As Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “the Holocaust did not begin with Auschwitz. The Holocaust began with words.” And too many of those impactful words were written or spoken by Christians — church leaders, theologians, preachers, teachers, and ordinary Christians — for close two thousand years. Words, obviously, have consequences, intended and unintended, especially when they lead to action, which can be for good or evil.
It is an indisputable fact of history that the Roman Catholic Church, and subsequently founded churches, harbored a powerful anti-Jewish bias which became a source of great evil. That’s the premise of my book, “The Holocaust, the Church, and the Law of Unintended Consequences, How Christian Anti-Judaism Spawned Nazi Anti-Semitism.” Grounded in Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers, this bias, termed anti-Judaism, was a deeply ingrained theological position of the Church, permeating two of its core doctrines:
In the New Testament certain passages are misread to justify persecuting Jews. The favorite text of “anti-Semites” is in the Gospel of Matthew, written about 70 CE. In its passion narrative, during the trial scene before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, the Jewish crowd is portrayed as responding to Pilate’s protestation of Jesus’ innocence by proclaiming, “His (Jesus’) blood be on us and on our children.” (Mt. 27:25) Based on the “collective guilt” implied in these words, Christians have maligned and mistreated Jews for almost two millennia. No other biblical verse has been responsible for so much violence and bloodshed directed again them.
The tendency to exonerate the Romans and fix blame on Jews for Jesus’ death intensified as early Christian missionary activity expanded into the ancient Mediterranean world. To make converting non-Jews (gentiles) easier and less threatening to the ruling authority, Roman involvement in the crucifixion was diminished as Jewish culpability increased. This is illustrated in the Gospel of Peter, widely read by some second century Christians, although not included in the New Testament canon. The author of the Gospel of Peter wrote:
The Jews, the elders, and the priests realized (after the crucifixion) how much evil they had done to themselves and began beating their breasts, saying, ‘Woe to us because of our sins; the judgment and the end of Jerusalem are near.’
This last phrase — “the judgment and the end of Jerusalem are near”— echoes the charge made by early Christian theologians that the destruction of Jerusalem and (second) Temple in 70 CE signified God’s judgment on the Jewish people for their rejecting Jesus as messiah and killing him.
In his First Letter to the Thessalonians (circa 52 CE), the oldest known Christian document, St. Paul declares:
For you, brothers and sisters, become imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16)
In Paul’s Letter to the Romans (circa 56 CE), the author refers to Jews as those to whom God has given “a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear down to this very day.” (Rom. 11:7-8)
The Gospel of John (90-100 CE) quotes Jesus as saying:
You (Jews) are of your father the devil and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell you the truth you do not believe me. (Jn. 8:44-45).
Whenever the phrase “the Jews” appears in John’s gospel, it is with a pejorative undertone. When the author of John describes the first post Easter apparition of the risen Jesus, for example, he states that the disciples are hiding behind locked doors, “for fear of the Jews.” (Jn. 20:19) A detachment of temple guards is placed around Jesus’ tomb, according to the author, because the chief priests and Pharisees told Pilate that “this imposter” has predicted that “after three days, ‘I will arise again’” (Mt. 27:62ff)
The not so subtle message of the four gospels and other books of the New Testament is that Jews are sinister evildoers who purposefully murdered the Lord. Most scripture scholars agree that this is a “misinterpretation” of the biblical texts which resulted from reading the words without regard to their Jewish context.
Misinterpretation of biblical texts helps explains why anti-Jewish animus permeates the writings of the earliest theologians, the Church Fathers – Polycarp, Justin Martyr, St. Jerome, and Tertullian — to name a few. A primary motivation of these early church leaders was fear that newly baptized Christians would fall back into their “Jewish ways” or that gentile converts would find the practices of Judaism preferable to those of Christianity. To combat this so called “Judaizing” of Christianity, the Church Fathers wrote and preached against Judaism in often venomous and inflammatory language. When read today, the words are still stark and chilling. Jews, for example, were referred to as evil, vermin, unclean and unfit to live – words widely used in Nazi propaganda. Hitler, in his autobiography and political manifesto, Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”), first published in 1925, advocates for the elimination of Jews from Germany and Europe to prevent defilement of Aryan blood and the corruption of European culture, referring to them as vermin, parasites, maggots, polluters, destroyers of Aryan humanity and life unworthy of life.
