2016-06-30
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's best-selling 1997 book "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust" argued that Nazis were not solely responsible for the destruction of European Jewry--the German culture of anti-Semitism allowed regular German citizens to help the effort, Goldhagen wrote. His latest book takes the Catholic Church to task for failing to own up to its anti-Semitism and moral failures during the war, and throughout its history. In this excerpt, Goldhagen argues that the Catholic Church has done much less than other Christian churches to apologize for anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Excerpted from "A Moral Reckoning" by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen with permission of Alfred A. Knopf.

The Church has yet to own up to its extensive contributions to, and direct part in, the eliminationist persecution of the Jews. It must stop its denials, obfuscations, prevarications, and self-exculpations-to itself and its faithful, to Jews and to the world. It should finally admit, publicly, its offenses and culpability in full.

The Catholic Church and its many national churches have yet to tell the truth. They have yet to tell the truth about the nature and full extent of their contributions to the eliminationist persecution of the Jews. Among other things, this would require the kinds of concerted historical investigations, as yet unexecuted, into the internal workings of the Vatican and into the attitudes and actions of national Catholic churches and their clergy during the Nazi period that I call for in part one [of "A Moral Reckoning"]. It would also require the Church to conduct serious moral thinking, to a greater degree than it appears to have done, about the variety of offenses that it and its clergy committed.

In part two I propose a moral road map, which is not to say that it is the only possible, legitimate one. But something along its lines-an emphasis on moral agency and individual responsibility, and general and principled evaluative categories of types of offenses and types of culpability, impartially applied-is necessary so that the analytical confusion that besets moral discussions of the Holocaust does not encumber or derail the Church's needed moral self-scrutiny.

This is not to say that, coming from the Church, there would not be a greater doctrinal component to such an evaluation. Of course, there would be-and it would be welcome. Basic Catholic moral principles are worthy of emulation. I refer to them repeatedly, showing how they powerfully support the foundation and reasoning of this moral reckoning. But the Church must recognize that when confronting its offenses against Jews, the political transgressions among them by definition being a public, non-exclusively Catholic matter-Catholic doctrine and theology are neither necessary nor sufficient to draw the conclusion that a well-considered moral reckoning produces. It is precisely because the Church has been and continues to be a political institution that it is subject to the general principles that ought to govern any public institution and public actors. Catholic doctrine and theology also do not trump the principles and views of other involved peoples, especially of Jews. In the end, the Catholic Church would have to say, without equivocation and not just for one or another of its many offenses, but for all of them: mea culpa.

The Catholic Church's failure to be truthful is that much more glaring in light of the statements by many Protestant churches, which sometimes with minor changes would apply also to the Catholic Church. In 1987 the Presbyterian Church (USA) described how the church's teachings of anti-Semitism directly and indirectly led to mass murder:

"In subsequent centuries.the church misused portions of the New Testament as proof texts to justify a heightened animosity toward Jews. For many centuries, it was the church's teaching to label Jews as 'Christ-killers' and a 'deicide race.' This is known as the 'teaching of contempt.' Persecution of Jews was at times officially sanctioned, and at other times indirectly encouraged or at least tolerated. Holy Week became a time of terror for Jews.... It is painful to realize how the teaching of the church has led individuals and groups to behaviour that has tragic consequences. It is agonizing to discover that the church's 'teaching of contempt' was a major ingredient that made possible the monstrous policy of annihilation of Jews by Nazi Germany."

Seven years later in 1994 the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America explained how inescapable its church's anti-Semitism was and how catastrophic were its consequences:

"In the long history of Christianity there exists no more tragic development than the treatment accorded the Jewish people on the part of Christian believers. Very few Christian communities of faith were able to escape the contagion of anti-Judaism and its modern successor, anti-Semitism. Lutherans.feel a special burden in this regard because of certain elements in the legacy of the reformer Martin Luther and the catastrophes, including the Holocaust of the twentieth century, suffered by Jews in places where the Lutheran Churches were strongly represented...

"In the spirit of truth-telling, we who bear his name and heritage must with pain acknowledge also Luther's anti-Judaic diatribes and the violent recommendations of his later writings against the Jews. As did many of Luther's own companions in the sixteenth century, we reject this violent invective, and yet more do we express our deep and abiding sorrow over its tragic effects on subsequent generations...

"Grieving the complicity of our own tradition within this history of hatred, moreover, we express our urgent desire to live our faith in Jesus Christ with love and respect for the Jewish people."

