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Remembering the Holocaust
The debilitating effect of intellectual dishonesty can be touching. Even when papal authority sincerely wants to perform a virtuous act, when it spends years screwing up its nerve to do it, when it actually thinks it has done it, when it releases a notice of its having done it, when it expects to be congratulated on doing itit has not done it. Not because it did not want to do it, or did not believe it did it. It was simply unable to do it, because that would have involved coming clean about the record of the papal institution. And that is all but unthinkable.
A good example is the long-awaited document on the Holocaust, We Remember, issued by a papally appointed commission on March 16, 1998, and recommended in an accompanying letter by John Paul II. This document had been in preparation for over a decade. It was supposed to go beyond the Second Vatican Council's assurance, in 1965, that Jews cannot, after all, be blamed for the death of Jesus (an assurance that We Remember refers to). Though expressions of sympathy for Jewish suffering are voiced in the new statement, it devotes more energy to exonerating the churchand excoriating the Nazis for not following church teachingthan to sympathizing with the Holocaust's victims. The effect is 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 heavilyand point at some other fellow who caused all the trouble.
The key distinction labored at through the text is between anti-Semitism, as 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 teachingwhich the church is never guilty of. The latter is a matter of "sentiment" and weakness, sometimes using misinterpreted scriptural texts as a cover for prejudices of a basically nonreligious sort:
In a climate of eventful social change, Jews were often accused of exercising an influence disproportionate to their numbers. Thus there began to spread in varying degrees throughout most of Europe an anti-Judaism that was essentially more sociological and political than religious.
Since the "sentiment" was not really religious, that lets the church off the hook. It never caused "anti-Judaism," though individual members of the church succumbed to it on their own. Thus the document can direct its animus against scientific racism (the real anti-Semitism) and present it as the common enemy of Christian and Jew:
At the level of theological reflection we cannot ignore the fact that not a few in the Nazi party not only showed aversion to the idea of divine Providence at work in human affairs, but gave proof of a definite hatred directed at God himself. Logically, such an attitude also led to a rejection of Christianity, and a desire to see the church destroyed or at least subject to the interest of the Nazi state. It was this extreme ideology which became the basis of the measures taken, first to drive the Jews from their homes and then to exterminate them. The Shoah was the work of a thoroughly modern neo-pagan regime. Its anti-Semitism had its roots outside of Christianity and, in pursuing its aim, it did not hesitate to oppose the church and persecute its members also.
Did Christians have anything to do with the persecuting? Well, only in the sense that some did not oppose it quite as strenuously as they ought to have done:
Did Christians give every possible assistance to those being persecuted, and in particular to the persecuted Jews? Many did, but others did not. 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. Nevertheless, as Pope John Paul II has recognized, alongside such courageous men and women, the spiritual resistance and concrete action of other Christians was not that which might have been expected from Christ's followers. We cannot know how many Christians in countries occupied or ruled by the Nazi powers or their allies were horrified at the disappearance of their Jewish neighbors and yet were not strong enough to raise their voices in protest. For Christians, this heavy burden of conscience of their brothers and sisters during the Second World War must be a call to penitence.
So this documentwhich the Pope commends for calling "memory to play its necessary part in the process of shaping a future"establishes three entirely separate categories:
1. Those who caused the Holocaustirreligious Nazis with a godless scientism about race, who were anti-Christian as well as anti-Jewish.
2. Those who opposed the HolocaustPope Pius XII and bishops and other authorities encouraging their followers to act in accord with the church's teaching.
3. Those who did not oppose the Holocaust enoughChristians too fearful to follow their brave leaders. It is only in the name of this last category that the document expresses "penitence."
What is left out of this picture? To begin with, the bishops and priests who were supportive of the Nazis are expunged from the memory that Pope John Paul says is supposed to guide us into the future.
The [papal] nuncio to Berlin throughout the war, Archbishop Cesare Orsenigo, was a Nazi sympathizer, and far from the only friend of the Nazis in the hierarchy. The rector of the German College in Rome, Archbishop Alois Hudal, who was useful in dealing with the Nazis during their occupation of Rome, was another, and many members of Hitler's government, like Ernst von Weizsacker, the ambassador to the Vatican and an old acquaintance of the Pope [Pius XII], professed to be good Catholics. When Weizsacker was credited to the Vatican in 1943, the papal limousine that took him to his audience flew the papal flag and the swastika side by side, "in peaceful harmony," as Weizsacker noted proudly.
There may (or may not) have been extenuating circumstances for some of these collaborators. But to pretendnay, to assertthat they did not exist is to remove We Remember from any serious consideration as an honest confrontation with a complicated history. Its "memory," far from being useful to the cause of true understanding that would prevent another Holocaust, is useful only to the fictions that the Vatican wants to maintain about itself. It can take such a fanciful approach to the historical record because it is imposing on that record a theoretical template that has three parts"the church," and "science," and the relations between church and science.
First, we are told that "the church" as such cannot have been involved in the Holocaust since it has never taught any theoretical difference in the races. I attended a Jesuit seminary whose oldest building was erected, in the nineteenth century, by slaves owned by the Jesuit ordermen who were the property of the whole order since individual Jesuits had all taken a vow of poverty. That building is concrete evidence for a practical treatment of the races as unequal, no matter what theoretical propositions were being formulated at the time. But the main problem here is not historical but theological. What is the church? The Vatican authorities continue to use the term in ways that the Second Vatican Council rejected. According to the Council, the church is the people of God, the body of believers baptized into the life and death of Christ. The church, no more than the Pope, can be impeccable. If the concrete reality of the historical church has been involved in the guilt of slavery, inquisitions, and conquest, we cannot say that this does not count because it was not the real church that was sinningthat it was just lay churchmen, or nonhierarchical elements, or people who could not claim the teaching authority (magisterium) of the church, as if the magisterium were itself the whole people of God.
