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Jews and Catholics


Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners1 must have been one of the most widely read American books on European history, and in Germany itself it was a best seller, even though it charges several generations of Germans with having been precisely what the title of the book says, the willing executioners of European Jewry. Many Americans, Europeans, and others have learned much of what they know about the Germans’ role in the Shoah from Goldhagen’s book and from the bitter controversy that erupted following its publication.2 His publisher claims that his new book “goes beyond anything previously written on the subject,” and that it “cuts through the historical and moral fog to lay out the full extent of the Catholic Church’s involvement in the Holocaust.”

The historical and moral fog, the author makes amply clear throughout A Moral Reckoning, has been created by the Church as well as by historians he disagrees with. He views both the Church and those historians with scorn, and only assiduous critics of the Church escape his censure, among them James Carroll, John Cornwell, David I. Kertzer, Michael Phayer, Garry Wills, and Susan Zuccotti, whose writings, incidentally, provide most of the information incorporated into A Moral Reckoning.3 The fact that these important writers published their criticism of the Church and the papacy during the last few years testifies not only to the public’s continued interest in the Holocaust but to a newfound fascination with Jewish–Catholic relations or, rather, with the Church’s mistreatment of the Jews. The fascination seems partly the consequence of Pope John Paul II’s attempts to make amends toward the Jews without losing face and without giving up some of the basic tenets of Catholic theology. As history has shown over and over, in an authoritarian system it is reform efforts from above which lead to a sudden curiosity and political agitation from below.

Goldhagen has much to say about the New Testament, the Catholic catechism, and the major papal statements on Catholic–Jewish relations, but A Moral Reckoning is not a book grounded in research; it is primarily a moral treatise on the anti-Semitism of the Church. Arguing that this anti-Semitism is as old as Christianity, Goldhagen demands that the Church make many more amends and that, while doing so, it undertake a fundamental reform. Popes, bishops, abbots, priests, monks, and Catholic lay people are to transform what he sees as an intolerant and hate-filled theocracy into a tolerant democratic institution. Toward this fundamental reform, Daniel Goldhagen wants to show the way.

A Moral Reckoning is not well organized; it is also distressingly repetitious. Still, one can easily grasp its main themes which are, first, a “moral investigation” of the Church’s crimes against the Jewish people throughout history; second, a “moral judgment” of the Church’s crimes; and finally the need on the part of Church leaders for “moral repair” so that they may undo the damage their institution has inflicted on the Jews. A voluminous introduction includes an angry reply to the critics of Hitler’s Willing Executioners and gives a preview of the book’s major theses. Goldhagen’s basic contention, namely that the Gospels themselves are at fault and that, therefore, a fundamental rethinking of Catholic theology is necessary, is passionately laid out in the introduction.

The decisive first step on the road leading directly to Auschwitz, writes Goldhagen, is taken in the Gospel of Matthew, 27:25, which describes how, after the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, solemnly washed his hands, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this just person,” namely Jesus, the assembled multitude exclaimed, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.” Ever since, this alleged event has been used by Christians to brand the Jews as an accursed race. As both Goldhagen and some of the sources he uses state, the accounts of Matthew and the three other Evangelists have shifted the responsibility for Christ’s crucifixion from the Romans to the Jews. Moreover, the Gospels’ anti-Judaic diatribes, which were written down many decades after Jesus’ death by men who had never laid eyes on him, have obscured Christ’s original message of love.

Therefore, as both Goldhagen and his main source on this issue, the former priest James Carroll, argue, Christians today believe in an inauthentic message. As a result of the teachings of Matthew, John, Luke, and Mark as well as Saint Paul and the early Church Fathers, the cross is not only a symbol of Christ’s loving sacrifice; it is also a symbol of intense hatred. In the words of Goldhagen,

Christianity is a religion of love that teaches its members the highest moral principles for acting well…[but] Christianity is [also] a religion that consecrated at its core and, historically, spread throughout its domain a megatherian hatred of one group of people: the Jews.

Christians committed many grave crimes against Jews: “The best-known and largest of these mass murders is the Holocaust.” Indeed, while Goldhagen rejects easy comparisons between, for instance, Hitler and Pope Pius XII, he sees very little difference between Catholic and Nazi anti-Semitism. It was, after all, the Catholic Church, especially through its Jesuit spokesmen, he argues, which had taught the faithful to abominate the Jewish race. While the Church itself would not shed blood, Christians throughout history and the Nazis in our time transformed its teachings into genocide.

The first part of the book, which, according to the author, “recasts our understanding of how to think about the Pope’s and the Church’s actions during the Nazi period,” points to many acts of ferocious Catholic anti-Semitism ranging from the murderous Crusades to the killing of hundreds of Jewish survivors in post–World War II Poland. According to Goldhagen, anti-Semitism “has been integral to the Catholic Church” with its emphasis on “substitutionism” or “replacement ideology.” This is the belief that Christianity has replaced Judaism as the sole creed validly pointing toward salvation. By refusing to recognize the Messiah, the Jews have thrown away their chance of salvation. Moreover, by killing Christ and by eternally conspiring against Christian values, the Jews, in many Catholic accounts, have become Satan’s emissaries on earth. Indeed, as Goldhagen sees it, there is scarcely a difference between Catholic writers through the ages who called Jews the children of Satan and the Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher, who said the same thing.

