Response to Vatican Document 'We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah.'



International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations


Response to Vatican Document
  "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah"


The document "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah" was issued in March 1998   and discussed at a meeting of the International Liaison Committee later that month. It has   evoked reactions among our member organizations and we wish to summarize these and bring   them to your attention.


We would like first to express our appreciation of Pope John Paul II"s letter to Cardinal   Cassidy expressing the hope for all men of good will to work together, in which we sincerely   join. We are keenly aware of the many initiatives of the Pope to improve Catholic-Jewish   relations during the twenty years of his Papacy and of his personal sensitivity to the   horrors of the Shoah.


The document and antisemitism


The subject of the document as conceived in 1987 was The Shoah and Antisemitism and we   have found those sections warning against the dangers of antisemitism a moving testimony to   your determination to fight this evil in any form and in any place. They are pointed and   phrased strongly and can leave believers in no doubt, in the oft-repeated words of Pope John   Paul II, that antisemitism is a sin. The clear affirmation goes far beyond previous Vatican   documents on the subject and we welcome its unequivocal challenge. We are also well aware   that this document will reach millions in parts of the world who have never had firsthand   contact with a Jew and could help to counteract the traditional prejudices which exist   there. We hope that everything will be done to ensure that the message will quickly reach   grass roots level.


The historical record


Our problems with the Document relate to historical presentation and interpretation.   However let us first say that the summary of the course of the Shoah, called " a major   fact of the history of the century", should render impossible the obscenity of Shoah   Denial among Catholics and we see in this one of the major positive aspects of the Document.


Our disappointments in the historical treatment were accentuated by the great impression   made upon us by the series of statements on the subject published in recent years by   National Episcopal Conferences, especially in those countries which were the focus of the   Shoah - many on the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of the camps or the end of the   European War. These documents were characterized by clarity, sensitivity and courage and we   had hoped that the Vatican document would be written with the same categorical approach. In   relating to aspects of the historical record, we will quote from these documents as examples   of conclusions we had hoped would be similarly expressed in the Vatican Document.


Christianity and historical antisemitism


Initial Jewish reactions on the publication of the Document were deeply concerned by the   incorporation of the quotation from the Pope"s speech of 31 October 1997 in which he said   "In the Christian world - I do not say on the part of the Church as such - erroneous   and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people and their   alleged culpability have circulated for too long". Nobody can doubt the Pope"s sincere   abhorrence of antisemitism but his apparent absolution of the Church from historical   responsibility was, at least, puzzling. Jewish reactions went into great detail concerning   the misdeeds of the historical Church. At the meeting of the International Liaison   Committee, Cardinal Cassidy explained the perspective of the writers of the document. As   summarized in the subsequent communiqué, he said that "the term "the Church"   refers for Catholics to the inerrant mystical bride of Jesus Christ, whereas the term   "sons and daughters of the Church" does not exclude members of the Church at any   level". We feel it unfortunate that the distinction was not spelt out in the document   as we doubt whether even all believers are aware of this distinction and the statement as it   stands could (and did) lead to conclusions different from those intended. Even after the   explanation, we find many Church statements confusing - including those of the Bishops"   Conferences with their frequent references to failings of "the Church". What are   we to make of the statement of the German and Austrian bishops from 1988 which says   "The Church, which we proclaim holy and which we honor as a mystery, is also a sinful   Church and in need of conversion", which would seem to conflict with the concept of the   inerrancy of the mystical Church. We were glad to note that Father Raniero Cantalamessa in   his Good Friday sermon delivered in the name of the Pontifical Household quoted the Pope"s   statement of October 31 but omitted the phrase which we found problematic.


The Document does indeed ask some of the pertinent questions that needed to be asked:   "Whether the Nazi persecution of the Jews was not made easier by the anti-Jewish   prejudices imbedded in some Christian minds and hearts?" "Did anti-Jewish   sentiment among Christians make them less sensitive or even indifferent, to the persecutions   launched against the Jews by National Socialism when it reached power?" To these   questions a clear answer was expected which would have showed how the teaching of contempt   has influenced Christianity throughout the centuries and how it deeply affected the   Christian responses to Nazi persecution. This was to be found clearly stated in the   documents of the Bishops. For example in the 1995 Statement of the Dutch Bishops: "A   tradition of theological and ecclesiastical anti-Judaism contributed to the climate in which   the Shoah could take place. A so-called "Statement of Revilement" taught that the   Jews were a people rejected after Christ"s death. These kinds of traditions meant that   Catholics kept aloof from Jews and in some cases were indifferent or hostile. We reject this   tradition of ecclesiastical anti-Judaism and regret its terrible outcome."