No one railed against Judaism more vehemently than St. John Chrysostom (347–407), photo supra, Archbishop of Constantinople and Doctor of the Church, who initiated and perfected the “Adversus Judaeos” (anti-Judaic) sermon genre. Known for his eloquence in preaching and public speaking, he proclaimed:
The Synagogue is a brothel, a hiding place for unclean beasts… Jews are the most worthless of all men (who) are lecherous, greedy and rapacious…perfidious murderers of Christ and for killing God there is no expiation possible, no indulgence or pardon. Christians may never cease vengeance,…Jews must live in servitude forever… God always hated Jews. It is incumbent upon all Christians to hate Jews.
In 388, a mob of Christians, at the instigation of their bishop, looted and burned the synagogue in Callinicum, a town on the Euphrates River. In that same year, St. Ambrose, a Doctor of the Church, defended the righteousness of synagogue burning. Kristallnacht, “Night of Broken Glass” (November 8-9, 1938), historical starting point of the Holocaust, included the burning of hundreds of synagogues throughout Nazi Germany and Occupied Austria.
St. Augustine (354-430), also a Doctor of the Church, wrote that Jews were possessors of the “mark of Cain,” whom God required to wander the earth in “perpetual servitude” until they voluntarily converted to Christianity. Referring to Jews as “slave librarians” who exist “for the salvation of the nation but not for their own (salvation),” Augustine wrote: “the Church admits and avows the Jewish people to be cursed, because after killing Christ they continue in impiety and unbelief.”
This prayer for the conversion of the Jews was recited during Catholic Masses until 1955. It read:
Let us pray also for the perfidious Jews: that Almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts (2Corinthians 3:13-16) so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord. Almighty and eternal God, who does not exclude from your mercy even Jewish perfidiousness: hear our prayers, which we offer for the blindness of that people; that acknowledging the light of your Truth, which is Christ, they may be delivered from their darkness. Through the same Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever. Amen.
Pronouncements of church councils and synods of bishops were likewise saturated with anti-Judaism. In 306 the Council of Elvira, for example, decreed that Christians and Jews were forbidden to inter-marry, have sexual intercourse, or eat together. The Council of Nicea in 325 decreed that Easter and Passover would henceforth be celebrated on different days, stating: “let us have nothing in common with this odious people…” In 337 the marriage of a Jewish man to a Christian woman became punishable by death. In 339 converting to Judaism became a criminal offense. The Synod of Toledo in 681 ordered the burning of the Talmud and other Jewish books. On May 10, 1933 in Opera Square, across from the University of Berlin, the Nazis staged a book burning of Jewish authors and of non-Jews suspected of writing in a “Jewish spirit.” Similar events took place in other cities in Germany and elsewhere during the Third Reich.
Secular rulers, with church approval, barred Jews from, among other things, owning real estate, holding public office or civil service positions, attending public schools or universities, hiring Christian servants, and practicing certain professions. Because church doctrine forbade Christians to practice usury, Jews became bankers and jewelers, which created for them an opportunity to become the dominant financiers of Europe. Even kings and popes borrowed from Jewish bankers. Involvement in banking, however, linked to the biblical story of Judas Iscariot who, according to Christian tradition, betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, fed the stereotypical prejudice that Jews were venal “money-grubbers.”
In 1205 Pope Innocent III wrote:
…the Jews, by their own guilt, are consigned to perpetual servitude because they crucified the Lord…As slaves rejected by God, in whose death they wickedly conspire, they shall by the effect of this very action, recognize themselves as the slaves of those whom Christ’s death set free…
A sad truth of history is that many of the anti-Jewish laws promulgated by the Third Reich and its collaborationist regimes had direct antecedents in church laws and practices. Austrian-born American political scientist and historian, Raul Hilberg has compiled an outline entitled, “Canonical and Nazi Anti-Jewish Measures,” in which he identified fifteen canon laws with direct parallels to Nazi race laws. Two obvious ones — the Fourth Lateran Council’s decree of 1213 requiring Jews to wear distinctive markings on their clothing; and the Synod of Breslau’s decree of 1267 mandating that they live in ghettos.
