Jews and Catholics

Daniel Goldhagen
Daniel Goldhagen; drawing by David Levine


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”…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.