Reprinted with permission from

Last Sunday, the New York Times ran a story about recently published documents from the Nuremberg archives, detailing the Nazis' attempts to neutralize and destroy Christianity within Germany. Hitler's cynical Concordat with the Catholic Church was temporary, the summary argued, because Catholic doctrine "could not be reconciled with the principle of racism."

This news must have startled any reader of last week's essay in [The New Republic] by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, titled, "What Would Jesus Have Done?" I've now read Goldhagen's essay several times to absorb what I think I was reading. Since I admired Goldhagen's book, "Hitler's Willing Executioners," and glowingly reviewed James Carroll's book on Catholic anti-Semitism, "Constantine's Sword," and since, like any Catholic with a conscience, I have tried for some time to grapple with my own Church's shameful past with respect to the Jewish people, I was looking forward to Goldhagen's essay.

What I found was something that I can only say was shocking. Indeed, the intellectual dishonesty of the essay, its elisions and conflations, its animus against Catholicism itself, would shock anyone eager to get to the bottom of this dark and difficult subject.

I should say first that my own belief is that my own Church was responsible for fostering, promoting and legitimizing bigotry against Jews from its very inception. The attempt to exculpate the Church from this legacy and its moral responsibility is contemptible. There is simply no doubt that, from the very first religious battles in the fledgling Christian Church, Jesus-following Jews helped demonize many other Jewish sects.

There is equally no doubt, as Carroll starkly shows, that these early schisms were subsequently used to fuel a pathological prejudice that was responsible for murder, persecution and inhumanity over two millennia. On smaller points, the details of Pius XII's inaction in the face of monstrous evil seem to me irrelevant, and most defenses of him weak. We know he was in a very tough spot but we also know he did nothing morally commensurate with the Holocaust unfolding in front of him. In much of this, I don't only agree with Goldhagen's argument. I fervently endorse it. The proposal to canonize Pius XII strikes me as obscene. The actions of many Catholics in the darkest years of the Shoah are just as reprehensible, and should be studied and condemned, along with the actions of many, many others.

Much of this is familiar and Goldhagen adds little factually new to the record. In fact, the only original thing in Goldhagen's essay is something else. He uses others' scholarship to advance a new claim: that there was no relevant moral difference between Nazism and Catholicism in the 1930s and 1940s. Yes, there are phrases designed to insulate him from such criticisms, but I see no other way to interpret his piece as a whole. For Goldhagen, the cross and the swastika are interchangeable. This strikes me as not only offensive, but deeply dangerous. By regarding the Catholic Church as morally indistinguishable from the Nazi Party, Goldhagen disturbingly undermines the uniqueness of the evil Hitler represented.

Does Goldhagen make such an outrageous claim? I'm afraid I see no other way to interpret his piece.

Take the following statements. Goldhagen argues that the institutional culture of the Church was "centrally animated by the notion that all Jews were Christ-killers." He cites the Church's "contribution to the German-led persecution and extermination of the Jews." He says Catholicism's legacy has an "obvious integral relationship to the genesis of the Holocaust." He says that the Church was "greatly sympathetic to the Germans' eliminationist impulses," i.e. greatly sympathetic to mass murder. He argues that "there is no difference in kind between the Church's 'anti-Judaism' and its off-shoot European 'anti-Semitism.'"

He says that a suppressed 1939 Encyclical that condemned Nazi anti-Semitism and doctrines of racial purity was actually an expression of "soft-Nazism." He argues that a Catholic newspaper that disavowed the murder of Jews as un-Christian and "urged its readers to show Christian charity to the Jews," was insincere. He states that the Church "materially aided [Hitler] in mass murder."

Notice the adverbs and adjectives: "centrally animated," "obvious integral relationship," 'materially aided." These are not weak claims. Then there's this sentence: "The Church was not an opponent of the death penalty, which it officially endorsed. The logic of its enmity toward Jews suggested lethal measures against Jews, even if other (barely known) religious doctrines formally inhibited the Church from accepting this logic as a guide to action.