The Role of the Catholic Church

In the Holocaust and Its

Unfulfilled Duty of Repair

By Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

Knopf. 362 pp. $25

Almost 40 years ago, Rolf Hochhuth's controversial play "The Deputy" triggered a bitter controversy over Pope Pius XII's failure to speak out publicly against the mass murder of Europe's Jews. Never resolved, the debate has recently been re-energized by the publication of a series of books that detail not only the Pope's silence, but also the Church's active role in promulgating anti-Semitism in the decades leading up to the Holocaust.

In 1998, under Pope John Paul II's direction, a Vatican commission released its findings on these issues. The document, "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah," acknowledged that some Church members had been guilty of anti-Jewish prejudices in the past, but insisted that anti-Semitism of the sort that made the Holocaust possible was wholly extraneous to the Church, having "its roots outside of Christianity." Not one to mince words, Daniel Goldhagen, in his broadside against such Vatican denials, charges that "We Remember" constitutes "one of the most glaring public historical falsehoods of recent times."

Goldhagen is no stranger to controversy, and in these pages he not only offers his own reading of the historical evidence, but also lays out what he takes to be the Church's moral duty in coming to terms with its responsibilities for the Holocaust. Here he offers an extension of his 1996 bestseller, Hitler's Willing Executioners, which asked how ordinary Germans could have come to murder Jews. In that book, he savaged scholars who explained the mass participation in murder by emphasizing the Germans' penchant for obedience to authority or their fear of punishment. On the contrary, Goldhagen argued, the Germans participated in the slaughter because they believed that killing the Jews was right and necessary. Far from finding their butchery repugnant, they enjoyed it. A fierce debate ensued, with Goldhagen's critics arguing that he had oversimplified a complex reality and that, before the Nazis came to power, the Germans were no more anti-Semitic than many other peoples in Europe. Goldhagen and his allies countered that his critics were trying to downplay just how deep German anti-Semitism was.

Whether or not one fully agrees with Goldhagen's earlier book, his refocusing of attention on the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism in interwar Europe has been valuable. Clearly one of the central questions we have to face if we are ever to explain the Holocaust is how such large numbers of Europeans came to be so anti-Semitic. In his new book, Goldhagen maintains that the Church was central to this demonization of the Jews and "the Church's antisemitism itself was a necessary [but not sufficient] cause of the Holocaust."

Goldhagen looks at what the Vatican and the various national Catholic churches did during the Holocaust. In Slovakia, for example, under a president who was a priest, the government oversaw the deportations of Jews, relying on traditional Church anti-Semitism to justify its action. In April 1942, at the height of the deathward march, the bishops of Slovakia collectively issued a pastoral letter in support of the deportations. Likewise, in Croatia, the Church played a central role in the elimination of the Jews, and indeed, according to Goldhagen, priests ran many of the death camps. And in Germany, Goldhagen argues, the evidence for Church approval of the Nazi regime's campaign against the Jews is "overwhelming," although he notes that the institutional Church never went so far as to approve of the Jews' murder.

Goldhagen skewers the claim that if the Pope never publicly spoke out against the Holocaust, it was because he was afraid that doing so would anger Hitler and thus hurt the Jews. Aside from noting how the great mass of Europe's Jews were being murdered, not saved, as the Pope stood silent, Goldhagen asks what responsibility the Pope had as a moral leader. What might have happened if in 1941 the Pope had called on all the bishops and priests of Europe to tell the faithful that the Jews were not the cause of their problems, that demonization of the Jews was wrong and that any Catholic contributing to their mass murder would be excommunicated? As Goldhagen points out, while Pius XII would later excommunicate all communists, he never excommunicated Hitler or any other Nazi leader.

What is most notable about A Moral Reckoning is not the historical evidence in the book, which is not new. In fact, the book grows from a review essay that Goldhagen wrote dealing with several of the books whose evidence he relies on here (I should mention that one of these is my own book, The Popes Against the Jews). Goldhagen does contribute something new in the form of moral judgments regarding the Church's culpability and his prescriptions for what it should do to make amends. In this, A Moral Reckoning is similar to recent bestselling books by Garry Wills (Papal Sins) and James Carroll (Constantine's Sword), who also relied on the published studies of others and blasted the Vatican's denials of its role in making the Holocaust possible. However, while Wills and Carroll offer this critique from the viewpoint of committed Catholics, a similar prescriptive moral stance by a non-Catholic such as Goldhagen will doubtless raise hackles. Nor is Goldhagen's claim that his critique is based on objective moral criteria rooted in political philosophy likely to win people over.

Goldhagen's tone is likewise not designed to win converts. He calls Pius XII "a Nazi collaborator" and brands the doctrine of papal infallibility "inherently dishonest." He compares the Vatican's denial of its historic role in the rise of modern anti-Semitism to Holocaust denial, and ends his book by arguing that the Church is morally obliged to expunge the many anti-Jewish passages in the New Testament from future editions.

A Moral Reckoning is bound to anger defenders of the Vatican, continuing a cycle that is now four decades old. Unfortunately, there are reasons to believe that the conflict is getting worse. Just this past June, a lead article in a Jesuit biweekly, Civilta{grv} Cattolica, whose pages are approved by the Vatican secretariat of state before publication, lashed out at the recent spate of historical studies on the subject. In insisting that the Church had no role in the rise of modern anti-Semitism, the article revived old anti-Semitic charges that the Nazis themselves employed.

Most notably, the Vatican-approved text argued that Jews were behind the Bolshevik Revolution, and that this "fact" explains Church antipathy toward the Jews in the years preceding World War II. With defenses such as this -- recalling not only Hitler's tirades but also the radio broadcasts of Father Coughlin in the United States in the late 1930s -- the Church risks digging itself into a deeper hole. Here one can agree with Goldhagen in asking why the Church cannot simply admit its involvement in promulgating hatred of the Jews in the past and apologize for the actions and inactions of so many clergy, popes included. Continued denials, as the historical evidence keeps accumulating, can only lead to further pain on all sides, and threaten to erode many of the gains made by the Church since the Second Vatican Council. *

David I. Kertzer is the Dupee University Professor at Brown University.

Two German clergymen, with Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels (right), give the Nazi salute