in their moral responsibilities towards Jews during the Holocaust. Shortly thereafter, members of the national Catholic hierarchies in Holland, Switzerland, Hungary, France, Italy, and Lithuania issued similar statements. To varying degrees of self-scrutiny, confessions of guilt have also been issued by most major Protestant denominations throughout Europe, in France, Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands, for example. These statements began as early as five months after the end of the war with the German Evangelical Church's Stuttgart Declaration in October 1945. Over time, these apologies have become deeper, more probing, more self-critical, and more responsible. The French Catholic Church's Apology is a model statement of repentance and reconciliation worthy of scrutiny.

"The time has come for the Church to submit its own history, during this period in particular, to a critical reading without hesitating to recognize the sins committed by her sons and to ask forgiveness of God and man."1 With that in mind, on September 30,1997, the eve of the Jewish New Year and three days before the fifty-seventh anniversary of the promulgation of Vichy's anrisemitic laws and decrees, at Drancy, "the antechamber of the death camps," from where more than 67,000 Jews were deported, the French Catholic Church asked forgiveness for its indifference and silence during the Holocaust in France.

Standing in front of a cattle car and facing an emotional crowd of Christians and Jews, Olivier de Berranger, bishop of Saint-Denis, said:

The majority of the spiritual authorities, entangled in a loyalty and docility that went beyond traditional obedience to established power, remained confined in an attitude of conformity, prudence, and abstention.... They did not become aware of the fact that the Church, at that time called upon to play a substitute role in a dismembered social body, possessed in fact considerable power and influence and that, given the silence of the other institutions, her word, by its impact, could have held back the irreparable.

He concluded:"Today, we confess that this silence was a sin.... We implore God's forgiveness and ask the Jewish people to hear these words of repentance." Henri Hajdenberg, the president of the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France, responded to the Catholic prelate's words: "Your demand for pardon, so intense, so powerful, so poignant, cannot help but be heard by the surviving victims and their children. It finds a profound echo in our hearts and minds without erasing the past."2

There has been heated debate regarding this apology in France where, until 1983, it was maintained in school textbooks that Jewish deportations were solely the work of the Germans, and where there had been no public admission of complicity by Church or State until soon after his inauguration in 1995, when President Jacques Chirac admitted the state's responsibility for the deportation to the death camps of roughly twenty-five percent of Frances Jewish population. …

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