Most Catholics are aware of the countless saints, martyrs, popes, bishops, priests, deacons, religious and laity who, throughout church history, have lived ethical, even heroic lives — pursuing justice, feeding the poor, clothing the naked, educating the ignorant, liberating captives, as Jesus taught in his Gospel of Love. Clearly, this legion of righteous people has been a tremendous force for good in the world. But what most Catholics, and non-Catholics, are unaware of, because it is not generally known outside academic circles, is that at the same time, the Roman Catholic Church, hereinafter “Church,” and later, Protestant churches, harbored a powerful anti-Jewish bias — a bias that became, albeit inadvertently, a powerful force for evil in the world.
Grounded in Scripture and the writings of the earliest theologians, the Church Fathers—Polycarp, Justin Martyr, St. John Chrysostom (photo supra), St. Jerome, and Tertullian, to name a few, this nineteen hundred plus year bias, termed “anti-Judaism,” was a deeply ingrained theological position of the Church, permeating two of its core doctrines: 1) Supercessionism i.e., God rejected the Jews, unilaterally revoked God’s covenants with them, and thereafter favored Christians as the new chosen people; Christianity fulfilled and superseded/replaced Judaism, rendering it insignificant in salvation history and 2) Collective Responsibility (Collective Guilt): All Jews, from the first century forward, are responsible/guilty for the death of Jesus, the Jewish messiah and Son of God.
That anti-Judaism became a powerful force for evil in the world is an example of what social scientists term the law of unintended consequences, defined as “outcomes that are not the intended results of purposeful action.” Christian culpability for the Holocaust is a quintessential example of an unintended consequence. Fr. Michael McGarry C.S.P., president of the Paulist Fathers, and former Rector of Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem, articulates this most disconcerting reality:
“…We Christians need to remember that studying the Shoah is not simply reading about what happened to the Jews, but what some Christians — some still worshiping, others long drop-outs from the Church — did to the Jews. The Shoah is part of Christian history. It is part of our history if we are Christian. This is frightening, this is sickening, this is, for many, unbelievable. But the first thing we Christians need to recognize is that we study the Shoah because it is part of our history, as well as part of Jewish history. Not only do we study what happened to them but what happened to us Christians.”
Tragically, the image of Jews as deicides, God-killers, and their obstinate refusal to convert to Christianity fueled a long tradition of intolerance, hatred and violence against them. In 66 CE, for example, the newly Christianized residents of Alexandria, Egypt, massacred the city’s Jewish population. When in 70 CE, the Roman occupiers of Judea under Emperor Titus starved and slaughtered at least six hundred thousand Jews in Jerusalem, destroying the city and the (second) Temple, early Christian theologians proclaimed that Jews brought the massacre upon themselves (an early example of “blaming the victim” for the victim’s misfortune). According to Rosemary R. Ruether, Carpenter Emerita Professor of Feminist Theology at Pacific School of Religion, author of The Church Against Itself, anti-Judaism was fundamental to early Christianity’s self-understanding as the true Israel, and of its Lord as the Jewish messiah. She maintains that within two decades of Jesus’ death, anti-Judaism had become “the left hand of Christology.” James Carroll, Distinguished-Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University, a former priest, and author of Constantine’s Sword; The Church and the Jews, terms anti-Judaism the Church’s “primordial sin.”
It is an indisputable fact of history that, for close to two millennia, Jews have been humiliated, victimized, denigrated, discriminated against, banished from countries, forced to live in ghettos, marginalized, demonized, stigmatized as “other,” portrayed as offspring of the devil, wrongly blamed for causing human and natural catastrophes, accused of libels like the ritual murder of Christian children, tortured and killed — by Christians! Regrettably, Nazi propaganda in the twentieth century effectively exploited this shameful tradition to pave the way for the Holocaust.
The dark side of church history chronicles how the Bible has been misused to justify intolerance and persecution of racial, ethnic or other minorities, including native peoples, blacks, women, homosexuals and adherents of other religions, prompting French philosopher Blaise Pascal to opine: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” Shakespeare has one of his main characters in The Merchant of Venice say: “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” Christopher Hitchens, an avowed atheist, in his book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, wrote that organized religion is “the main source of hatred in the world;” because it is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children,” and accordingly it “ought to have a great deal on its conscience.”
Scripture has been invoked to justify slavery, subjugate women, to bless unjust wars, torture heretics, burn witches and kill infidels — all in the name of God. “Anti-Semitism,” writes Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, “is a terrifying prejudice that is rooted so deeply in the church’s life that it has distorted our entire message.” The term “anti-Semitism” was first coined in 1879 by German writer, journalist and anti-Semite, Wilhelm Marr, in his book, The Victory of Judaism over Germanism: Viewed from a Nonreligious Point of View. Widespread failure of conscience was clearly one of the major causes of the Holocaust. Formation of conscience, i.e. teaching how to differentiate between right and wrong, is a primary function of religion. Tragically, anti-Judaism prevented most Christian clergy, Catholic and Protestant alike, from performing this most important function regarding the persecution of Jews. In short, the Church failed to prevent the Holocaust because Jews were not included within the circle of Catholic concern.
After the French Revolution in 1789, liberal Enlightenment ideas encapsulated in the slogan liberté, égalité, fraternité began to gain worldwide currency. Despite church opposition, Jews finally began to achieve citizenship status in European countries, something denied to them for centuries, including in the Papal States. Gradually thereafter, Jews also began to be assimilated into European society in varying degrees, particularly in predominately Christian Western Europe. Liberalism, however, did not eliminate Christian animus toward Jews. “Judaeophobia,” a sociological pathology termed “the world’s oldest prejudice,” which predates Christianity, continued unabated into the twentieth century, especially in also predominately Christian Eastern Europe where it was particularly ingrained and where the mass killing of the Holocaust took place.
The term “anti-Semitism,” purported to explain why Jews should be reviled as defined by race. Adopting an extreme version of anti-Semitism in the twentieth century, Nazi propaganda depicted Jews not only as an inferior race but as a demonic one, whose threat could only be eradicated by complete elimination from the Greater Third Reich, envisioned to encompass all of Europe including Great Britain. Admittedly, Nazi racist ideology differed from previous anti-Jewish tradition, but Hitler needed to build on that tradition in order for his virulent brand of racism to gain popular acceptance. Anti-Judaism (based on religion), not only spawned anti-Semitism (based on race), but spawned Nazi anti-Semitism. The Vatican, however, disputes the premise that anti-Judaism spawned anti-Semitism. In its official response to the Holocaust, the Commission for Religious Relations with Jews (“We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” published in 1998), the Vatican asserts, “The Shoah was the work of a thoroughly modern neo-pagan regime. Its anti-Semitism had its roots outside of Christianity…”