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A Moral Reckoning:
The Role of the Catholic Church and its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair


by Daniel Goldhagen
363 pages,
ISBN: 0375414347


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A Moral Reckoning
by Nicholas Maes

Although it has been almost sixty years since the Holocaust ended, we still have not digested its many implications, to judge by the amount of print that keeps appearing on the topic. Indeed, this defining event of the twentieth century continues to inspire so many novels, movies and historical studies that, according to one recent book, it has become something of an industry, a self-serving phenomenon that all too often feeds upon itself. With so many words written on the subject, tired readers might be forgiven for asking whether commentators have anything new or useful to contribute.
Surprisingly, five years ago, when the field seemed as exhaustively worked as it does today, Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners furnished a powerful new interpretation of Nazi, or rather German, culpability. In contrast to historians who ascribed the Final Solution to a totalitarian system operated by a group of individuals, Goldhagen targeted ordinary Germans, citizens who, under the guidance of Nazi dogma to be sure, hated Jews with such extraordinary passion that they were willing to participate in their extermination.
Five years later, elaborating on a book review he penned for the New Republic, Goldhagen has focused on a different aspect of the Holocaust, the reaction of the Catholic Church and Pope Pius XII to the slaughter of the Jews. Like every sub-branch of the Holocaust, this area too has been thoroughly mined in recent years, with such works as John Cornwell's Hitler's Pope, Garry Wills's Papal Sins, David Kertzer's The Pope Against the Jews, and James Carroll's Constantine's Sword, among other books and articles. Does Goldhagen have anything novel to offer?
In his book's initial segment, Goldhagen seeks to "clarify the conduct" of the Church. Although his description of Vatican activities adds little to the historical record, the scandalous tale merits retelling. Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII, negotiated the infamous Reichskonkordat, the first treaty to legitimize the Nazi regime. Far from rejecting the Nazis' vituperative anti-Semitism, many clergymen supported their coercion of the Jew: When Mussolini imposed the racial laws on Italy, for example, L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's paper, reported Church officials generally approved of them. Indeed, a huge number of Catholic functionaries were enthusiastic participants in, and prime movers of, genocidal actions in Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia and other countries. Pius XII never censured or disciplined these clergymen¨unlike his mass excommunication in later years of any Catholic who joined the Communist party. In fact, throughout the years of the Nazi regime, the Pope was puzzlingly silent in the face of Jewish suffering, and failed to deploy the Church's resources to effect a systematic program of rescue. In the wake of the war, moreover, officials in the Vatican aided Nazi criminals in their escape from Allied justice¨Adolf Eichmann, Klaus Barbie, and Josef Mengele were beneficiaries of this effort.
Having 'clarified' the Church's conduct through the war, Goldhagen attempts to establish a formal means of judging the Vatican's culpability, and creates a moral/legal framework based on concepts found in international law and the Catholic Catechism. After exploring the definitions of legal/moral blame and legal/moral guilt, he proceeds to show how the Vatican's transgressions fit neatly into this juridical scheme, thereby formalizing the variety of charges that can be brought against the Church establishment.
Because culpability requires atonement, Goldhagen proposes in his book's final segment a formula for restitution, one that involves a material, a political and (most important) a moral dimension¨it is only the last category that is truly controversial. If the Church wishes to repair the wounds it has inflicted on the Jews, it must eradicate the anti-Semitism that lies at its foundation. While some progress has been made in recent years with Nostra Aetate of Vatican II, We Remember (1998), and Pope John Paul II's visit to Israel (2000), Goldhagen insists further reforms are essential.
The Vatican is still grossly insensitive towards Jews. Father Gumpel, a prime advocate for the canonization of Pius XII, declared recently on CBS News that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. The Vatican's reaction to the Carmelite shrine at Auschwitz, together with the erection of crosses in the former concentration camp, was inept and offensive to say the least. Various Church officials, including the present Pope, continue to speak in a supersessionist vein, i.e. that Christianity has rendered Judaism null and void. If such tactlessness is to become a thing of the past, as genuine moral restitution would require, then Catholicism must be comprehensively purged of its traditional anti-Judaic elements. For Goldhagen this means the Church must distance itself from the Gospels and its other foundational texts. It must also state unambiguously that 1) the Romans, and not the Jews, were responsible for the death of Jesus; 2) that Christianity has not superseded Judaism; and 3) that salvation outside the church is a theological possibility. Only by these means will a religion of love effectively confront its history of hatred.
