The Church and the Shoah: From April 4, 1998

On March 16, 1998, the Holy See’s Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews published "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah." This document is only one of a long series of statements that have come from official Catholic sources. In 1990 the same commission issued the "Declaration of Prague," in which it acknowledged that some traditional Catholic teaching and practice had contributed to the spread of anti-Semitism in Western society.

The 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz (Jan. 27, 1945) was the occasion for a flurry of statements early in 1995. The German bishops, quoting from their own joint synod of 1975, conceded that, notwithstanding the exemplary behavior of some individuals and groups, the church as a whole, looking too fixedly at the threat to its own institutions, was silent about the crimes committed against Jews and Judaism. The Polish bishops, in a parallel statement of January 1995, remarked that the creators of Auschwitz were not Poles but Nazi Germans; yet at the same time they quoted from their previous pastoral letter of 1991: "In spite of numerous heroic examples of Polish Christians, there were those who remained indifferent to that inconceivable tragedy. In particular, we mourn the fact that there were also those among Catholics who in some way had contributed to the death of Jews. They will forever remain a source of
remorse in the social dimension."

Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb of Mobile, Ala., as chairman of the United States Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, also released a statement on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. He recalled with regret and humility the refusal of American authorities to accept Jewish refugees during the war. He also deplored the failure of Americans to bomb the railroad lines leading to Auschwitz, as Jewish leaders had implored them to do. Lipscomb's statement acknowledged a sense of responsibility for the failures of fellow Catholics in Europe to do everything possible to save Jewish lives.

The most dramatic act of repentance thus far has come from a group of French bishops, including Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris, who gathered on Sept. 30, 1997, at Drancy, the site of a former Jewish concentration camp. They lamented the failure of the bishops of France to issue public statements against the internment camps and deportations of Jews, at least until 1942, when some bishops in southern France courageously protested. The hierarchy in the early 1940's was faulted for concentrating too narrowly on the protection of the Catholic faithful and for succumbing to fear of reprisals against the church's activities and youth movements. In spite of commendable exceptions, said the bishops, "we must recognize that indifference won the day over indignation in the face of persecution of the Jews and that, in particular, silence was the rule in the face of the multifarious laws enacted by the Vichy government. ... We confess this sin. We beg God's pardon, and we call upon the Jewish people to hear our words of repentance."

The recent statement of the Vatican commission appears within the framework of John Paul II's call for an examination of conscience on the part of the church as part of the preparation for the jubilee of the year 2000. But the statement itself was planned long before the Pope called for this self-scrutiny. At a meeting with representatives of the International Jewish Commission for Interreligious Consultation in September 1987, Cardinal Jan Willebrands announced that the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews intended to prepare a statement on the Holocaust. The present statement, therefore, was almost 11 years in preparation.

The new document reflects two different concerns--to defend the church against calumny and to express repentance for past failures. Except in the introduction and conclusion, the defensive motif predominates. To protect the church itself from blame, the statement invokes the subtle distinction, long recognized in scholastic theology, between the church as such, which is pure, and the sons and daughters of the church, who sometimes stray from the path of salvation. Even the sinfulness of the children in the case of the Holocaust is minimized, since they are censured for their inaction and lack of spiritual resistance rather than for any active complicity in the crimes against Jews. In tracing the causes of anti-Judaism, the document speaks of "misinterpretations of the New Testament" that have been definitively repudiated by the Second Vatican Council. The horrors of the Holocaust are attributed not to religious anti-Judaism but to exaggerated nationalism and to a pseudo-scientific style of racism that was hostile to Christianity and Judaism alike. The distinction between theological anti-Judaism and racist anti-Semitism, valid though it be, is perhaps pressed too far, since it leaves unsettled the extent to which the former may have nourished the latter. The recent book The Hidden Encyclical shows how anti-Jewish prejudice among Catholics stood in the way of a forthright condemnation of Hitler's racist policies in 1938 (see review, AM., 1/3/98).
To put the Holocaust in perspective, the new Vatican statement notes that it was but one of a number of cases of genocide. The document recalls the massacre of the Armenians, the countless victims in Ukraine in the 1930's, the mass extermination of Gypsies, the killing fields of Cambodia and similar barbarities. None of these catastrophes must be allowed to disappear from memory.

In its introduction and conclusion the new document, like its predecessors, contains a moving summons to repentance for past mistakes and to cooperation in building a new future in which Jews and Christians will live in harmony and mutual esteem. As a rationale for doing penance for crimes we did not personally commit, the statement points out that within the church, as the Body of Christ, all are linked to the sins as well as the merits of their fellow members.

Written with a broad perspective and theological precision, the new document has notable strengths. The defensive sections are carefully argued even though, in the interest of conciseness, the authors may not provide enough evidence to convince persons who make a harsher judgment. The sermons and pastoral letters of many German bishops against Nazi anti-Semitism, here briefly alluded to, deserve to be rescued from oblivion. The constant opposition of the Holy See to Nazi racism is rightly recalled, including the famous statement of Pius XI: "Anti-Semitism is unacceptable. Spiritually, we are all Semites." Finally, the good name of Pius XII is defended against the slanderous accusations that have become common currency since Rolf Hochhuth's misleading play, "The Deputy" (1964).

Anyone familiar with the research of the late Robert A. Graham, S.J, and his colleagues, who published 11 volumes from the archives of the Holy See concerning World War II, will have no reason to doubt that Pius XII took great risks to protect and save as many Jews as he could. Although this Pope relied more on diplomacy than on confrontation, he did remonstrate, even at times publicly, with the leaders of the Axis powers. Under his direct orders papal legates intervened in France, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania to stem the deportation of innocent victims. As a result of his efforts countless Jews were rescued from the grip of Nazi and Fascist persecutors. While we cannot accurately assess, even today, what the effect of a ringing denunciation would have been, we may respect Pius XII's own assessment of his Conduct: "No doubt a protest would have gained me the praise and respect of the civilized world, but it would have submitted the poor Jews to an even worse persecution."

The present statement of the Vatican commission should not be read in isolation, but in the context of the many statements that have been published by Catholic authorities over the past 20 years and more. These statements, some more contrite and others more defensive in tone, are in substantive agreement, and where they differ it is principally because of the different involvements of the church in countries such as Germany, Poland, France, Italy and the United States.

At the news conference of March 16, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, the president of the commission that prepared the statement, said: "Nothing is closed with this document." The world is waiting for a statement from the Pope himself. Thus far John Paul II has frequently deplored the Holocaust as an unimaginable crime, but he has been reticent in speaking of the church's responsibility. Accompanied as it is by a cover letter from John Paul II, the statement of Cardinal Cassidy's commission may in fact represent the thinking of the Pope. We shall know better when he issues his own pronouncement on the dark spots in the church's history, which is expected to appear before or during the coming jubilee year.

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