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 it--it 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 church--and excoriating the Nazis for not following church teaching--than 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 heavily--and 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 someChristians through weakness succumbed to at times but not "the church as such." The former is a matter of erroneous teaching--which 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.1
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 (16).
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 (17-18).
So this document--which the Pope commends for calling "memory to play its necessary part in the process of shaping a future" (7)--establishes three entirely separate categories:
1. Those who caused the Holocaust--irreligious Nazis with a godless scientism about race, who were anti-Christian as well as anti-Jewish.
2. Those who opposed the Holocaust--Pope 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 enough--Christians 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.2
1 Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, Vatican translation (Pauline Books, 1998), p. 14. Numerical references in my text are to pages of this edition.
2 Charles R. Morris, American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners Who Built America's Most Powerful Church (Times Books, 1997), p. 239. John F. Morley, a historian who is also a priest, concluded, on the basis of the extensive diplomatic correspondence between Orsenigo and the Vatican: "Whether aware or not, Orsenigo was indifferent to what happened to the Jews. His superiors in the [Vatican] Secretariat of State, however, were well informed, and yet they manifested no concern for the Jews." Morley, Vatican Diplomacy and the Jews During the Holocaust, 1939-1943 (KTAV Publishing House, 1980), p. 128.