Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s recent lengthy article in the New Republic (January 21), "What Would Jesus Have Done? Pope Pius XII, the Catholic Church, and the Holocaust," has already generated a vigorous response in the same journal from Andrew Sullivan ("Mortal Sin," January 28) and a sharp retort to Sullivan by the New Republic’s literary editor Leon Wieseltier ("Slander," February 4). Goldhagen’s piece appears to be a chapter from his forthcoming book, A Moral Reckoning: The Catholic Church during the Holocaust (Knopf). If the book has the same prosecutorial tone as the essay, it will undoubtedly generate still more response, especially since it appears as the latest in a series of ever-sharper attacks by both Jewish and Catholic writers on the role the Roman Catholic Church allegedly played in the Holocaust. Goldhagen, author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust approvingly cites John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, David Kertzer’s The Popes against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Anti-Semitism, Garry Wills’s Papal Sins: Structures of Deceit, and James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews to make his point.

The basic facts at issue have been known for some time. The Catholic Church in Europe has a long, shameful history of anti-Jewish rhetoric and behavior. The papacy was, at the very least, nonheroic in the face of Nazism. Many German and Polish Catholics, not to mention Slovenians and others, saw no real distinction between what they had heard about Jews from the pulpit and what they heard through the instruments of Nazi propaganda, and willingly took part in the Holocaust’s machinery of destruction.

What strikes the observer about recent exchanges, however, is the sharply personal tone of anger. Goldhagen’s essay reads more like a prosecutor’s brief than a historian’s analysis. It concludes with an indictment, not simply of historical figures like Pius XII, but of Catholicism as such, since, in his phrase, "the disparagement of the Jews became central to Christianity," the church is "centrally animated by the notion that all Jews were Christ-killers," and the continued use of the symbol of the cross "is likely to continue to provoke antipathy toward Jews." He ends by calling for a verdict: "What should be the future of this church that has not fully faced its anti-Semitic history, that still has anti-Semitic elements embedded in its doctrine and theology, and that still claims to be the exclusive path to salvation?"

The reader can scarcely miss detecting beneath the charges against Pius IX, Pius XII, and John Paul II an indictment of Catholicism as such. Catholic Christianity is rotten to the core and cannot cease being anti-Semitic unless it ceases existing altogether. Goldhagen drops history for ontology. His essentialism is the obverse of the anti-Semitism that fails to distinguish between the actions of specific Jews and the supposed "character" of the entire tradition. Goldhagen comes close, in short, to reverse demonism.

Sullivan, a Catholic, notes just this about Goldhagen’s rhetoric. And against Goldhagen’s claim that there is no relevant moral distinction between the church and Nazism, Sullivan insists that there was. Catholic doctrine was never officially racist. Catholicism sinned by omission rather than by commission. But Sullivan makes the mistake of personalizing the issue by showing his irritation at Goldhagen’s implication that the church’s siding with Hitler was joining forces with the anti-Christ. He calls this the sort of smear he had to endure in a Protestant high school in England. Why a mistake? Because it trivializes the Holocaust by comparing it to the abuse suffered in high school hallways.

Sullivan’s distinctions and qualifications, in turn, give Wieseltier the chance to observe, "Whether or not medieval anti-Judaism and modern anti-Semitism go together intellectually, they went together historically. The church that denounced racism also resorted to it. And it is a debater’s point to plead that anti-Semitism is not ’Catholic doctrine,’ because it is the culture of the Vatican that is at issue." Wieseltier is right. And he tops Sullivan by recalling how he had the epithet "anti-Christ" flung at him as a "Yarmulked youth." These exchanges show how rapidly this conversation can descend into mutual recrimination and hostility.

Why this note of growing rage? I think it is largely because of the perception that Catholics were not simply anti-Jewish in the past, but continue to be so in the present. Goldhagen’s anger is fueled far more by the continuing denials, obfuscations, and subtle (he would say specious) distinctions made by Catholic defenders of Pius XII than by the actual behavior of the pope. Goldhagen is particularly driven to distraction (and to rhetorical overkill) by John Paul II’s insistence on pursuing the canonization of Pius XII and moving forward with the canonization process for Pius IX. No matter how much the record shows that these popes were, at best, unworthy in their treatment of the Jews, the insistence that they were nevertheless holy in every important way can be seen as perpetuating the same offense. And in the face of the moral outrage evoked by Catholicism’s dismal history toward the Jews, the statement that the church was never doctrinally anti-Semitic seems indeed a "debater’s point" rather than an honest response.

As a small contribution toward restoring some order and sanity to a conversation that threatens to repeat all the dreary old patterns of hostility and defensiveness, I would like to offer some candid advice to the participants, in the form of several short letters.

Letter to Pope John Paul II: Your Holiness, please call off the canonization process for your predecessors until history can do its work. Neither Pius IX nor Pius XII will gain anything by being canonized, or lose anything by not being canonized. If serious questions have been raised about any candidate’s moral fitness, it would be deeply wrong for you to proceed with a canonization process until all those questions are dealt with in a fair and impartial manner. Wait for history’s verdict.

