Interreligious Affairs

A Letter to the Vatican, With Suggestions

by Judith Herschopf Banki

From Holocaust Scholars Write to the Vatican, edited by Harry James Cargas (Contributions to the Study of Religion, Number 58, Christianity and the Holocaust – Core Issues; John K. Roth and Carol Rittner, Series Editors, © 2000), Greenwood Press.

How does one write a letter to an institution – an institution, moreover, that is at the same time a government, a sovereign, national state, an organized religious hierarchy, a venerable teaching authority, and a spiritual center for 900 million Roman Catholics in every corner of the world? Does one say: Dear Friend? Dear Friends? Dear Holy See? Your Holiness? Your Eminences? To Whom It May Concern? Who will read it? Will anyone reply?

I choose “Dear Friends” – in fact, “Dear Friends and Former Enemies.”

It is important for my community to come to understand that you – the Roman Catholic Church – are no longer an enemy. On the political and civic level, you have denounced anti-Semitism, in the words of Pope John Paul II, as “a sin against God and man”; that Pope, the most visible symbol of Catholic authority, has demonstrated his personal goodwill toward solidarity with Jews in a number of meetings with Jewish communities around the world; in his last visit to the Great Synagogue in Rome he cordially embraced the chief rabbi (1986). He has referred to this century as “the century of the Shoah,” and he hosted a memorable Holocaust Memorial Day concert at the Vatican in 1994.

On the doctrinal and theological level, the Church has repudiated and refuted the most pernicious religious sources of Christian anti-Semitism in traditional Catholic teaching: the deicide charge and the demonic accomplices of that accusation – that Jews were rejected and accursed by God, and therefore deserving of their collective humiliation, abasement, and persecution.

The history of the Catholic-Jewish relations is a very mixed bag. The Church condemned violence against Jews and also their conversion by force. At time the Pope and other Church leaders protected Jews against the consequences of popular anti-Semitism. However, it was frequently the Church that fomented the very attitudes that led to the violence it condemned. And with the emergence of the nation-state in Europe, almost invariably the clergy opposed the granting of citizenship to Jews and used their influence to fight against it. Jews tend to know one side of this story; Catholics, the other.

It is important for my community to know that centuries-long teachings of hostility and contempt have been replaced by affirmations of the spiritual link between Judaism and Christianity, between the Jews and the Church, by affirmations that the Jewish covenant with God has never been revoked and remains valid, and not only a firm rejection of anti-Semitism but also the assertion that faulty or inadequate teaching may promote that hostility:

The urgency and importance of precise, objective, and rigorously accurate teaching on Judaism for our faithful follows too from the danger of anti-Semitism which is always ready to appear under different guises. The question is not merely to uproot from among the faithful the remains of anti-Semitism still being found here and there, but much rather to arouse in them, through educational work, an exact knowledge of the wholly unique “bond” which joins us as a Church to the Jews and to Judaism. (Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism…, Section 1, no. 8) These are monumental developments in the movement to forge a more positive and respectful teaching tradition regarding Jews and Judaism among faithful Christians. Jews must be taught about these developments.

But it is equally important for your community to know – to be taught – that you were my enemies in the past, and that Christian anti-Judaism – rooted in the polemics of the parting of the ways – transmitted into Christian anti-Semitism; laid the groundwork for alter expressions of secular, even antireligious, anti-Semitism; and paved the way to the Shoah. Christian students seldom learn these painful realities. Perhaps they will be taught about Pope John XXIII’s greeting of the Jewish delegation with an open-armed statement of brotherly affection: “I am Joseph, your brother.” Hopefully, they will learn about Pope John Paul II’s visit to the synagogue. They will probably not learn that Pope Leo VII (936-939) encouraged his papal legate to Germany to expel Jews who refused to be baptized. Or that subsequent Popes established ghettos, confined Jews to them, and compelled them to wear distinctive clothing. Reverend Edward Flannery, First Executive Secretary of the National Council of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Catholic-Jewish Relations, has noted that Christians have torn form their history books those pages that Jews have memorized. In a moving passage in the Notes on the Correct Way…calling for cooperation in the pursuit of social justice, human rights, and international reconciliation, Jews and Christians are said to have “one same memory and one common hope.” In fact, Christians and Jews have very different memories. Once objective of Catholic-Jewish endeavor should be to reconcile these very separate memories for the sake of genuine mutual understanding. We need to tell each other our stories, not just to explain and explore our faiths.

Expectations of a definitive Church study of, and document relating to, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust have been widespread in the Jewish community. Following an exchange between Jewish and Catholic representatives in Rome and Castel Gandolfo during the summer of 1987, Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, then president of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, announced “the intentions of the commission to prepare an official Catholic document on the Shoah, the historical background of anti-Semitism and its contemporary manifestations.” Ten days later, in Miami, Pope John Paul II told Jewish representatives assembled to meet him:

The religious and historical implications of the Shoah for Christians and Jews will now be taken up formally by the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee… And as was affirmed in the important and very cordial meeting I had with Jewish leaders… a Catholic document on the Shoah and anti-Semitism will be forthcoming resulting from such serious studies.

