A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church
in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair

by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.
New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 2002, 392 pages, $16.00.

Several books have been written condemning the silence of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust. He has been described as timid, unwilling to endanger the Church or the status of Catholics; and as anti-Communist, hoping the Nazis would defeat Stalin and the USSR. Goldhagen adds another charge: The Pope was simply an anti-Semite. "The antisemitism of Pius XII and others is often not addressed directly and in depth, or gingerly skirted over as some relatively inconsequential vestige of the Church's so-called anti-Judaism" (p. 123). Pius XII was so antisemitic that in June 1943, when one would think that no additional justification for antisemitism was needed, he issued the encyclical Mysticum Corporis Christi, in which we find the words, "But on the gibbet of his death Jesus made void the Law with its decrees [and] fastened the handwriting of the Old Testament to the Cross, establishing the New Testament in His blood ... On the Cross then the Old Law died, soon to be buried and to be a bearer of death" (p. 57). This is an amazing statement. It is a rejection of the Christian Old Testament, the first part of the Christian Bible.

Pius was an anti-Semite because he believed what the Church had been teaching for millennia. The New Testament is filled with antisemitic verses, the most famous of which is Matthew 27:25, in which all the Jews say "His blood be on us and on our children." Goldhagen writes, "Christians' mass murdering of Jews began in 414, when the people of newly Christianized Roman Alexandria annihilated the city's Jewish community" (p. 36). Yet there were other Christians who were less antisemitic. Pius XI realized the dangers of anti-Semitism after Kristallnacht and began writing an encyclical that was to be called Humani Generis Unitas, the unity of the human species. Pius XI died before the encyclical was completed. Pius XII, his successor, hid it. "That a second Pope began his papacy by burying this remarkable document in defense of the Jews, now known as the Hidden Encyclical, in the 'silence of the archives,' and that the Vatican for half a century tried to hide Pius XII's act of suppression and the encyclical itself, tells us a great deal about Pius XII, and about the dissimulations that have surrounded the Pope's and the Church's relationship to the Holocaust" (pp. 39-40).

Nevertheless, many members of the clergy hid Jews and saved them, particularly in Italy, where the majority of the Jewish population escaped the roundups. Pius XII has been given credit for this good deed. Goldhagen, citing Susan Zuccotti's book Under His Very Windows, says the Pope had nothing to do with this: "The priests and others who took initiatives to save the lives of many Jews were certainly heroic, but there is no evidence of the Pope's guiding hand" (p. 40). By the way, the Jewish neighborhoods in Rome are not only the old ghetto, but also the Trastevere neighborhood, which really is under the very windows of the Vatican.

If many of the clergy were good to the Jews, others were bad, most notably in Slovakia, Croatia, and Lithuania. I was particularly taken aback to learn of a thanksgiving service held in the Hungarian town of Veszprem after the Jews had been rounded up. A flier was distributed by the local fascist party, the Arrow Cross, which said in part, "With the help of Divine Providence our ancient city and province have been liberated from the Judaism which sullied our nation. ... Come and gather for the Thanksgiving service which will take place on June 25 at 11:30 A.M. at the Franciscan Church" (pp. 107-08).

The New Testament belongs to all Christians, not just to Catholics. In fact, Protestants are expected to read the Bible regularly. Despite this, Goldhagen says Protestants outside of Germany itself were less likely to supporters of the Holocaust. Denmark saved almost all its Jews; Norway saved many. Individual Protestant ministers worked to help Jews. After the war, and after Vatican II, in the year 1994, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America issued a statement including these words: "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." The statement goes on to refer to say, "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 the Jews in places where the Lutheran Churches were strongly represented" (p. 231).

As long as Pius XII was alive, the Catholic Church did not face the issue of the Holocaust. In fact, when the State of Israel declared its independence, the Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's newspaper, wrote, "Modern Israel is not the true heir of Biblical Israel, but a secular state. ... Therefore the Holy Land and its sacred sites belong to Christianity, the True Israel" (p. 239).

