Benedict at Auschwitz

Pope Benedict’s XVI’s recent visit to Auschwitz, during which he conspicuously failed to voice repentance for the Catholic Church’s nearly two millennia of anti-Semitic teaching, has been welcomed in certain Catholic quarters as a rejection of “political correctness.”

The National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen trumpeted Benedict’s remarks as “a turning point in post-Auschwitz Christian theology, which in the last sixty years has tended to take Christian guilt for complicity in the Holocaust as its point of departure.” The new point of departure, apparently, is that Catholics no longer need be discomforted by the history of the church’s treatment of the Jews.

In his public meditation at Auschwitz, Benedict put forward a perplexing and unsatisfactory explanation of the Holocaust. He informed the world that the Nazi aim “deep down” was not to exterminate the Jews, but to kill God. “By destroying Israel,” the pope said, “[the Nazis] ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful.”

Ostensibly designed to draw attention to the church’s Jewish origins, and to embrace the two faiths’ shared love for God, Benedict’s remarks may have the opposite effect. It seems unlikely that many Jews will take consolation from the theological assertion that the systematic murder of 6 million—murders carried out in nearly every instance by baptized, and in many cases even believing, Christians—was “ultimately” an assault on Christian faith. The Holocaust was a desecration of many things, surely; but first and last it was about the slaughter of the Jews.

A more charitable interpretation has Benedict misguidedly substituting a tidy theological syllogism about humanity’s dependence on God for the less uplifting historical truth about Christian persecution of the Jews. Yet Nazi vilification of the Jews as the unredeemable enemy of civilization had as much to do with the history of Christian anti-Semitism as with crackbrained notions of racial superiority. No, the Catholic Church was not responsible for the Holocaust, but Nazi anti-Semitism is inconceivable without its Christian antecedents.

At Auschwitz, however, Benedict did not even mention the long history and scandal of Christian anti-Semitism. A similar indifference to historical reality was on display in his assessment of German culpability for the Holocaust. According to the pope, his countrymen were “used and abused” by a “ring of criminals,” seduced by “false promises of future greatness and the recovery of the nation’s honor, prominence, and prosperity.” Anti-Semitism, apparently, had little to do with the Nazi rise to power.

Benedict’s larger theological point seems to be that rejecting the demands of the one true God, and placing one’s faith in the “rule of man” rather than in the truth of revelation and the “God of reason,” leads inexorably to genocide. But again, the theological analysis unwittingly invokes a familiar political story, one with dark undertones. Benedict blames the Holocaust on a “spurious and godless reason” and on “the cynicism which refuses to acknowledge God and ridicules faith in him.” This is a reference to secular modernity, to what the pope has elsewhere called the “dictatorship of relativism.” In this analysis, relativism springs from the Enlightenment and the triumph (over the church’s strenuous objections) of liberalism, democracy, and religious freedom, a triumph epitomized in many ways by the eighteenth-century political emancipation of the Jews.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Christians are called on to advance claims about Judaism with a modicum of humility and circumspection. Ideas have consequences, and Christian ideas about the Jews have had almost uniformly negative ones. Before the Holocaust, the church could not conceive of Benedict’s notion that the persecution of the Jews had anything to do with a desire to kill God. Before the Holocaust, the Jews were routinely caricatured as the very embodiment of “spurious and godless reason,” stubborn enemies of the true God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Benedict cannot have it both ways: he cannot retrospectively conjure up a spiritual solidarity with the Jews of the Holocaust while at the same time denouncing the secularizing forces that resisted the church’s authority in the name of freedom and dignity for Jews. Neither can the Holocaust be used as a proof text against atheism. You do not go to Auschwitz to defend or to praise God. Auschwitz cannot, in any imaginable way, be part of “God’s mysterious plan.” Benedict, a good man, understands this truth. Why else would he have begun his speech by saying: “In a place like this, words fail: in the end, there can only be a dread silence—a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?” That, as the pope knows, is a profoundly Jewish sentiment. And it is all that should, or can, be said.

June 6, 2006

Related: Catholics and the Shoah, by Peter Manseau


Published in the 2006-06-16 issue: 
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