The 1997 Statement of the French Bishops, expressed the historical aspect with especial   clarity: "A tradition of anti-Judaism affected Christian doctrines and teachings,   theology and apologetics, preaching and liturgy in various degrees and prevailed among   Christians throughout the centuries until Vatican II...To the extent that the priests and   leaders of the Church for so long allowed the teaching of contempt to develop and fostered   in Christian communities a collective religious culture which permanently affected and   deformed mentalities,, they bear a serious responsibility."


The relevant paragraph in the Vatican Document (page 8 paragraph 1) does indeed refer to   the historical record but avoids taking a clear position on the relationship between the   teaching of contempt and the political and cultural climate that made the Shoah possible.   Sentences such as "Sentiments of anti-Judaism in some Christian quarters and the gap   which existed between the Church and the Jewish people led to a generalized   discrimination...." or "[Jews} were looked upon with a certain suspicion and   mistrust. In times of crisis such as famine, war, pestilence or social tensions, the Jewish   minority was sometimes taken as a scapegoat and became the victim of violence, looting, even   massacres" overlook the systematic unceasing persecution over sixteen centuries by the   Church, its leaders and theologians, priests and laymen. It was not merely "a certain   suspicion and mistrust" but an institutionalized policy of humiliation, discrimination   and hatred - disseminated in canon law, in the liturgy, the catechism, from pulpits and   schools directed to reducing the Jew to a position of total inferiority in every aspect of   thought and endeavor. The document only hints at the reality which is succinctly presented   in some of the Bishops" statements.


(We welcome the clarification issued by Cardinal Cassidy at the ILC and reiterated in an   interview with Reuters on April 2 in which he noted that there was no intention to exclude   popes, bishops or any official people from any guilt and agreed that the Document could have   been clearer on this point.)


The Church and the Shoah


This brings us to the consideration of the role of historical Church antisemitism in the   lead-up to the Shoah and the actual behavior of Catholics during those terrible times. First   of all a distinction is drawn in the Document between antisemitism, based on theories   contrary to the constant teaching of the Church on human equality, and anti-Judaism. The   National Socialist Regime, it is said, was a thoroughly modern neo-pagan regime whose   antisemitism had its roots outside Christianity. Then the right question is asked   "Whether the Nazi persecution of the Jews was not made easier by the anti-Jewish   prejudices imbedded in some Christian minds and hearts?"


The implication that while Christians have been guilty of anti-Judaism but antisemitism   is a contradiction of the teaching of the Church is dubious and it is unfortunate that it is   put forward in generalities that could well mislead many for whom this document is intended.   There was indeed a change in the main emphases of antisemitism in the late 19th century from   a religious basis to a more secular prejudice with a pseudo-racialist base. However can it   be said that the latter was not influenced by the long centuries of Church conditioning? The   antisemitic parties preaching the new ideology from the late 19th century often stressed   their Christian affiliations. For example, the party of one of the formulators of modern   antisemitism in Germany, Adolf Stoecker, was the Christian Social Workers" Party, the party   of the antisemitic mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger (a major influence on Hitler) , was the   United Christians while Austria had the Christian Social Club and the Catholic People"s   Party, France had its Catholic Workers" Club and the Christian Democratic Movement. and   the significant role played by the Church in the Dreyfus Affair will be recalled. Thus the   statement that this was "an anti-Judaism that was essentially more sociological and   political than religious" plays down the fact of the unbroken line of Christian   anti-Judaism/antisemitism and its impact throughout Europe. After all the Jew was still the   deicide and the traditional anti-Jewish stereotypes were not changed or renounced and were   absorbed into the new antisemitism. The Catholic attitude toward the Jews was unchanged and   its influence cannot be excluded. This is why the suggestion of a complete dichotomy between   "anti-Judaism" and "antisemitism" is misleading. One shades into the   other. It was Christian anti-Judaism that created the possibility of modern pagan   antisemitism by delegitimizing the Jews and Judaism. (Incidentally ancient paganism was far   more tolerant of Jews and Judaism than was the Christian Church).


It is true that the National Socialist regime adopted a pagan ideology which rejected the   Church - although this did not mean that all churchmen and believers rejected National   Socialism. It may be noted that Hitler, Himmler and the other Nazi leaders were all baptized   Christians who were never excommunicated. The same is true of the vast apparatus of killers,   the product of Christian Europe. The Church is not accused of direct responsibility for the   Shoah but of its legacy of sixteen centuries of conditioning which had created an   environment in which a Shoah became possible and many Christians would feel no compunction   in collaborating. Pope John Paul II in his speech of October 31 stated "Erroneous and   unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people and their presumed   guilt circulated for too long and contributed to a lulling of many consciences". Here   was a clear answer to the question posed in the Document " Did anti-Jewish sentiment   among Christians make them less sensitive or even indifferent to the persecutions launched   against the Jews by National Socialism when it reached power?" We regret that it was   not included. Another clear statement was that of the French bishops : "It is important   to admit the primary role played by the consistently repeated anti-Jewish stereotypes   wrongly perpetuated among Christians in the historical process that led to the Shoah".   Such simple statements were what had been hoped for in the Document rather than the   convoluted approach that was taken.


