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What the church owes Jews, and itself

A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Alfred A. Knopf: 346 pp., $25

November 03, 2002|John K. Roth | John K. Roth, professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, is the co-editor of "Good News After Auschwitz? Christian Faith Within a Post-Holocaust World" as well as "Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust."

When Daniel Goldhagen's first book, "Hitler's Willing Executioners," was published in 1996, it ignited controversy for arguing that ordinary Germans, not just the SS and Nazi party members, chose to implement the Final Solution. Goldhagen was widely criticized for views that seemed oversimplified, empirically questionable and arrogantly argued, but as time passed -- and especially owing to the book's favorable reception in Germany -- his work withstood much of the criticism.

Such a reaction undoubtedly awaits "A Moral Reckoning," a book that vigorously challenges the Roman Catholic Church to take responsibility for its role in the Holocaust. According to Goldhagen, Pope Pius XII was an anti-Semite and the church was "more a collaborator than a victim of Nazism." He argues that the New Testament's "libelous and hate-inducing passages about Jews" must go, and he calls for a radical reformation to remove from Christianity the anti-Semitism that implicated it in the Holocaust and still leaves that tradition immorally mired in deception and hypocrisy.

"Unpretentious," "indecisive," "moderate" and "patient" are not words that come to mind when reading Goldhagen. Insisting that it is high time to "call a spade a spade," he has written a post-Holocaust moral reckoning with Christianity, and the Roman Catholic Church in particular, that pulls few punches and guarantees a hard-hitting bout over history, ethics and theology. Goldhagen's book is unlikely to leave its readers indifferent. Its significance, however, depends less on immediate reactions and more on what happens 10, 20 or even 100 years after its appearance. Goldhagen may be helping to create a new Christianity. It will take time to tell.

Goldhagen's reckoning begins in two places. First, he believes that the Roman Catholic Church, the Vatican and the wartime popes, Pius XI and especially Pius XII, should be judged no differently than any other institutions or persons -- with one qualification: The church, its members and particularly its leaders should be held accountable to the highest ethical standards of justice and love that they profess as Christians. Second, Goldhagen places anti-Semitism at the heart of his indictment. Deeply rooted in falsehoods about Jews -- none worse than the New Testament's allegation that the Jews are Christ-killers or even the offspring of Satan -- anti-Semitism's many varieties reflect and inflame hostility against Jews "simply because they are Jews."

Goldhagen acknowledges that the post-Holocaust church has gradually repudiated the allegations of Jewish responsibility for the killing of Jesus. It has also rejected collective Jewish guilt and punishment for that crime. Before and during the Holocaust, however, such repudiations by Christians -- Protestants as well as Catholics -- were few and far between. To the contrary, Goldhagen documents that the church's anti-Semitism was institutional. As the church's anti-Jewish teachings were transmitted from one generation to another, Western civilization became increasingly drenched in anti-Semitism's poison.

The anti-Semitism that Christianity embodied, inspired and inflamed was "eliminationist." Clarifying a point central to controversy that swirled when "Hitler's Willing Executioners" appeared, Goldhagen underscores that eliminationist anti-Semitism "does not necessarily mean killing" Jews and that "the Catholic Church was doctrinally opposed to, and itself did not advocate, killing Jews." That said, Goldhagen adds that the lack of persistent and public church protest against the Third Reich's slaughter of European Jewry scarcely inspires confidence that the church was completely opposed to the mass annihilation.

Goldhagen rejects the apologetics that excuse the lack of public protest against the persecution and murder of Jews. He utterly rejects any reasoning that tries to excuse Pope Pius XII in particular on the grounds that if he had spoken out more forthrightly in their favor, then the Jews would have suffered even more under Hitler. Cutting in the opposite direction, his analysis of the evidence points to a devastating conclusion: The church found that "letting Jews die was preferable to intervening on their behalf." Goldhagen's analysis leaves a nagging suspicion. Despite deplorably bloody tactics in which the church would not involve itself directly, did its leaders feel, without ever saying so, that it would be beneficial to be rid of the Jews, one way or another?

In a fundamental disagreement with "We Remember," the Roman Catholic Church's official statement on the Holocaust in 1998, Goldhagen finds the church speaking nonsense when it asserts that the Nazis' racial anti-Semitism "had its roots outside of Christianity." He argues persuasively that "the church's accusations against Jews were often virtually indistinguishable from those of the racist antisemites."

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