Sixteenth century Protestant reformer Martin Luther, although initially sympathetic toward Jews, became virulently anti-Jewish in his later years. Angered by their refusal to convert to Christianity, he wrote a scathing tract “On the Jews and Their Lies” depicting Jews as Christ killers and criminals bent on ruling the world. Luther advocated burning synagogues, schools, and homes, and driving Jews “like mad dogs out the land.” The Nazis prominently displayed this tract at National Socialist Party rallies.
The City of Nuremberg presented a first edition of “On the Jews and Their Lies”to Julius Streicher, editor of the Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer, on his birthday in 1937. Streicher described it as the most radically anti-Semitic tract ever published. The tract was publicly exhibited in a glass case at Nuremberg rallies. Hitler was particularly fond of quoting from On the Jews and Their Lies.
In 1843, Prince Metternich, the Austrian statesman, wrote Pope Gregory XVI urging him to show tolerance toward Jews. Gregory refused, replying;
The prohibitions on the Jews “a Nation of deicides and blasphemers of Christ,” forbidding them from employing Christian servants or wet nurses, from owning real estate…from living outside the ghetto are prohibitions founded in the sacred Canons. These, in order to guarantee Christian religion and morality, command the separation of Christians and Jews.
In 1867, Pope Pius IX spearheaded an effort to have Peter Arbues, a 15th century inquisitor famed for the forcible conversion of Jews, canonized to sainthood. In the canonization document, Pius IX stated: “Divine wisdom has arranged that in these sad days, when Jews help the enemies of the Church with their books and money, this decree of sanctity has been brought to fulfillment.” Addressing members of a Catholic women’s group in August 1870 Pius IX proclaimed: before the time of Jesus, the Jews “had been children in the House of God.” But, all this changed, for “owing to their obstinacy and their failure to believe, they became dogs.”
In 1880, founding editor of “La Civiltà Cattolica,” a prominent Catholic newspaper run by the Jesuits, Fr.Giuseppe Oreglia S.J. wrote in an article: …
The Jews – eternal insolent children, obstinate, dirty, thieves, liars, ignoramuses, pests and the scourge of those near and far…managed to lay their hands on…all public wealth…and virtually alone they took control not only of all the money…but of the law itself in those countries where they have been allowed to hold public offices…(yet they complain) at the first shout by anyone who dares raise his voice against this barbarian invasion by an enemy ‘race,’ hostile to Christianity and to society in general.
“L’Osservatore Romano,” the Vatican daily newspaper, in 1906 defended anti-Semitic mobs that protested the reversal French Captain Alfred Dreyfus’ rigged conviction by saying: “The Jewish race, the deicide people, wanderer throughout the world, brings with it everywhere the pestiferous breath of treason.”
On September 2, 1933, Adolf Bertram, a German bishop, wrote a letter to Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, Vatican Secretary of State (future Pius XII) requesting that Pacelli intervene with Reich authorities on behalf of Jewish converts to Catholicism. Bishop Bertram wrote:
Will it be possible for the Holy See to put in a warm-hearted word for those who have been converted from Judaism to the Christian religion, since either they themselves, or their children or grandchildren, are now facing a wretched fate because of their lack of Aryan descent?
Pacelli agreed to do so, but his letter in defense of “non-Aryan Catholics” was careful to acknowledge that the Holy See’s concern was not with the fate of “other non-Aryans,” i.e. Jews. The letter began: “The Holy See (has) no intention of interfering in Germany’s internal affairs (because of the Reich Concordat).” That is to say, the Holy See recognizes that the fate of non-Aryans is a matter “outside the circle of Vatican concern,” …with one exception:
The Holy See takes this occasion,” Pacelli wrote, “to add a word in behalf of those German Catholics who themselves have gone over from Judaism to the Christian religion, or who are descended in the first generation, or more remotely from Jews who adopted the Catholic faith, and who, for reasons known to the Reich government, are likewise suffering from social and economic difficulties. (e.g., Sr. Edith Stein)
The phrase (the fate of non-Aryans is a matter) “outside the circle of Vatican concern” in retrospect assumes portentous and unintended consequences.
