A premise of my book, “The Holocaust, the Church, and the Law of Unintended Consequences, How Christian Anti-Judaism Spawned Nazi Anti-Semitism,” is that Nazism’s virulent brand of genocidal anti-Semitism was rooted in the Church’s 1900 plus year animus against Jews, termed anti-Judaism.
“Anti-Semitism,” wrote Blessed Pope John Paul II in 1994, “is a great sin against humanity.” But he made no mention of anti-Judaism. In 1998, fifty-three years after the end of WWII and thirty-three years after publication of the Second Vatican Council document, “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church and Non-Christian Religions,” Nostra Aetate, which condemned anti-Semitism, the Vatican acknowledged the causal link between church history and the Holocaust. At the same time, however, it attempted to exonerate the institutional Church from any culpability in the Holocaust. In a document that took ten years to prepare, entitled, “We Remember; a Reflection on the Shoah,” the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, on behalf of John Paul II, wrote:
“In the Christian world — I am not saying as part of the Church as such — erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament relative to the Jewish people and their presumed guilt circulated for too long, engendering sentiments of hostility toward this people. That contributed to a lulling of many consciences, so that, when Europe was swept by the wave of persecutions inspired by a (neo) pagan anti-Semitism that in its essence was equally anti-Christian, alongside those Christians who did everything to save those who were persecuted, even to the point of risking their own lives, the spiritual resistance of many was not what humanity expected of Christ’s disciples.” (Emphasis mine)
The Church, in short, acknowledged that one of the parents of Nazi anti-Semitism was neo pagan anti-Semitism, but failed to acknowledge the other parent — Christian anti-Judaism. Together they spawned a “Rosemary’s Baby,” i.e., a diabolical offspring.
The Holy See in the same document also attempted to exonerate Blessed Pope Pius XII from complicity in the Holocaust. The Commission wrote:
“…Those who did help to save Jewish lives as much as was in their power, even to the point of placing their own lives in danger, must not be forgotten. During and after the war, Jewish communities and Jewish leaders expressed their thanks for all that had been done for them, including what Pope Pius XII did personally or through his representatives to save hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives. Many Catholic bishops, priests, religious and laity have been honored for this reason by the State of Israel…”
Gary Wills, author of “Papal Sin,” charges that, “We Remember” devoted more energy to exonerating the Church and excoriating Nazis for not following church doctrine than to sympathizing with victims of the Holocaust. “The effect is,” Wills writes, “of a sad person toiling up a hill all racked with emotion and ready to beat his breast, only to have him plump down on his knees, sigh heavily and point at some other fellow who caused all the trouble.” The key distinction labored at through the text, according to Wills, is a pseudo-scientific theory of race always condemned by the Church and anti-Judaism, which some Christians through weakness succumbed to at times, but not “the Church as such.” The former is a matter of erroneous teaching, of which the Church is never guilty; the latter a matter of sentiment and weakness, sometimes using misinterpreted scriptural texts as cover for prejudices of a basically nonreligious variety.
David Kertzer, author of “The Popes against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism,” charges that the distinction made in “We Remember” between, anti-Judaism (implied but not named), of which some unnamed and misinformed Christians were unfortunately guilty in the past, and anti-Semitism which led to the horrors of the Holocaust, will simply not survive historical scrutiny. “Every single element of modern anti-Semitism,” writes Kertzer, “was not only embraced by the Church but actively promulgated by official and unofficial Church organs.” Kertzer asserts that the document’s argument that Nazi anti-Semitism was the product of a new social and political form of anti-Judaism, foreign to the Church, which mixed in new racial ideas that were at odds with church doctrine, was simply “not the product of a Church that wants to confront its history.”
On the issue of causality for the Holocaust, James Carroll, author of “Constantine’s Sword, The Church and the Jews,” also disagrees with the Vatican’s no culpability position, viewing the Church’s role quite differently. Carroll, who terms anti-Judaism the Church’s “primal sin,” writes:
“Auschwitz, when seen in the links of causality, reveals that the hatred of Jews has been…a central action of Christian history, reaching to the core of Christian character…Because the hatred of Jews had been made holy, it became lethal…However modern Nazism was, it planted its roots in the soil of age-old church attitudes and a nearly unbroken chain of church-sponsored acts of Jew-hatred. However pagan Nazism was, it drew its sustenance from groundwater poisoned by the Church’s most solemnly held ideology — its theology.”
