James Carroll is a National Book Award winner, the author of nine novels, and a regular columnist for the Boston Globe. His record of antiwar activities, status as a laicized priest, and his sharp sense of regret over the failure of church reform have made him a public spokesman for a kind of Catholicism that many liberal American Catholics celebrate. I’m sure that readers will find much of interest in John Spalding’s interview with Carroll that appears on page 12; I certainly did.

As that interview was being edited for publication, Carroll’s lengthy essay "The Silence" appeared in the New Yorker (April 7). In it, Carroll argues that papal claims of infallibility and Catholicism’s insistence "upon the primacy of Jesus as a means of salvation" were the root causes of the Holocaust and that these are emerging as the sources of the "tragedy" of John Paul II’s papacy. To publish Spalding’s interview while remaining silent about "The Silence" would be, I think, irresponsible.

Carroll’s essay is certainly artful; he knows how to set a scene and insinuate a connection among such things as anachronistic Vatican pageantry, the church’s historical sins, and Catholicism’s supposedly unreconstructed appetite for power. So when Carroll describes how the Vatican’s "pantalooned Swiss Guards paraded past in helmets and red plumes, the razor edges of their pike blades flashing," or registers his discomfort listening to a choir singing "Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat!" you are meant to feel vaguely menaced by the ghost of a militant church. Less impressionable readers may merely associate the Swiss Guard with the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz. And when Carroll ominously asks, "But who conquers? Who rules? Who commands?" it takes a slightly paranoid imagination to conjure up the sort of "religious imperialism" he obviously has in mind.

To be sure, Carroll does not lack imagination. He builds his indictment of the pope and the church on some very creative storytelling and associational thinking. "The Silence" ostensibly begins as a profile of John Paul, whom Carroll is surprised and embarrassed to hear lauded for bringing Catholicism and Judaism together. Invited to attend the Mass celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the pope’s ordination, Carroll detects "a celebration of [the pope’s] claim to infallibility," a "virus" he subsequently discovers under every Catholic bed and belief. From there it’s back and forth between the "church in crisis"—the ordination of women, birth control, celibacy, that "theological Kissinger," Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—and the incriminating history "of a bloody century."

Catholics who rightly prize much of Hans Küng’s work may be surprised to find him trotted out by Carroll as a kind of pope-in-exile to pronounce infallibly that it "is no longer possible to say the Nazis were responsible without saying the church is co-responsible" for the Holocaust. Similarly, anyone familiar with the power and bureaucratic nature of Nazi totalitarianism will be perplexed to learn that, by providing "genealogical records" to the German state, the church played a "positive role," making it "among the perpetrators, ’or agents of destruction’" of the Nazi genocide. Carroll rehearses Pius XII’s "silence" during the deportation of Jews from Rome. This leads him to the doctrine of infallibility and the way it prevents the church from accepting itself as a human institution prone to error. In defense of this doctrine, the church, and especially John Paul, remain "silent" about Catholic complicity in the Holocaust. Carroll connects this ongoing moral scandal to "absolutist" Catholic claims about Jesus: "Universalist claims" about Christ are a "source of brutality" that compel the church to make "devils out of those who beg to differ." This "demonization of the other," Carroll quotes the theologian Padraic O’Hare, "is the Holocaust."

Now there are at least three things wrong with this account. It is factually flawed. It is logically garbled. It is theologically incoherent. But worst of all, it finally trivializes the Holocaust, reducing it to another gambit to be played in intra-Catholic battles and intra-American culture wars. Where countless others have fallen silent before the enormity of the Nazi crime, Carroll pushes blindly on in pursuit of its "deeper" meaning. What he identifies as "absolutist" religious claims about Jesus thrive on "the diminishment of the other," Carroll explains, quoting O’Hare. The remedy—the answer to the Holocaust—is to "de-absolutize Christian claims." In short, Christ must become just one of many religious truths and ways. But all of this, I think, sounds suspiciously like an argument about the nature of authority in the church advanced in the guise of moral outrage over the Holocaust.

Carroll’s insistence on relativizing all religious beliefs is of course an absolutist claim itself. But never mind; he is nothing if not aggrandizing in his reductionist fashion. Indeed, "The lesson of the Holocaust applies not only to Catholics, but to all believers," he solemnly announces. Has it occurred to Carroll that his itch to "de-absolutize" religion is incompatible with monotheism? Exactly what are Jews—God’s chosen people—to make of Carroll’s Holocaust "lesson"? That the Nazi genocide should put an end to traditional claims for the God of Israel?

Does Catholic absolutism really lie at the root of the greatest crime of this "bloody century"? Surely, it would be more accurate to say that the church’s moral failure during the Holocaust lay in its eagerness to temporize, to equivocate, to tolerate the intolerable. For many, a little absolutism was precisely what was missing. Alfred Delp, S.J., a member of the German resistance, put it this way in 1943: "Has the church forgotten to say ’Thou shalt not,’ has the church lost sight of the commandments, or is she silent because she is convinced of the hopelessness of her clear and firm preaching? Has the ’imprudence’ of John the Baptist died out or has the church forgotten man and his fundamental rights?"