And if no real religious good is being served by pursuing these canonizations, it is appropriate to ask what political goal they intend to serve. Is the political point that your authority does not have to answer to human opinion? Or is the point, heaven forbid, that despite its verbal apologies, the papacy actually approves of the way earlier popes dealt with Jews? If such questions can even be raised, wouldn’t it be better to postpone canonization proceedings for the indefinite future? Let your actions speak more loudly the church’s repentance than your words can do.

Letter to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger: Be quiet for a while. Your recent statements (Dominus Iesus, for example) have only made things worse, as Wieseltier’s response makes clear. Don’t make any more proclamations. Don’t define anything. No one needs to have anything explained right now. Especially in light of the Vatican’s less-than-outstanding record, nobody should be told that the church has the answer for everyone. Certainly Jews don’t need a Vatican functionary explaining their place in God’s plan. As Wieseltier says, "There is something insulting even about Ratzinger’s good moods. His new line on the legitimacy of Jewish messianism is merely an unexpectedly pleasant form of the theological condescension that the Vatican has always evinced toward Judaism."

Letter to James Carroll and Andrew Sullivan and Leon Wieseltier: Gentlemen, get over yourselves. James, get over your mother, get over your father, get over Vietnam, get over the way everyone kept the truth from you for so long. This is not about you. Andrew and Leon, get over the bad things people said to you when you were kids. This is not about you, either. The subject of the Shoah deserves better from all of us than scoring points or making a name or working through our own childhood traumas. None of us today either suffered the atrocities or imposed them. All of us should also try to remember that journalism is not history, and journalism certainly is not theology either. The desire to get our opinion on every conceivable subject into the mix leads more often to the repetition of the dreary patterns of attack and defense than to the improvement of the conversation.

Letter to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen: Try to tone it down. Making yourself responsible for a "historical moral reckoning" leads to shrillness. You’ve taken on too big a task for an ordinary mortal, or any collection of mortals. As I remember, both our traditions insist that God is judge. We must, of course, serve the truth as best we can. Your frustration at the equivocation and dissembling of Catholic apologists is understandable, but we Catholics will listen more carefully and a little less defensively if you leave us some space for conversion. It’s hard to recover from a case of ontological evil.

Another thing: don’t lean too heavily on James Carroll. He’s not much of a historian, and he is even less of a theologian.

In particular, check your logic. Sullivan is right (though he states his point too narrowly). You try to acknowledge that there is not a direct line between symbols and actions, but again and again you argue as though there were. Yes, there is the abysmal and shameful story of Christian anti-Semitism, official and unofficial, before, during, and after the Holocaust. Another part of the historical record, however, is that Jews and Christians lived together with considerable harmony for many centuries in Europe, and continue to live as neighbors in considerable harmony in many places of the world today. Not only is anti-Semitism not the central motivating force in Christianity, it is possible to read the largest part of Christian literature without finding evidence of it. You are surely aware that it is possible to take polemical language about "the other" from the normative texts of Judaism and Islam as well as of Christianity, and connect them to the horrendous things that Jews and Muslims as well as Christians have done and are doing to living "others." But each of these traditions also contains rich resources for living in quite a different manner, and the majority of Jews, Muslims, and Christians live out of those resources even today. And this leads me to my final letter.

Letter to all interested parties: Do some serious reading in the excellent scholarship that has been done over the last forty-plus years on ancient Judaism and early Christianity. Learn something about these traditions at the point of their origin and divergence. I have at times been critical of my colleagues in the academy, but I am proud of what Jewish and Christian scholars have accomplished, together and separately, in examining the complex relations among Judaism, Greco-Roman culture, and Christianity.

Such scholarship has had the effect of increasing mutual appreciation for the respective traditions, and of decreasing the power of long-held and harmful stereotypes. Serious history shows how complex were the interconnections among traditions, and therefore how complex are the apparently simple statements, "Jesus was a Jew" and "Paul was a Jew." It shows that the conventions of polemical rhetoric were used by all parties in service of self-definition, and that the main difference between Jew and Christian in this respect is that Christian rhetoric got married to power and became malign in fact and not just in intention. Those who have studied the matter most responsibly conclude that the reductions "the Jews killed Jesus," and "the Romans killed Jesus" are equally simplistic and distorting.

Contemporary historians who insist on the evaluation of the full record on recent events should not peddle second-hand historical judgments about antiquity or second-rate theological judgments about religious traditions. Like Wieseltier, I wish we could all "just hate Hitler together." But if we want to move forward rather than stay stuck in the cycle of recrimination and misrepresentation, we all need to learn much more about each other and much more from each other. What we need is less "historical moral reckoning" and more shared commitment to a moral future.  

Published in the 2002-03-08 issue: View Contents

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor.


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