After Pius died, John XXIII became Pope. He had helped Jews during the war. Once he was Pope, he convened Vatican II, which began work on the document Nostra Aetate (In Our Time), the "Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions." It was simultaneously a revolutionary and a timid statement. It was revolutionary because for the first time in two millennia it said that Jews living today and some of the Jews living at the time of Jesus were not guilty of his death. It was timid because it stated that the "authorities of the Jews and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ" (p. 204). Goldhagen suggests that this line is in Nostra Aetate because Pope John XXIII had died and his successor, Pope Paul VI, was a man who had given a hostile sermon on Palm Sunday of 1965, just a few months before Nostra Aetate appeared, saying the Jews had "derided, scorned, and ridiculed him [Jesus], and finally killed him" (p. 205).

"The Catholic Church has a Bible problem," says Goldhagen (p. 268). "The requirements of moral restitution, of moral repair and simple justice, which can also be derived from the Church's own doctrine, are that the evil of antisemitism, which necessarily includes contained in and that animates the Christian Bible, cannot be allowed to take root in another person's heart. Yet the Christian Bible is a sacred text that, as the word of God, Catholics and other Christians believe must remain as it is."

Pope John XXIII ignored the Bible. If this issue ever becomes a subject that is widely discussed, as Goldhagen hopes, we will see that the Pope, in order to free the Church from its history of persecution, had to free himself from Scripture. In all likelihood, that is why John had to be wishy washy.

Since I am not a Christian, I have wondered about the question of the necessity of the sacrifice of Jesus. Crucifixion had been a Roman method of execution for centuries. Crucifixion, a viciously cruel form of execution, is a blot on the history of the Roman Empire. The fate of every person who died this way was as horrifying as the death of Jesus. Then why shouldn't the agony of each of these individuals be part of God's plan to save humanity from sin?

If it is only Jesus whose death could save us, shouldn't all the actors in this story, including Judas himself if we believe he was guilty, be equally revered? Christians revere the cross, after all, which is a bit like revering a noose or a guillotine. Furthermore, why does God need a sacrifice in order forgive people from sin? It doesn't make sense to say that an omnipotent God is not capable of forgiveness without diverting the punishment to someone else—even if the someone else is simultaneously his son and himself in human form.

My questions are different from Goldhagen's. Goldhagen wonders whether Christianity can honor its own traditions and undo some of them at the same time. Perhaps it can. There are no Christians in the West who believe in executing witches. Without changing the Bible or condemning its words, the Western world has stopped believing that there are witches.

Goldhagen doesn't enter the controversy over Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ, which came out after his book. He does, however, discuss the silence of Pope John Paul II when President Bashar Assad of Syria who said that Jews, in the same way they betrayed and tortured Jesus, had "tried to commit treachery against the Prophet Mohammed" (p. 243).

I agree with Goldhagen on most questions and I am grateful for the information I learned from his book. I must say, however, that I found it bombastic, repetitious, and careless. Goldhagen really should have know that Voltaire's famous statement, "Ecrasez l'infame," means "Crush the infamy" and not "Erase the infamy" (p. 296). He should know that when you cite a lengthy passage from the Gospels (or anywhere in the Bible), you have to list the number of the chapter in addition to the verses. On pp. 314-15, he should have written John 8:39-47. He should have checked his sources before writing that Jews were expelled from Provence in 1394 (p. 36). They were expelled from France in that year, but the expulsion didn't take effect in Provence for another century.

We live in a world where prejudice is the rule rather than the exception, where mass murder has been all too frequent. In this world, the hostility toward Jews nevertheless stands out. It has been more consistent than other prejudices. Its violence has transcended the normal violence of the times and places where it has occurred. The difference is Christianity, says Goldhagen. He is correct, I believe. In the 21st century, however, the people advocating genocide are not Christians.

A version of this review appeared in the January/February 2005 issue of Jewish Currents.