A Moral Reckoning suffers from a number of flaws. The second segment, "Judging Culpability", with its construction of a template that will serve to categorize the Church's transgressions, repeats many of the findings Goldhagen reports in his opening chapters: this repetition is mind numbing at times. The process of defining moral blame, moreover, besides requiring an expert knowledge of canon law, seems somehow misplaced. Once we have been informed that Catholic officials in Slovakia, say, were responsible for the destruction of the region's Jews, do we need to be apprised of the legal nature of their guilt? The acts are horrendous and speak clearly for themselves.
More seriously, Goldhagen assumes too easily the inflexible perspective of a prosecutor. While his condemnation of the Church rests on very solid grounds (his minor factual errors notwithstanding), he occasionally extrapolates too much from a piece of evidence, or fails to mention information that would modify the damning impact of an event or document. At one point he cites a letter that Eugenio Pacelli wrote in 1919 (years before he became Pius XII) at the time of the Communist insurrection in Munich. Although the quoted passage does describe Jews in a stereotypical, anti-Semitic fashion¨the leader is described as "Ó a young man of about thirty or thirty-five, also Russian and a Jew. Pale, dirty, with drugged eyes, hoarse voice, vulgar, repulsive, with a face that is both intelligent and sly"¨can the reader conclude with absolute certainty that these words are enough to condemn their author as a committed, life-long anti-Semite?
Similarly, in his brief discussion of the Reichskonkordat, the brainchild of Pacelli, Goldhagen rightly describes this treaty as a diplomatic coup for the fledging Nazi government, but fails to note that the Vatican later stated the Concordat should not be understood as an endorsement of Nazi theory. Some of the evidence is ambiguous, in other words, and Goldhagen's adversarial stance can sometimes lead him to gloss these complications over.
A Moral Reckoning's most serious failing, however, is that its model for moral restitution is ultimately unworkable. Goldhagen rightly connects the Holocaust to the European's lengthy experience of anti-Semitism, whose source was the Church and its foundational Gospels. He argues, too, with justification that the New Testament's historicity is problematic to say the least: careful weighing of the evidence points convincingly to Roman, and not Jewish, agency, as far as Jesus's execution is concerned; and the idea of Jewish collective guilt, a culpability that continues until the end of time, is obviously primitive, ridiculous and hateful. It is hard, moreover, to refute his contention that if the New Testament is retained in its present form, Catholics will continue their supersessionist assumptions, and the Church will not persuade its congregants that anti-Semitism is a grievous sin.
Despite the soundness of this reasoning, the Church cannot dispense with the Gospels without suffering greater harm than repair. By asking Catholics to ignore their sacred texts and disavow the Church's central role in salvation¨a formula more complicated than A Moral Reckoning allows¨is Goldhagen not asking them to undermine their faith and essentially to abandon their identity as Catholics? Is Catholicism truly Catholicism without the teachings of the Gospels? The Church, its age-old slander of the Jew notwithstanding, has provided moral guidance and inspiration to innumerable souls, and to damage its foundations is to risk incalculable moral disorder. Any feasible model of restitution, then, must combat Catholic anti-Semitism, yes, but not at the cost of the Church's existence.
Counterbalancing his occasional show of weakness, Goldhagen's criticisms are often bang on target and lend A Moral Reckoning considerable power. Indeed, these criticisms rescue the book. When answering the Vatican's apologists, whose motivation is to preserve the Church's status at all costs, Goldhagen deploys a deadly logic and easily pulls their fabrications apart. Given the effects of the Church's lethargy through the war, and the unseemliness of its defenders' rhetorical sleight of hand, Goldhagen's forthrightness comes as a breath of fresh air.