It was unclear whether the forthcoming document was to be an encyclical, a papal declaration, a catechetical instruction, or a spiritual reflection, but some authoritative statement was anticipated. It has not yet been issued. What has held it up? [Editor’s Note: It was issued on March 16, 1998.] There is a sense of unease in both communities about this question, and two distinctive sets of concerns. I believe that Catholics involved in the process of addressing the Holocaust statement, be they scholars, historians, theologians, or Vatican diplomats, are concerned that they are being pressed to accept responsibility on the Church’s behalf for events that the Church did not cause or control. The Church did not build the death camps. Entire populations of Christians suffered terribly under Nazi occupation; some were characterized as subhuman species by Nazi racial laws. Many Christians feel their own suffering under Nazism and communism – in some cases considered as national martyrdom – has been overlooked. Statements on the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II, issued by the Polish and the Croatian bishops, are instructive in this regard; both stress the persecution and victimization of their own people. Jews are barely mentioned in the Croatian statement, and the Polish statement appears to minimize Jewish losses. Neither statement considered the question of anti-Semitism worth exploring. In contrast, the German bishops’ statement questioned why there was “no uproar throughout the land when the synagogues burned one night”; recalled German was crimes, aggression, and genocide amid a passive population; and even criticized the Church’s failure to intervene.

I believe Catholics deeply resist and resent the wrongful and mischievous claim that there is a direct line of causation between Christian teachings of contempt and the Holocaust – as if there were an inevitable progression from the anti-Jewish polemics of the early Church to the deicide charge to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. They think of the Church as victim, not as perpetrator. Many are particularly sensitive to criticisms of pope Pius XII. I believe that these sensitivities and resentments have impeded the long-promised Church statement on the Shoah.

From a Jewish perspective, there is concern that the Church will issue a Holocaust statement that ignores the role of anti-Semitism in European history and culture – as if the Nazis’ hatred of Jews and their genocidal campaign sprang full-blown from a modern, technocratic, antireligious mentality. As if the Jewish fate was no different than the suffering of other innocent victims of World War II. Jews view the Holocaust from the perspective of Jewish history, not as some nightmarish historical aberration but as the culmination of a long and painful record of anti-Semitism, the ultimate eruption of Western civilization’s pathology of Jew hatred. They believe that the murder of 6 million of their coreligionists would not have been possible without the prior existence of a pervasive anti- Jewish tradition in Europe for which certain Christian teachings of hostility and contempt bore a measure of responsibility. A statement on, or study of, the Holocaust that ignored anti-Semitism and failed to address its religious components would be unthinkable.

Jews are also aware that there were righteous Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, who risked and sometimes lost their lives to save Jews; that Jews found shelter in convents and churches and the homes of Christian rescuers; that the same religion that sometimes branded Jews as accursed Christ killers was capable of motivating faithful Christians to acts of high moral courage and self-sacrifice to save Jewish lives. This, too, is part of the story. Ironically, it is the Jewish people who have honored and memorialized their Christian rescuers more than the Church has done. The two Catholics of the Holocaust era chosen for beatification/sainthood do not send a positive message for Jews: Edith Stein, born of Jewish parents and murdered because of her Jewish origins, seems a questionable personification of a martyr to the faith – she was murdered because she was a Jew, not because she was a Roman Catholic nun – and the journal edited by Father Maximilian Kolbe – now a saint – published anti-Semitic articles. Why not Father Bernhard Lichtenberg?

What should a Vatican document on the Holocaust do? Speaking as an individual – but one with a forty-year involvement in Catholic-Jewish relations – I would ask for an authoritative Church statement that would address both the historical and the moral dimensions of the Shoah, and would do the following:

