Commonweal, Bob Imbelli, and the Pope at Auschwitz

I want to comment on Bob's comments on the editorial's comments on the pope.

1. Bob's first point is that the editorial does not recognize that "one does not "explain evil. One might seek to situate it, to probe its scope, to discern its ramifications."

I think the editorial's point here is precisely that the Pope didn't adquately situate the evil: situating the evil of the Holocaust requires some effort to deal with the cultural anti-Semitism that facilitated the Nazi's rise to power. The pope did portray the Germans as "victims of a band of criminals." And indeed, many of them were victims. But a society has to ask, "how did this come about? Were our anscestors in any way complicit? What ought we to have done differently?"

Situating evil requires situating it within the relevant society, not only within particular individuals who committed the evil acts in question. Individuals are, after all, essentially social. The U.S. is collectively called to deal with racism, even if no one alive is personally responsible for the sin of slavery. An American president visiting a slave ship would be expected to acknowledge that sort of collective responsibility; so a German pope visiting a concentration camp is expected to acknowledge a parallel responsibility--especially when he explicitly states upfront that he is coming as "a son of the German people." It's one thing to say that this question of anti-Semitism isn't the only question to be asked; it's another thing to downplay it in this context. I think the pope made a mistake in downplaying it to the degree he did. After all, he didn't even mention the term.

2. Bob's second point is the editorial's crabbed conclusion that "Catholics no longer need be discomforted by the history of the Church's treatment of the Jews." Bob complains that: "No sign here that one may seek a more considered theological perspective that does not shun human responsibility and sin, but rather discloses sin's truly demonic thrust."

My trouble here is I don't know what he means by "sin's truly demonic thrust"--or what exactly would count as a "more considered theological perspective." I think he may mean a more "general" perspective. So the operative tension is betwen focusing on the general and focusing on the particular.

Benedict wants to use the example of the Holocaust as a general example of human wrongdoing of the worst kind. I quote, "This cry of anguish, which Israel raised to God in its suffering at moments of deep distress, is also the cry for help raised by all those who in every age--yesterday, today, and tomorrow--suffer for the love of God , for the love of truth and goodness. How many they are, even in our own day." But those who have suffered through the Holocaust may resist the assimilation. We can understand this. Evil always has a particular face, and brutality always has a particular consequence. Moreover, one way to avert one's eyes from a particular evil is to diffuse it by putting it in the context of a more general type of evil. (We see that fear today in the fights over the consistent ethic of life and abortion). The move to generalization is approriate at some times--in a philosophy class, for example--and not appropriate at others.

I personally think that it was not a good idea for Benedict to use the Holocaust as an example of more generalized evil at Auschwitz. That's something that could have been done elsewhere. To continue my analogy, even those convinced of the importance of a consistent ethic of life--and the related quality of life issues--might be well advised not to make that point at a protest at an abortion clinic, or at a protest at an execution, for that matter.

3.Bob's third point, is that Commonweal, while purporting to interpret the pope's words charitably, dismisses them as a "tidy theological syllogism." I think Bob has a point here, in that it is impossible to read the pope's statement and see it as simply a matter of dry theology--it is a prayer, and the heart and soul of his reflection is the psalms, into which he is clearly inscribing himself and the church.

Nonetheless, two questions arise:

A. There is a difference between Christian and Jewish interpretations of evil--the idea that sin and death have been conquered in Christ Jesus animates the pope's hope in the midst of despair. He is thoroughly Christocentric, even in drawing upon Jewish texts. Some Jews may feel that this Christian hope--and call for reconciliation--denigrates what happened at Auschwitz. Calls for reconciliation are always tricky. It's one thing for God to forgive me a grave sin of injustice against another person--as a Christian I believe God will forgive the most heinous sins. But God cannot compell my victim to forgive me, or to be reconcilled to me. In law, as in theology, victims rightly resent being forced to give forgiveness that is "too quick"--or too tidy.

Was it inappropriate for the pope to invoke a Christian theological perspective--and in particular to mention the term reconciliation--in this place? My guess is that Commonweal would say probably, and Bob would say no.

B. Many people have tried to boost the moral relevance of their own cause by analogizing it to the Holocaust--abortion, for example. But, because of the relationship between the particular and the general, which I described above, this is a tricky move.

I read the editorial's criticism of the "tidy theological syllogism" as connected to its worries about that Benedict is using the Holocaust to make a"larger theological point" about the need to reject secular modernity, and its "dictatorship of relativism." The editorial says, "In this analysis, relativism springs from the Englightenment 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."

So the problem here, to Commonweal, seems to be twofold: 1) The pope is enlisting the Holocaust to support his own ideological agenda; 2) that enlisting is particularly troublesome because secular life, in some respects, has helped overcome the anti-Semitism that plagued the Jews.

The more general problem is that the pope is paying more attention to theological and philosophical ideas than to the way they actually play out in history. Consequently, he is failing to take account of the concrete ways that Christian ideas have, over the centuries, harmed Jews, and that Christian ideas have justified such harm. He seems, to Commonweal, dangerously close to returning to "business as usual" without figuring out what went so grievously wrong in our understandings of the relationship of Christianity, Judaism, and culture. So we get back to the tension between theology and history.

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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