Europe’s population during the 1920’s, ’30’s, and 40’s was approximately 95% Christian. Clearly, anti-Judaism, the Church’s 1900 plus year doctrine of animus against Jews, contributed to the culpability, complicity, and indifference of so many, many Europeans, both before and during the Holocaust. The following letter of complaint to Reich authorities from Mrs. Eleonore Gusenbauer of Ried, a village in Austria near Mauthausen, written in September, 1941, for example, demonstrates an egregious level of Christian indifference.
“Inmates of the Mauthausen concentration camp are constantly being shot at the Vienna Ditch work site. Those who are badly struck still live for some time and lie next to the dead for hours and in some cases for half a day. My property is situated on an elevation close to the Vienna Ditch and therefore one often becomes the unwilling witness of such misdeeds. I am sickly in any case and such sights make such demands on my nerves, that I will not be able to bear it much longer. I request that it be arranged that such inhuman deeds will cease or else be conducted out of sight.”
Wrapping himself in religiosity, Hitler was masterful at exploiting Christianity for his own nefarious purposes. To cite just one example, in the above photo “Gott Mit Uns” is translated “God With Us.” Centuries’ of anti-Judaism, in effect, had conditioned Europeans to view Jews as “objects” outside the circle of Christian concern, excluded from Jesus’ command. “…Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34) This conditioning anesthetized Christian conscience to injustice against Jews; dulled Christian capacity to feel empathy for them. A Marxist might characterize this phenomenon as yet another example of religion functioning like an “opiate of the people.” Lord Acton might characterize it as another example of “absolute power corrupting absolutely.” And the atheist writer, Christopher Hitchens, as another instance of religion “poisoning everything.” Ethically desensitized collective conscience caused too many Europeans during Third Reich, including church leaders, to succumb to Nazi anti-Semitism, at least in its early milder form, with some even willing to become perpetrators in its final virulent form. In short, for close to two thousand years, Jews had been objectified and dehumanized, demonized as God-killers, making it easier for twentieth century Christians, so inclined, to murder them, individually or as a group.
Moreover, Gordon C. Zahn, author of “German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars,” charged that priests, intentionally or unintentionally, functioned, as cheerleaders for the Nazi war effort, encouraging Wehrmacht combatants to fight and, even when the war was lost, to fight on; and that the German Catholic Church not only implicitly sanctioned an “unjust” war, but also failed to teach or model ethical behavior— a primary function of religion. Zahn wrote:
“…the German Catholic who looked to his religious superiors for spiritual guidance and direction regarding service in Hitler’s wars received virtually the same answers he would have received from the Nazi ruler himself” and “To the extent that the Church accommodates itself to a secular regime, it becomes, in effect, an agent of that regime, supplementing the secular controls with those of the spiritual order.”
In deciding how to respond to Nazi extremism, sadly, many, many Christians placed duty to obey secular authority higher than duty to obey conscience. Jesus taught: “Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” (Matthew, 22:21) Far too many, however, ignored the distinction and rendered all to the Nazi Caesar. Making matters worse, most church leaders, Catholic and Protestant alike, the so called “shepherds of the flock,” failed, by word and example, to “feed the flock;” i.e. they failed to guide the flock in conscience formation.
Unquestionably, widespread failure of conscience was a major contributing cause of the Holocaust. On the issue of conscience, Vatican Council II in 1965 decreed:
“Deep within our conscience we find a law which we have not laid upon ourselves, but which we must obey. Its voice, ever calling us to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in our heart at the right moment…For we have in our hearts a law inscribed by God…Our conscience is our most secret core and our sanctuary. There we are alone with God whose voice echoes in our depths.” “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” (Gaudium et Spes) and
“It is through our conscience that we see and recognize the demands of the divine law. We are bound to follow our conscience faithfully in all our activity so that we may come to God, who is our last end.” “Declaration on Religious Liberty,” (Dignitatis Humanae)
Traditionalist interpreters of Vatican Council II insist almost exclusively on the continuity of the Council with Catholic tradition. They dispute progressive interpreters who say that the Vatican II broke from the past and changed business as usual. These traditionalists, however, will be hard pressed to explain why Council pronouncements on conscience, if only restating what had been church tradition, were not followed by church leaders before and during the Nazi era. Or why popes who possessed papal infallibility on issues of morality failed so miserably to model and teach ethical conduct toward of Jews.
See Fr. John W. O’Malley’s two books, “Vatican II; Did Anything Happen?” (2008) and “What Happened at Vatican II” (2010) for more information on the differences between traditionalist and progressive views on the impact of Vatican Council II and the dispute regarding continuity and change.