  1. Affirm the reality and scope of the Holocaust as a historical event, asserting – in the face of a growing industry of Holocaust denial that has penetrated even some Church publications – that the death camps and gas chambers were real, and that the Jewish people were the primary, although by no means the only, targets of Nazi genocidal intentions and policies. Pope John Paul II almost invariably stresses the specificity of Jewish suffering when he meets with Jewish groups; he does not always specify Jews as victims on other occasions. Since it is the Christian world that most needs to be reminded of the fate of the Jews in the Shoah, some opportunities to bring that message to Christian faithful may have been missed. Jews do not have to be reminded. Christians do.
  2. Link the Holocaust to preexisting streams of religious and secular anti-Semitism deeply embedded in European culture that made it easy for Jews to be targeted with so little public outcry.
  3. Trace the historical development of the “teachings of contempt” and Church policies regarding the Jews and Judaism – both hostile and protective – that impacted on popular attitudes. This need not be, and should not be, an exercise in breast-beating. From its beginnings as a small and persecuted movement, through most of its history, the Church regarded itself as under attack by hostile forces, saw itself as the repository and defender of truth, with a mandate to destroy heresy. “Error has not rights” was its position for many centuries. While the expression may still be heard among some Catholics today, it is no longer the Church’s position. Therefore, it is very important to explore the historical relationship within the context of the times. In some ways, we are all children of the Enlightenment. In the United States, we are all beneficiaries of a government policy of religious freedom and separation of church and state. But we must not judge early developments by the assumptions of our time. It would be instructive for Catholic and Jewish historians to prepare and present a team-taught course on the history of Catholic- Jewish relations. Free of apologetics and polemics, such a course would be helpful to clergy and educators in training in both communities.
  1. Welcome and enable a joint study of the Holocaust era. Such a study might engender disagreements between – also among – Catholic and Jewish scholars as to the contributory role of Christian teachings of contempt in the Nazi demonizing of the Jews, as to whether the Church could have spoken or acted more vigorously to protest anti-Semitism and to save Jewish lives. There remain open questions, to be addressed honestly, in a spirit of inquiry and an atmosphere free of recrimination. For that reason, the Vatican archives for this period should be opened and studied jointly by qualified scholars.
  2. Honor Christians who saved and protected Jews during those times of terror. Single them out and use them as role models. Tell their stories. In my own synagogue, the Christian righteous are remembered during the Yom Kippur service as examples of “what can be done, what must be done, not to banish from our souls the image of God.”
  3. The Church’s condemnation of anti-Semitism, its repudiation of critical teaching of contempt, and its affirmation of the validity of the Jew’s covenant with God are matters of public record. Nevertheless, they should be vigorously restated in any document on the Holocaust. The more authoritative the document – hopefully, an encyclical movement – the more important that the positive teachings about Jews and Judaism issued in a number of documents over the past thirty years be incorporated into the text.

A final concern about the forthcoming document. When the Vatican issued the Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis of the Roman Catholic Church (thereafter known simply as the Notes) on June 24, 1985, the catechetical guidelines immediately drew sharp criticism from leading Jewish organizations. Why was a document that emphasized the Jewish roots of Christianity, condemned anti-Semitism, and called for “objectivity, justice and tolerance” such a disappointment to Jewish representatives? This writer and Rabbi Alan Mittleman addressed the questions in an article Commonweal (“Jews and Catholics: Taking Stock. Why the Notes Were Disappointing,” Sept. 6, 1985). In the light of substantial progress in the Catholic-Jewish relations since Nosta Aetate, we wrote, “Jews had every reason to expect that the Vatican Notes would be an unambiguous step toward mutual recognition as well as mutual esteem.” While the Notes made several steps in the right direction, they also appeared to take more than a few steps backward. Discussing the “schizoid” nature of the document, the article contrasted progressive affirmations in one section with regressive formulations in other sections, and noted: “Inherently contradictory theological views of Judaism are papered over by expressions of noble intention….the document appears to reflect a tug-of-war between two incompatible mindsets towards Jews.”

A Vatican document on the Holocaust must be straightforward and unambiguous. It must address the innocent ignorance of post-World War II generations and the children of the future regarding the reality of that history, and it must confront as well the malicious movement to deny it. I hope it will avoid the temptation to describe the Holocaust as a paradigm of “man’s inhumanity to man.” I fervently hope that it will avoid finding a theological message in Jewish suffering, for such messages invariably reflect Christian categories of thinking. If the Holocaust is a paradigm of anything, it illuminates a process: how difference can become a source of suspicion; how suspicion can lead to prejudice; prejudice can lead to segregation and exclusion, and then to hatred and dehumanization of the “other,” and, finally, to genocide. It also illuminates the terrible consequences of technology without morality: entire cities built only for the purpose of degrading, starving, and torturing – then ultimately murdering – human beings; the gas chamber created to murder more quickly, more efficiently; the use of children and prisoners for bizarre medical experiments. These are the curses of an industrialized regime cut adrift from human values. This is also part of the story. It is an easy message for the Church to stress: to point to the dangers of unbridled nationalism and racism; both are profoundly anti-Christian ideologies. The other critical aspect, the role of centuries-long Christian anti-Semitism in demonizing Jews, is not as easy for the Church to admit as an institution, although individual Catholic (and Protestant) scholars have done so freely. But it is important to do so, because much of the violent, vehement, and paranoid political anti-Semitism in the world draws on what were originally Christian mythologies.

Jews and Catholics will continue to see the Holocaust through their own historical and religious lenses. Let us tell our truths, find a common truth, and get on with the talk of healing the world.