Let us be plain. Is it so hard to speak the truth? Is the Catholic Church so insecure in its self-understanding and so frightened for its hold on its believers that it must persist with its cover-up, including the transparent falsehood in "We Remember" that the Nazis' "anti-Semitism had its roots outside of Christianity"? The Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have not ceased to exist or lost their faithful because they uttered the truth about their tradition. What is wrong with the Catholic Church, an institution that claims to, and obviously in many ways does, serve God and goodness, that it treats its long and sinful history of anti-Semitic invective and practice, institutionalized at its core, as incidental to itself, as "errors and failures of those sons and daughters of the Church" but never of the Church itself?

The American Presbyterian and Evangelical Lutheran churches were obviously not involved in the eliminationist persecution of European Jewry, so they did not need to repent for direct complicity in the Holocaust. But churches in Germany and Austria did. The Austrian Evangelical Church has publicly confessed in a declaration in 1998 that "not only individual Christians but also our churches share in the guild of the Holocaust/Shoah."

In 1980 the Synod of the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland (West Germany) drew a direct line between the eliminationist theology that was its and the Catholic Church's common property and the exterminationist variant that the Nazis decided upon:

"Throughout centuries the word 'new' has been used in biblical exegesis against the Jewish people: the new covenant was understood in contrast to the old covenant, the new people of God as replacement of the old people of God. This disrespect to the permanent election of the Jewish people and its condemnation to non-existence marked Christian theology, the preaching and work of the church again and again right to the present day. Thereby we have made ourselves guilty also of the physical elimination of the Jewish people."

The Northern Protestant State Church of Germany (die nordelbische Landeskirche, which includes Hamburg, Germany's second-largest city) has gone the furthest. It is telling the German public across northern Germany in graphic detail the unvarnished truth about its past.

This regional Protestant church has organized an exhibition of documents, publications, photos, and other materials that reveals the great extent of its involvement in the eliminationist assault on the Jews. The exhibition "Church, Christians, Jews in Nordelbien, 1933-1945," which opened in 2001, is scheduled to travel from city to city around northern Germany for three years, so that the truth can become widely known throughout the church's region.

The exhibition shows how intensely anti-Semitic the Protestant clergy of this region were during the Nazi period. It brings to light their extensive participation with the Hitlerian regime in defaming, repressing, and expelling the Jews. With the exhibition, the church acknowledges its culpability for its and its clergy's crimes and offenses.

A German newspaper reporting on the exhibition emphasizes that "by no means" can it be said that its member churches acted "under compulsion." The churches were willing persecutors of Jews. Churchmen, the exhibition recounts, "eagerly emulated" the anti-Semitic measures of the regime. The church of the state of Schleswig-Hostein announced that it would "joyfully" serve the regime in the pursuit of racial purity.

According to this regional Protestant church, the vast majority of its parishioners did not differ from the clergy in their phobic hostility toward the Jews. When all Jews in Germany, including converts to Christianity, were required to wear a yellow star, parishioners objected to receiving communion side by side with these racially tainted Christians who displayed the stigmatic badge. The racist anti-Semitism of the members of this church was so great that they eventually decided to expel eight thousand members who had Jewish ancestry.

The exhibition, which the German newspaper calls "path-breaking," shows the "unbelievable extent to which the churches of the region had participated in the Holocaust. [It] declares courageously 'the majority of the church supported the persecution of the Jews.'" The exhibition is a "venture from which all other churches of the Federal Republic had for more than fifty years recoiled in horror."

An exhibition about the views and actions of the German Catholic Church and its membership during the Nazi period would not look very different, with the notable exception of the expulsion of converts from the Church. But neither the German Catholic Church nor the Vatican, nor any other national Catholic church, has ever done anything like it. Instead, the Catholic Church insists on not telling the truth about itself, its clergy, its flock, on not telling the truth about its and its clergy's deeds and the resulting culpability, and on not seeking to genuinely educate its members about its past and about the catastrophes that its anti-Semitism helped to produce.

More broadly, virtually everything that these many Protestant churches have declared about their pasts is also true of the Catholic Church's past. Yet Pope John Paul II and almost all the national Catholic churches have either denied or not seen fit to acknowledge and make known these aspects of their history.

Let us ask again: Is it so hard to speak the truth? What is wrong with the Catholic Church that it cannot?


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