In accepting the Nazis as a legitimate secular authority, the church had indeed forgotten man and his fundamental rights—it had forgotten how to say "Thou Shalt Not" to the millions of Catholics who served or willfully cooperated with a murderous regime.

My objections to Carroll’s essay are obviously not a defense of the church’s indifference to the plight of the Jews under the Nazis, nor a denial of the long and inexcusable history of Christian anti-Semitism. Since I am married to the daughter of Holocaust survivors, I have had good reason to inform myself about Catholic anti-Semitism and the church’s involvement with the Nazis. Carroll is correct that Christian anti-Semitism set the stage for the Nazis in many ways. But there are, I believe, crucial differences between religious anti-Semitism and racial anti-Semitism, and between Catholic dogmatism and Nazi totalitarianism. If you don’t understand those differences—and Carroll seems not to—you risk minimizing what the Nazis actually did. Christian anti-Semitism, though traditionally advocating the legal and social disenfranchisement of the Jews, was not exterminationist. Indeed, during the Holocaust the church helped to save tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Jews. Still, it is also true that in almost every instance the church was more intent on protecting its institutional interests and influence than in risking anything on behalf of the Nazis’ defenseless victims. Extenuating circumstances can help explain the church’s behavior, but cannot excuse it.

Indifference, a damning enough moral failure, is not willful complicity. In this regard, some of Carroll’s most benighted errors cry out for correction. He attempts to buttress Küng’s charge of "co-responsibility" with the help of Daniel Goldhagen, author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996). Goldhagen’s book is quoted: "The foundational element of the Nuremberg Laws was the regime’s capacity to distinguish and demonstrate the extent of a person’s Jewish ancestry, to know who was a Jew. Enforcement therefore depended upon the use of the genealogical records in the possession of local churches." We are told that the Goldhagen text relies on the work of the historian Guenter Lewy, author of The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany (1964).

This characterization and use of Lewy’s work did not sound right to me. I phoned him. A retired academic, Lewy, who escaped from Nazi Germany as a teen-ager, is no apologist for the Catholic church. I asked him if the presentation of his conclusions was accurate. Lewy said he had been surprised by how the material was used. After reading the New Yorker piece, he said, "I went to the book to check the quotes." The quotations were accurate. I asked Lewy if Carroll’s assessment of Catholic culpability was misleading. "The whole impression is as if the church knew right early on. I think that’s not the case. They did not know that," Lewy said. "The evidence does not support the conclusion that the German Catholic church actively worked at killing Jews...I think these were sins of omission, not commission."

Similarly misleading is Carroll’s rendition of Pius XII’s failure to protest publicly the deportation of Rome’s Jews. Lewy and many others have noted that it is not clear that public protest would have helped rather than worsened the situation. The protest of the Dutch church over Jewish deportations in 1942 only intensified the Nazi roundup. Moreover, behind-the-scenes efforts by the Vatican evidently did halt the Rome deportations. Italy’s Jewish population was far and away the best protected in Europe, thanks in some large part to the church.

Carroll’s willingness to ignore these complications and judge the church an active "agent of destruction" lets the Nazis off too easily, and all but blinds us to the impossible moral choices that faced those under Nazi occupation—choices that Holocaust survivors, at least in my experience, are often reluctant simply to condemn. My father-in-law, who hid out in both Poland and Germany for the duration of the war, did not put much stock in the moral pretensions of the Catholic church. But neither was he patient with speculation about how the Jews or the churches or "good" Germans should have resisted Hitler. As far as he was concerned, the only thing that ended the genocide was Germany’s military collapse and unconditional surrender. Nothing else could have stopped Hitler. If you thought something else could, you simply didn’t understand what it was like, he insisted.

Still, the question remains, and Carroll is right to ask it: Should the Vatican, which knew a great deal about the Nazi extermination program, have risked Nazi retaliation and spoken out forcefully? It seems obvious now that it should have. Among many other moral errors, in not speaking out the church betrayed its own ideals. Did that failure make the church a Holocaust "perpetrator"? A fair-minded reading of history cannot justify such a tendentious conclusion, especially considering how relatively powerless the Vatican was. Indeed, it is hard to shake the suspicion that Carroll has tailored his evidence to fit a preconceived judgment. Because the church hasn’t revised its supposedly "absolutist" teachings on Carroll’s pet concerns, he wants to leave the reader with the impression that nothing of fundamental significance has changed in the aftermath of the Holocaust. But that is nonsense. Whatever the subtleties or evasions entailed in the teaching on infallibility, it certainly hasn’t stopped the church from changing—some say dramatically reversing itself. In large measure because of the Holocaust, the church’s relationship to Judaism has been completely altered, and so has its long antagonism toward liberal democracy, human rights, and religious liberty. Moreover, this pope, perhaps more than any other, has consistently spoken out on behalf of the absolute dignity of all persons—and not merely in the name of the faithful or in pursuit of the church’s own interests.

Whatever John Paul II’s failings, to tar him with the crimes of the Nazis, or to use the Holocaust in a battle over, say, the ordination of women, is little more than demagoguery. It is the sort of meretricious provocation that perhaps could appear only in the new New Yorker.

Published in the 1997-05-23 issue: View Contents

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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