The Vatican reverts, in We Rememberand in many placesto the older usage that equates the church with its highest organs of doctrinal statement. That is what is meant when we hear that Catholics no longer follow "the church," or are defying "the church." How can they defy themselves? Was the church guilty of the Holocaust? No, says the Vatican, since the magisterium never advocated it or defended it in a formal teaching. If Catholics singly or in groups were implicated in the crime, this was something the magisterium could not be convicted of.
Let us apply that kind of thinking to a current situation. The teaching church says that abortion and contraception are mortal sins and crimes against human persons. Is the church guilty of those crimes (assuming, for the sake of argument, that they are such)? No, says the Vatican, because the Pope has condemned them. On the other hand, polls confirm that a majority of Catholics (88 percent in 1993) accept contraceptive methods in theory, and those in a position to act on that acceptance do so. Catholics are also no different from the rest of the population in the number of abortions they undergo. The church, then, is "committing" abortion and contraception, though its leaders say that they must not. In the same way, Catholics were active in the Nazi state, even though their leaders (some of them, some of the time) told them not to be.
Second, the blaming of science is something with a long history in Vatican documents. We do not have to go back to Galileo to see that ecclesiastical authorities have been suspicious of science, of human knowledge when that seems to run counter to scripture or tradition. Authorities with a large body of changeless truth to maintain tend to look with apprehension on anything so vertiginously changeable as the experimental sciences. Apprehension deepened to entrenched acrimony under Pius IX (a hero to Pope John Paul), an acrimony that lingers in some curial enclaves. Whenever evil views can be attributed to science, that effectively removes them from the sacred domain the church authorities are protecting. That is why We Remember is careful to pick up National Socialism with tongs, as it were, and drop it into the sterile confines of a laboratory:
At the same time, theories began to appear which denied the unity of the human race, affirming an original diversity of races. In the twentieth century, National Socialism in Germany used these ideas as a pseudo-scientific basis for a distinction between so-called Nordic-Aryan races and supposedly inferior races.
We are supposed to conclude that any form of thought so distant in ethos from a Catholic mentality could not mix with it easily or at all. But prejudice regularly mingles contradictory items, so long as they can be made to pull in the desired direction. The anti-Semite draws readily on science, faith, legend, history, or lawon any snippet of fact or theory that hatred can fuse into a rationale for action.
This is a picture very far from the neat little schema of three disparate types offered by We Remember. That document tries to draw a clear line of demarcation between secular anti-Semitism and "sociological" anti-Judaism. But empirical studies show that the two reinforce rather than fight each other. The most thorough proof of this was made, so far as America is concerned, when the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B'nai B'rith commissioned a major series of studies from the Survey Research Center of the University of California at Berkeley. The survey was commissioned while the Vatican Council was sitting, and carried out after it was dissolved. Pollsters first set up categories of orthodox belief among Christianscategories in which Catholics, as expected, scored higher than Protestants. Then they tested those who scored high in these categories with the range of secular anti-Semitic views. They found that "the respondents' anti-Semitism varies in direct relation to their positions on this measure [of orthodoxy] . . . the more the religious beliefs are subscribed to, the greater the anti-Semitism" (emphasis added). Orthodox beliefs are in fact "a powerful predictor of secular anti-Semitism." The degree of secular anti-Semitism is often linked to specifically theological positionse.g., that the Jews are a cursed race, guilty of rejecting their own Messiah, responsible for killing Christ. That view is still powerful, despite the assurance in We Remember that the church has denied its legitimacy. The ADL study found, even after that official denial, that 11 percent of Catholics in America still agreed with this statement: "The reason Jews have so much trouble is because God is punishing them for rejecting Jesus." An amazing 41 percent said that they were not certain about the curse, but they considered it a possibility. History is not easily altered by a single decree, especially one that comes out of the blue, as Vatican II's did.
Vatican II (1962-65)
We Remember quotes a 1997 speech by Pope John Paul II: "In the Christian worldI do not say on the part of the Church as sucherroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people and their alleged culpability have circulated for too long". The Pope can clean the skirts of "the church as such" only in the highly technical sense (and by the theologically narrow definition of "the church") that the supreme magisterium never infallibly said that the Jews are deicides, cursed for their killing of Christ (though it never authoritatively denied it, either, until 1965). Besides, this Pope likes to emphasize that encyclicals, though they may not be infallible, are authoritative, are "the church's teaching," and Pius XI said in a 1937 encyclical that "Jesus received his human nature from a people who crucified him"not some Jews, but the Jewish people. And the same Pope suppressed a Catholic organization, the Friends of Israel, that tried to discontinue the charge of deicide. Furthermore, Catholic preachers over the centuries have continually made the deicide charge, and seminaries taught it, and biblical commentaries explained it, and persecutions were based on it. In finally rejecting this claim, the Second Vatican Council said nothing about the church's past record. It did not express penitence for official encouragement of such a view, or for pogroms and other actions taken on the basis of it. The price of getting the statement through the Council's sessions was that it not admit that the church had ever said or done anything wrong.