For Goldhagen, the Vatican and the clergy generally should be indicted as racists; witness, for instance, the elite Jesuit Order’s time-honored exclusion of all applicants who could not prove five generations of non-Jewish ancestry, a restriction that, in 1923, was reduced to four generations. (There is no such restriction today.) Goldhagen readily acknowledges that the Vatican made attempts, from time to time, to distinguish its anti-Judaism from Nazi racism and on some occasions to denounce racism altogether. The best-known of these attempts were Pius XI’s 1937 anti-Nazi encyclical, Mit brennender Sorge (With Profound Anxiety), the same pope’s 1938 encyclical Humani Generis Unitas (The Unity of Humankind), and Pope John Paul II’s 1998 statement We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah. But these texts, in Goldhagen’s view, showed too much bias to be of any use. The first encyclical was publicly read in the churches of Germany, but its meaning was left unclear so as not to disturb the devotion of German Catholics to the Nazi regime. The second encyclical remained only a draft; and the third so badly obfuscates the Church’s anti-Jewish past, writes Goldhagen, that it cannot be accepted as a truly honest confession of the Church’s sins.

All three parts of A Moral Reckoning contain forceful and much-repeated indictments, in no particular chronological order, of the popes, especially of those in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and particularly of Pope Pius XII (1939–1958), whose behavior toward Nazi Germany and the Holocaust has been the subject of worldwide controversy. Not unexpectedly, Goldhagen places himself among the Pope’s most radical critics, arguing that Pius XII was an out-and-out anti-Semite and an admirer of Germany whose hatred for “Judeo-Bolshevism” led him to side with the Nazi regime during the war. According to Goldhagen, “the greatest mistake was, after World War II, sparing the Church what Germany was not spared: the severe censure it had earned for its and its clergy’s crimes and other offenses.” Goldhagen points particularly to the sins of those German bishops who were severe and open critics of Nazism but who failed to rise to the defense of the persecuted Jews. Goldhagen’s argument here is reinforced by a recent biography of the Münster bishop Count von Galen, who vehemently condemned the Nazi practice of euthanasia but fully endorsed the German crusade against Russian Bolshevism and spoke up only on behalf of baptized Jews.4 Of the modern popes only John XXIII (1958–1963) merits Goldhagen’s praise as a “genuine friend of the Jews.”


Since Goldhagen presents little by way of fresh research on his subject—his criticism of the Church draws largely on earlier studies—his concluding advice to the Church should be considered the most original part of the book. As a first step, he demands that the papacy confront “its own and its clergy’s offenses and their degree of culpability,” and that it offer material compensation to the Jews, such as taking care of the elderly poor or returning the gold that Jewish organizations gave to the Church to rescue Jews during the war, and that may have been misused. Furthermore, the papacy should not canonize anyone who helped persecute the Jews, should erect memorials for the Jewish victims, and should issue a new encyclical on the Church’s relations to Judaism and the Jews.

Beyond all this, Goldhagen writes, there must be an absolute reform of the Church and its doctrine. The new, reformed Church, consisting of a democratic community of the faithful, must give up “its imperialist ambitions,” and it must cease missionary activities that exclude other creeds. The Church must accept the absolute separation of Church and State, and renounce its claim to being the single way to eternal salvation. The popes must abandon their claim of infallibility in doctrinal matters. Finally, the “Church needs to give up its state and cease having formal diplomatic relations with other states.”

All this, Goldhagen asserts, would not solve the problem of the Gospels and their libelous accusations against the Jews. Because Catholics believe that the Gospels have been divinely inspired, and yet the Gospels’ anti-Judaic propaganda contradicts Christianity’s message of love, he demands that a great assembly of all the Christian churches be convoked to resolve the contradiction. At this assembly,

Jewish religious and communal leaders ought to be full members of the congress for purposes of the deliberations, though the Jews would not have a formal say in the outcome. Put differently, Jews would have a full voice during discussion but no vote.

This is indeed a comprehensive program, which Goldhagen does not see as unrealistic in view of the fact that a much stronger power than the Vatican, namely postwar Germany, has already proven itself able to completely change its ways.

  1. 1

    Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (Knopf, 1996).

  2. 2

    Here is a mere sampling, in English, of writings on the Goldhagen phenomenon: The ‘Goldhagen Effect’: History, Memory, Nazism—Facing the German Past, edited by Geoff Eley (University of Michigan Press, 2000); Norman G. Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn, A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth (Metropolitan Books, 1998); Unwilling Germans?: The Goldhagen Debate, edited by Robert R. Shandley, translated by Jeremiah Riemer (University of Minnesota Press, 1998); and István Deák, “Holocaust Views: The Goldhagen Controversy in Retrospect,” in Central European History, Vol. 30, No. 2 (1997), pp. 295–305, reprinted in István Deák, Essays on Hitler’s Europe (University of Nebraska Press, 2001), pp. 100–110.

  3. 3

    James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews (Houghton Mifflin, 2001); John Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII (Viking, 1999) and Breaking Faith: The Pope, the People, and the Fate of Catholicism (Viking Compass, 2001); David I. Kertzer, The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism (Knopf, 2001); Michael Phayer, The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930–1965 (Indiana University Press, 2000); Garry Wills, Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit (Doubleday, 2000); and Susan Zuccotti, Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy (Yale University Press, 2000). My review of Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope and of Michael Phayer’s The Catholic Church and the Holocaust appeared in the March 23, 2000 issue of The New York Review and also in Essays on Hitler’s Europe, pp. 169–184.

  4. 4

    Beth A. Griech-Polelle, Bishop von Galen: German Catholicism and National Socialism (Yale University Press, 2002).

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