Misremembered

Eleven years in the writing, “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” released last month by the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, will not and should not satisfy those on any side of the tortuous debate about the church’s responsibility for anti-Semitism and possible complicity in the Nazi extermination of 6 million Jews. Although the sincerity of the statement’s desire for genuine reconciliation between Christians and Jews cannot be second-guessed, the document as a whole is a grievous disappointment.

Most notably, some Jewish leaders have expressed sharp exception to, and even anger at, the Vatican’s defense of Pius XII’s failure to condemn Nazi atrocities in explicit terms. That reaction is understandable, although in fairness to the Vatican it should be said that Pius’s alleged moral insensibility is not as self-evident as many—thanks largely to the distortions of Rolf Hochhuth’s 1964 play The Deputy—assume. Similarly, the pope’s power “To Save Jews From Nazis” (as a recent New York Times headline put it) continues to be much exaggerated, even as the church’s actual efforts to help hundreds of thousands of Jews are too easily dismissed. Nonetheless, calls for the opening of the Vatican’s diplomatic archives to independent scholars should be heeded. Although it is not likely that Pius’s moral culpability will be greatly clarified in the process, there is no chance that Pius will be dealt with fairly until all relevant documents are made public.

Other Jewish spokespersons have commended the Vatican statement for its unequivocal condemnation of anti-Semitism, and of past Christian persecution and violence against Jews. The document’s embrace of the religious heritage and aspirations shared by Jews and Catholics is another reason for commendation. For many involved in the ongoing Catholic-Jewish dialogue, “We Remember” is rightly seen as an incremental step in a long journey, in this regard resembling Nostra aetate (1965), Vatican II’s groundbreaking repudiation of the idea of collective Jewish guilt for Christ’s death and affirmation of God’s continuing covenant with the Jews. No one familiar with these issues can expect two thousand years of misunderstanding and worse to be set straight in a few decades.

Or without missteps along the way. In that regard, certain aspects of “We Remember” will need revising. Most unsatisfactory is the statement’s refusal to attribute any fault or error for anti-Semitism to the church itself. “Erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people,” Christian teachings that engendered “feelings of hostility,” are acknowledged. But “the church as such,” according to the Vatican, was never responsible. “The Catholic church desires to express her deep sorrow for the failures of her sons and daughters in every age,” but never, it seems, does the church as a responsible entity have anything to repent for.

Catholics familiar with the traditional theological distinction that places the “church as such” over and above its fallible human members will understand how this kind of language is being used. The tradition holds that any suggestion of error on the part of Christ’s mystical body is a theological oxymoron. But that very subtle distinction, expressing as it does a valid understanding of the church’s unique access to religious truth, will certainly be lost on most readers of “We Remember.” More likely, this assertion of the church’s metaphysical reliability will be read, with reason, as the worst kind of this-worldly moral evasion. If over the course of centuries anti-Semitism was rarely if ever condemned but rather ignored, tolerated, even encouraged; if it infected not only the laity but priests and bishops; if church councils promulgated laws segregating and discriminating against Jews; if until very recent times anti-Semitism was given vivid expression in the Good Friday liturgy (the “perfidious Jews”) and in religious art; and if this led to pogroms, to the terrors of the Inquisition—if, in short, anti-Semitism suffused much of Catholic culture for nineteen centuries, it is hard to see how “the church as such” can be held guiltless.

However one wants to understand the relationship between the mystical and the visible elements of the church, the incontrovertible historical record attests to the fact that “the church,” and not just its members, taught erroneously, even perniciously, about Judaism and the Jews. If the Vatican statement means only that no pope or ecumenical council or curial body ever elevated anti-Semitism to the level of formal doctrine, that is not so large a claim and will not, in the eyes of most people of any faith or none, absolve “the church as such” of responsibility for policies, attitudes, and actions that taught as clearly as any encyclical.

Sad to say, “We Remember” is also tendentious and unpersuasive in its analysis of the nature of Nazi anti-Semitism and its relationship to what the document calls historic Christian anti-Judaism. Nazi racial anti-Semitism is attributed to “a false and exacerbated nationalism....essentially more sociological and political than religious.” The document insists that the Holocaust had “its roots outside of Christianity” as the “work of a thoroughly modern neo-pagan regime.”

To be sure, there are important distinctions to be made between Christian anti-Semitism and Nazi race hatred. The Vatican is right to remind the world that the church condemned the “idolatry of race and of the state.” Although it proved to be a woefully ineffective obstacle to the Nazis, and millions of Catholics rallied to the Nazi cause, the Catholic church did not in any sense perpetrate the Holocaust. However, to argue that there was no connection between nearly 2,000 years of church-inspired anti-Semitism and the Nazi assault on European Jewry is utterly fallacious and offensive. Similarly, for “We Remember” to rehearse the political history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and not acknowledge how the church’s opposition to liberalism and democracy weakened the forces best able to deter fascism is equally disingenuous.

Nazi totalitarianism was, as the document argues, an unprecedented modern horror whose unique evil was difficult for all but the most prescient to grasp at first. But Nazism did not spring full grown from the atheistic brow of the modern world. It had obvious roots in Europe’s near and ancient Christian past.

How the church can repent or correct the manifest errors of its past if it cannot honestly admit to any errors at all is, to say the least, something of a problem. This is brought home again when “We Remember” calls Western democracies to account for their failure to give refuge to Jews seeking asylum from the Nazis. That failure to act placed a “heavy burden of conscience on the authorities in question,” judges the Vatican. Fair enough. But is no similar burden to be placed on the shoulders of church authorities who failed to act in their own sphere?

Various contemporary challenges to Catholic teaching seem to make the appeal to church inerrancy an increasing temptation on the part of the Vatican. But as “We Remember” exemplifies, the doctrine of inerrancy errantly applied is no real help to authority in the end.

Published in the 1998-04-10 issue: 
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