On the issue of church sinfulness, Carroll, in his book “Toward a New Catholic Church,” writes: “If transgressions occur, they are always the result of the aberrant behavior of individuals — perhaps including individual priests, bishops, or even a pope — but never of the institutional, theological, or dogmatic aspects of Catholicism.”
Moreover, John Carroll, Garry Wills, John Cornwell (“Hitler’s Pope”), David Kertzer, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (“Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust”) and other historians dispute the Vatican’s assertion that Pius XII was not complicit in the Holocaust. For example, Susan Zuccotti, author of “Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy,” argues that Jewish politicians who praised Pius’s performance during the Holocaust actually had an ulterior motive, namely, as Jews dedicated to the creation of the State of Israel, they were attempting to urge Vatican diplomatic recognition of the Jewish state. Additionally, several historians assert that the 860,000 figure, cited his defenders, for Jews saved by Pius has never been documented. It should be noted that the wartime Vatican archives have yet to be made public.
Regarding the issue of Christian culpability for the Holocaust, John Shelby Spong, former Episcopal bishop of Newark, N.J., author of “The Sins of Scripture,” writes:“Until we (Christians) embrace the depth of the problem and identify what it is in the Christian faith itself that not only gave anti-Semitism its birth but also regularly sustains it, we will continue to violate the very people who gave us the Jesus we claim to serve.”
Acknowledgements of Church Culpability
In a 1995 statement of regret, the bishops of the Netherlands acknowledged church causality in the Holocaust. The statement read: “(There existed) …a tradition of theological and ecclesiastical anti‑Judaism” and “the ‘catechesis of vilification’ (which) taught that Jewry after Christ’s death was rejected as a people.” The bishops of the Netherlands “reject this tradition of ecclesiastical anti‑Judaism and deeply regret its horrible results.”
In September, 1997, the bishops of France issued a document entitled, “Declaration of Repentance,” in which they acknowledged the Church’s “culpable silence” (“Silence gives consent.” Pope Boniface VIII (1012–24)) during the Holocaust. It read:
“Too many of the Church’s pastors committed an offense, by their silence, against the Church itself and its mission. Today we confess that such a silence was a sin. In so doing, we recognize that the Church of France (shares) with the Christian people the responsibility for failing to lend their aid, from the very first moments, when protest and protection were still possible as well as necessary.”
“…We must recognize that indifference won the day over indignation in the face of the persecution of the Jews and that, in particular, silence was the rule in face of the multifarious (anti-Jewish) laws enacted by the Vichy government, whereas speaking out in favor of the victims was the exception…. The end result is that the attempt to exterminate the Jewish people, instead of being perceived as a central question in human and spiritual terms, remained a secondary consideration. In the face of so great and utter a tragedy, too many of the Church’s pastors committed an offense, by their silence, against the Church itself and its mission. Today we confess that such a silence was a sin…. We confess this sin. We beg God’s pardon, and we call upon the Jewish people to hear our words of repentance.”
Also in 1997, the bishops of Switzerland issued a similar statement in which they stated:
“…For centuries Christians and ecclesiastical teachings were guilty of persecuting and marginalizing Jews,” and we bishops “shamefully declare” that the perpetrators and collaborators in the Holocaust used religious motivations. “It is in reference to these past acts of churches for which we proclaim ourselves culpable and ask pardon of the descendants of the victims…”
In March, 1998, the bishops of Italy wrote an open letter to the Italian Jewish community, in which they acknowledged the “lack of prophetic action” on the part of the Church during the Holocaust, adding: “We recall these events with dismay and also with a profound and conscientious ‘teshuvah.’” Teshuvah in Hebrew means “return” and is the word used to describe the concept of repentance in Judaism.
In 2001 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in “Catholic Teaching on the Shoah: Implementing the Holy See’s ‘We Remember’” wrote: “Christian anti-Judaism did lay the ground work for racial, genocidal anti-Semitism by stigmatizing not only Judaism but Jews themselves for opprobrium and contempt. So the Nazi theories tragically found fertile soil in which to plant the horror of an unprecedented attempt at genocide.”
Has the Church acknowledged its complicity in the Holocaust? Many historians, answer, No.