Behavior during the Shoah


"Did Christians give every possible assistance to those being persecuted and in   particular to the persecuted Jews" asks the Document and replies "Many did but   others did not". Jews will ever be grateful for those courageous Christians who saved   and helped Jews and in other ways opposed the persecutions and in so doing risked their   lives. But these heroes cannot be called the "many". Indeed the statement that   "many did" does not do justice to the supreme self-sacrifice of the few (who acted   as individuals and seldom received any support from the Church). Their numbers were small   compared not only with those who were cowed into inactivity but with those who took an   active role in the persecution and extermination (a major group not mentioned in the   Document). Unlike the German and French documents, where those who stood up and rescued Jews   were seen as exceptions, the Vatican document gives the impression that those who were evil,   insensitive and acquiesced to the Final Solution were the exception to the overall Christian   approach. However, while we feel the Document could have been more explicit, we recognize   the significance of its statements: "For Christians, this heavy burden of conscience of   their brothers and sisters during the Second World War must be a call to penitence. We   deeply regret the errors and failures of those sons and daughters of the Church". At   the same time, we feel that some of the examples of churchmen standing up to Hitler were   unfortunate. Cardinal Bertram may have condemned National Socialism in 1931 but his   subsequent record was very different. He opposed all public protest against the deportations   and the massacres of the Jews as had been suggested by some of his colleagues and after   Hitler"s suicide he addressed a circular letter to the priests in his diocese inviting them   to celebrate a solemn requiem service in memory of the Fuehrer. In the words of the German   Bishops" statement of 1995: "Even the pogroms of November 1938 were not followed   by public and expressed protests". This comes precisely into the category of response   that we feel is slurred over in the text.


The question of the role of Pope Pius XII is obviously a contentious issue with differing   views not only between Jews and Catholics but among Catholic scholars themselves. It would   have been preferable to have left this subject to future historians. But once opened, it is   a Pandora" s box. The statement that the Pope was responsible for saving hundreds of   thousands of Jewish lives has not been substantiated by the published documents. A final   judgment on this can only be made after the Archives are opened. We are given one   generalizing quotation made by Pius XII but no reference to the charge of   "silence" - he never once explicitly mentioned the Jews in his public   pronouncements during World War II. The issue of silence, not confronted in the Document, is   faced - at least with relation to the French hierarchy - in the French Bishops" document   which states frankly: "The vast majority of church officials did not realize their   considerable power and influence and that, given the silence of other institutions, the   impact of a public statement might have forestalled an irreparable catastrophe. The bishops   of France did not speak out, acquiescing through their silence in these flagrant violations   of the rights of man and leaving an open field for the spiral of death. Today we confess   that silence was a mistake". The Document could well have spoken out against the   silence of the hierarchies. It is not the place where the dispute on Pope Pius XII"s role   can be solved. But we do miss the simple statement that the earthly Church as a whole erred   during this period and we see the refusal to assign any blame to it as an institution a step   backward from the position of the German and French bishops.


We were disappointed by the introduction (at the bottom of page 12 of the Document) of a   list of calamities experienced by other nations - and in particular "the drama of the   Middle East". We with our long record of suffering can profoundly empathize with the   tragedies of other peoples. But we can never forget the uniqueness of the Shoah which is the   point we would have expected the Document to bring out. In no other case, was an entire   people doomed to the utmost humiliation and then extermination off the face of the earth -   even to the extent of going back generations to identify their "blood". Moreover   as Catholic belief as expressed in recent documents clearly links the salvation of   Christians with God"s redemption of the Jewish people whose covenant with him is   irrevocable, Christians cannot view the Shoah as they do other genocides.


We welcome Cardinal Cassidy"s suggestion, recorded in the communiqué at the end of the   ILC meeting, that a joint team of Jewish and Christian scholars review the relevant material   relating to the Catholic Church and the Shoah in the volumes produced by Catholic scholars   and if questions still remain, further clarification will be sought. The Vatican archives   are the only great archive which remain closed for the World War II period. When they are   opened, there will doubtless be both positive and negative disclosures. But only in this way   will the historical record be authoritatively established.


We would like to conclude, as we began, on a positive note. We appreciate Cardinal   Cassidy"s statement that Catholics have much to learn and that the Jewish community needs to   understand better how the Catholic Church views itself. Our critique of the Document is not   meant with any negative intent but as a pointer to the guidelines which we think should be   adopted in Catholic teaching of the Shoah. It is in the spirit of Cardinal Cassidy"s comment   that the Document is not a conclusion but rather a step for further development, and that in   the words of Pope John Paul II"s covering letter, we will "work together for a world of   true respect for the life and dignity of every human being". Indeed "We   Remember" is not only an indictment of the past but, in its condemnation of   antisemitism, a milestone-guideline for the future.   "top