The Catholic Church and the Holocaust
By Awake! correspondent in Italy
FROM as early as 1987, there was talk of plans by the Catholic Church to produce a document acknowledging its responsibility in the Holocaust. So there was great expectation when in March 1998 the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews released the document entitled We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah.*
While the document was appreciated by some, many were dissatisfied with its contents. Why? What did they find objectionable?
Anti-Judaism and Anti-Semitism
The Vatican document makes a distinction between anti-Judaism, for which the church acknowledges guilt, and anti-Semitism, which it disclaims. Many find the distinction and the conclusion to which it leads unsatisfying. German rabbi Ignatz Bubis said: “To me it seems like a way of saying that it’s not our fault; it’s someone else’s fault.”
Although Italian Catholic historian Giorgio Vecchio accepts the distinction between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, he points out that “the problem is also that of understanding how Catholic anti-Judaism may have contributed to the development of anti-Semitism.” It is of interest that the Vatican paper L’Osservatore Romano, of November 22-23, 1895, published a letter stating: “Any sincere Catholic is, in essence, anti-Semitic: so is the priesthood, by obligation of doctrine and ministry.”
The part of the Vatican document that provoked the most criticism, however, was the defense of the actions of Pius XII, appointed pope on the eve of World War II. Pius XII had served as nuncio (papal legate) to Germany from 1917 to 1929.
The Silence of Pius XII
Italian jurist Francesco Margiotta Broglio did not think that the document “offers new or explanatory elements on the widely debated issue of the so-called ‘silence’ of Pope Pius XII, on his alleged German sympathies, and on his diplomatic actions toward the Nazi regime both before and during his papacy.”
The majority of commentators agree that no matter how one views the import of the document We Remember, the question of why leaders of the Catholic Church remained silent about the genocide in Nazi concentration camps “remains wide open.” According to American historian George Mosse, by choosing silence Pius XII “saved the church but sacrificed her moral message. He behaved like a head of State, not like a pope.” Well-informed Vatican observers believe that what delayed the release of the document was the difficulty in handling the role of Pius XII in the Holocaust.
The document’s defense of Pope Pius XII has irritated many. “Silence on the ‘pope’s silences’ makes this document disappointing,” writes Arrigo Levi. Elie Wiesel, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Peace, said: “It seems to me that claiming we Jews should be grateful to Pius XII is a heresy, to put it mildly.”
Shifting the Blame
The document adopts the traditional distinction made by Catholic theologians, according to which it is claimed that the church as an institution is holy and preserved from error by God, while its members, who are sinners, are the guilty parties for any evils perpetrated. The Vatican commission writes: “The spiritual resistance and concrete action of other Christians was not that which might have been expected from Christ’s followers. . . . [Such ones] were not strong enough to raise their voices in protest. . . . We deeply regret the errors and failures of those sons and daughters of the Church.”
However, attributing guilt to single members of the church rather than accepting it as an institution seemed to the majority to be a big step backward, compared with recent explicit requests for forgiveness. For example, the Roman Catholic Church in France issued a formal “Declaration of Repentance,” asking God and the Jewish people for forgiveness for the “indifference” the Catholic Church showed toward the persecution of Jews under France’s wartime Vichy government. In a statement read by Archbishop Olivier de Berranger, the church admitted that it had allowed its own interests “to obscure the biblical imperative of respect for every human being created in the image of God.”
The French declaration stated in part: “The church must recognize that in regard to the persecution of the Jews, and especially in regard to manifold anti-Semitic measures decreed by the Vichy authorities, indifference by far prevailed over indignation. Silence was the rule, and words in favor of the victims the exception. . . . Today, we confess that this silence was a mistake. We also recognize that the church in France failed in its mission as the educator of people’s consciences.”
More than 50 years after the terrible tragedy of the Shoah, or Holocaust, the Catholic Church has not yet managed to come to terms with its own history—one of ambiguity and silences, to say the least. But there are some who have never had to take any such step. Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religious minority cruelly persecuted by the Nazis, did not stoop to compromise.
As has been increasingly clear in recent times, in contrast with church members, the Witnesses denounced Nazi brutality. And it was not just as individuals that they did so. Their official spokesmen and publications also did. Historian Christine King, vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University in England, explained: “Jehovah’s Witnesses did speak out. They spoke out from the beginning. They spoke out with one voice. And they spoke out with a tremendous courage, which has a message for all of us.”
Shoah is the Hebrew name for the Holocaust, the mass murder by the Nazis of Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Slavs, and others during World War II.
[Picture on page 26]
Pope Pius XII was silent during the Holocaust
U.S. Army photo