On January 30, 1939, in a ceremony commemorating the sixth anniversary of the Nazi rise to power, Hitler proclaimed that in the event of war, Jews would need to be “annihilated.” Also in January, 1939, two months after Kristallnacht, following passage of Manifesto of Italian Racism (Italy’s version of the Nuremberg Laws of 1935), L’Osservatore Romano published an Italian bishop’s homily that referenced the newly enacted Italian legislation. It read:
The Church has always regarded living side by side with Jews, as long as they remain Jews, as dangerous to the faith and tranquility of Christian people. It is for this reason that you find an old and long tradition of ecclesiastical legislation and discipline intended to brake and limit the action and influence of the Jews in the midst of Christians, and the contact of Christians with them, isolating the Jews and not allowing them the exercise of those offices and professions in which they could dominate or influence the spirit, the education, the customs of Christians.
In 1939, Roberto Farinacci, a member of Mussolini’s Fascist Grand Council, while speaking on “The Church and the Jews” said: “We fascist Catholics consider the Jewish problem from a strictly political point of view…But it comforts our souls to know that if, as Catholics, we became anti-Semites, we owe it to the teachings that the Church has promulgated over the past twenty centuries.”
Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, drawing on his Catholic upbringing, opined:
Christ is the genius of love, as such the most diametrical opposite of Judaism, which is the incarnation of hate. The Jew is a non-race among the races of the earth…. Christ is the first great enemy of the Jews…. that is why Judaism had to get rid of him. For he was shaking the very foundations of its future international power. The Jew is the lie personified. When he crucified Christ, he crucified everlasting truth for the first time in history.
Der Giftpilz (“The Poisonous Mushroom”) was one of many anti-Semitic books written for German children. Highlighting the theme of Jews as Christ-killers, it urged children: “Whenever you see a cross, then think of the horrible murder by the Jews on Golgotha.”
In May, 1941, an article written by a Croatian priest entitled “Why Are the Jews Persecuted?” appeared in the diocesan newspaper of his bishop Ivan Saric. It stated:
The descendants of those who hated Jesus, persecuted him to death, crucified him and persecuted his disciples, are guilty of sins greater than (those of) their forebears. Jewish greed increases. The Jews have led Europe and the world towards disaster—moral and economic disaster. Their appetite grows till only domination of the world will satisfy it…Satan aided them in the invention of Socialism and Communism. There is a limit to love. The movement of liberation of the world from the Jews is a movement for the renewal of human dignity. Omniscient and omnipotent God stands behind this movement.
A Ukrainian priest preached a homily in May, 1942, in which urged:
Dear merciful people, I beg you and warn you, do not give a piece of bread to a Jew…No trace of a Jew is to remain. We should erase them from the face of the earth. When the last Jew disappears from the face of the earth, we shall win the war.”
In June, 1944 as Hungarian Jews were being rounded up and deported to Auschwitz, an article appeared in the local fascist party newspaper in the town of Veszprem announcing an upcoming thanksgiving prayer service. It read:
With the help of Divine Providence our ancient city and province have been liberated from that Judaism which sullied our nation. In our thousand years, this is not the first time we have been freed from some scourge which had befallen us. However no previous event can compare in its importance to this event, for no previous foe threatening us, whether by force or by a political takeover, had ever succeeded in overcoming us to the extent that the Jews have succeeded, with the aid of their poisoned roots which penetrated our national body and took hold of it. We are following in the footsteps of our fathers in coming to express our thanks to our God who saves us whenever we are in distress. Come and gather for the thanksgiving service which will take place on June 25 at 11:30 AM at the Franciscan Church.
Even after WWII ended, until the day he died in 1958, Pius XII never offered a word of acknowledgment, regret, or comfort to Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
In 1965, Vatican Council II declared in “Nostra Aetate” that Christ’s death could not be blamed on the Jews at that time or today. A recent survey by the Anti-Defamation League determined that 26% of Americans still believe that “Jews were responsible for the death of Christ.” Though that percentage has decreased from 31% in 2011, it still accounts for over a quarter of America.
Contemporary American author, Jodi Picoult, has written: “Words are like eggs dropped from great heights; you can no more call them back than ignore the mess they leave when they fall.” How was it possible for one group of people to hate another group virulently enough to slaughter six million of them? It all began with words; words which resulted in a toxic mess of epic proportions.
Anthony J. Sciolino
Rochester Jewish Book Festival
November 4, 2013