Church officials have often argued that their traditional anti-Judaism bears no relation to Nazi anti-Semitism. Flatly contradicting this contention, Goldhagen asserts that Catholic authorities have for centuries depicted Jews as dangerous, loathsome creatures, capable of untold mischief, a menace to the Church and the West at large, worthy of the worst punishment imaginable. It is true that most proponents of this view would have balked at the Jew's actual liquidation, but the point remains that their portrait of the latter was indistinguishable from the Nazi propagandist's. And as the persecution of the Jew unfolded, members of the laity were willing to pitch in, confident they were following their religious leaders' bidding.
What of the Pope himself? In an attempt to explain Pius XII's alleged deficiencies, his defenders argue at various turns that he often had no knowledge of the atrocities, or that his condemnation of the Nazis would have led to reprisals, or that he did repeatedly protest the genocide, or that he responded energetically to assist the Jews. Goldhagen knocks these arguments down in an appropriately dismissive vein.
The exculpatory evidence, he observes, is embarrassingly thin. In the case of Pius XII's Christmas address (1942), one of the few positive bits of evidence his defenders can point to, the Pope spoke very briefly about the victims of the war, omitting any reference to Jews or Nazis. Church documents reveal, moreover, that Vatican officials were aware of the Jew's condition ahead of other governments, and the Pope was by no means ignorant of their plight. The Vatican, too, despite a partial publication of its records, has done nothing to refute the accusation that the Pope was essentially indifferent to the Jews. There is no reason to believe he directed Church officials to offer assistance, or discouraged them from embracing Nazi policies, or advised them to falsify baptismal documents that would have enabled many Jews to evade the racial laws. At a time when moral leadership was most desperately needed, the record overwhelmingly suggests that Pius XII was incapable of shouldering this burden.
Perhaps action would have been too dangerous¨ another argument advanced by the Pope's admirers. If that were the case, Goldhagen responds, why did Church officials openly condemn the Nazis' euthanasia program, and the deportation of Jewish-Catholic converts from France, without flinching at the risks involved? And why, when these actions went unpunished by the Nazis, did these officials not take heart and openly denounce the guilty party? Consider the example of the Danish Lutheran State Church: despite their condemnation of Nazi practices, an initiative that saved the lives of countless Jews, the Danish bishops and their followers were not attacked by the authorities. It is possible, even likely, that the Pope might have championed the Jew without suffering reprisals. And even if the danger was very real, does it excuse inaction on the Vatican's part, clandestine, low-risk operations included?
Should we judge the Church according to political or moral norms? If we view Pius XII as a moral leader, then why were his calculations so political in nature, and is it not surprising that, as a model of Christian righteousness, he refused to condemn the Germans in uncompromising terms? If the Pope was more a politician, however, then how does his reluctance to censure the Nazis, and his tacit condonation of a Catholic/fascist agenda, distinguish his rule from any collaborationist regime?
Finally, there is the issue of forsaking Catholic souls. By neglecting to direct his subordinates to refrain from committing crimes against the Jews, ones that the Catechism would define as mortal sins, did not the Pope expose his flock to the hazards of perdition? Was he not obliged to steer devotees away from any act that might endanger their salvation, regardless of the damage to the Church's temporal infrastructure? Indeed, should a Pope who has not fulfilled this key responsibility be considered a candidate for canonization?
There are reasons why critics would reject Goldhagen's latest offering out of hand. A Moral Reckoning rehashes arguments that have been in circulation for decades, is leadenly repetitious in places, and advances reforms which, if embraced, would alter the religion beyond recognition, a loss for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. On the other hand, despite many positive initiatives, the Church has not atoned for its abysmal treatment of the Jews. This vestigial guilt is no trivial matter, and far from being scolded for his indictment of the Vatican, Goldhagen should be complimented for his heated study of its culpability. A moral reckoning of the Church is long overdue. Goldhagen's book is a giant step in the right direction, and for this it merits accolades and close attention. ˛
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