Memo To: Our Elder Brothers
From: Their Catholic Brothers
Re: Easter Weekend, Jews and the Vatican
[The following commentary was written by Peter Signorelli, my colleague at Polyconomics for 15 years. As you can tell, Peter is a scholar, a wise man, a very active Roman Catholic. He shared his thoughts with me on the Vatican’s recent message to the world Jewish community regarding the Holocaust -- and I asked if he would write them down as this Easter weekend’s “Memo on the Margin.” There will be no Supply-side University class during this “Easter break.”]
There is no question that Pope John Paul II and the Roman Catholic Church place serious emphasis on the efforts to reconcile Christians with their “elder brothers” -- those of the Jewish faith. The heart of his pontifical efforts for many years has been to promote and support the reconciliation of all under the will of the one God who has created us all. His task is central to whether the 20th century -- a century of Caesar, of war, incredible suffering and sorrow -- will be replaced by a century of God. As a Roman Catholic, in union with the Holy Father and loyal to the teachings of the Magesterium, I rejoice at the Pope’s efforts.
The task, though, is beset with many problems and frustrations. Reading much of the Jewish community’s response to the Vatican document We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, it is disturbing to see from some quarters a refusal to acknowledge that the document was issued by men of good will in the pursuit of the truth. In particular there are two areas where I see potential for a grave misinterpretation of the Pontiff’s efforts.
Many Catholics suspect, as Michael Horowitz suggested in a Forward news report by Elissa Gootman 3-20-98, that “For some Jewish leaders and indeed for some secular leaders, no apology that a church leader makes is enough until a church leader apologizes for Christianity itself.” Many Christians, Catholic and Protestant, are dismayed by demands that the Church acknowledge an organic link between Christian teachings and the Holocaust. There is nothing intrinsic to Nazism that can be said to have come from Christianity. Yet amidst so many of the “we are disappointed” reactions to the document there is the “criticism” that it fails to acknowledge that the roots of Nazi anti-Semitism are in Christian doctrine, and that anti-Semitism is even intrinsic to Christianity. Indeed, what then is demanded of the Church? That it renounce or denounce Christianity? Are Jewish-Christian differences therefore irreconcilable?.
All Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, believe that Jesus Christ, God incarnate, is -- not was, but IS -- a Jew. And so are His mother, His foster father and His apostles. For a Christian, therefore, to maintain or exhibit an anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic bias is to begin a rupture and repudiation of Christianity.
It also is a vile attempt to promote bigotry against the Catholic Church, as do some critics of the Vatican document when they make reference to “the many Catholics among the highest ranks of Nazi officialdom.” The implication, of course, is that there is an identity between neo-Pagan Nazism and Catholicism. No doubt, many Nazis were baptized Catholics, but by the time they embraced Nazism, they had long repudiated Christianity. Yet these anti-Vatican “critics” wish to place blame on all Catholics or Christians for the evil actions of formerly Christian individuals. Such a wretched assertion is unacceptable. Is not this form of anti-Catholicism based on the same bigotry that was expressed by those who cited the proportionately high numbers of Jews in Lenin’s murderous high command, as if there were some intrinsically Jewish quality to communism? The post-WWII East European puppet leaderships selected by Stalin were directed by Jews at the top (secular and atheist, of course) -- Slansky in Czechoslovakia, Pauker in Rumania, et al. How ought one react if it is asserted that the proportionately high number of Jews in those violently anti-Christian communist regimes suggests an identity between being Jewish and being a communist? With outrage, of course! Yet, some critics of the Vatican find no hesitation with imposing the same twisted and bigoted logic in asserting an organic relationship between Catholicism and Nazism.
The Church has acknowledged and repents for attitudes of anti-Judaism which existed in both Catholic and Protestant Christianity. Because individual Jews and individual Jewish religious leaders abetted the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the stoning of Stephen for his profession of faith in Jesus, for hurling the Apostle James to his death from the top of Jerusalem’s temple, for the persecution of early Christians, etc. are all Jews then responsible? Of course not, and the Vatican has strongly assailed any notion of collective Jewish guilt or culpability in the crucifixion of Christ. To profess otherwise is antithetical to Christianity. The Church reminds us what many Christians forgot, that on behalf of even His tormentors Jesus on the cross implored: “Father, forgive them.”
It is worth noting that Catholics were very active at the highest levels of the anti-Hitler plot and paid with their lives when it failed. Among those, the devoutly Catholic Count von Stauffenberg likened the anti-Hitler conspiracy to a Christian obligation to resist and combat the forces of evil and darkness. The biggest lament among the conspirators was that they were unable to enlist more German officers to the cause because the British insisted that even with a coup that disposed of Hitler, only the unconditional surrender of Germany would be acceptable.
The other charge that appalls Catholics is the demand that the Catholic Church must denounce war-time Pope Pius XII, as having been passively neutral regarding the plight of WWII Jews, if not an actual collaborator with the Nazis. So many Jews in Europe who survived the Holocaust did so only because so many Christians put their lives at risk to save them. The record of Catholics and the Church in that effort is well documented; even prior to Pius XII Popes intervened to protect Jews from violence and attack. So, I am perplexed as to why critics reject the documented record and join league with those who demand the Church accept their unfounded charges that Pius XII was either complicit or morally insufficient with regard to the evil of Nazism. There is too much misinformation in circulation on this issue. For example, The New Republic’s editorial April 6 asserts that the Vatican’s condemnation of Nazism in the 1937 encyclical of Pope Pius XI Mit Brennender Sorge (the only encyclical written in German) did not fault Nazi racism but only Nazi paganism. The record shows otherwise. In fact, while still a Cardinal, Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, explicitly denounced the Nazis because “[p]ossessed by superstitions of race and blood[,]...their philosophy is essentially opposed to the Christian faith.” He stated that in a sermon to a mass audience April 1935 in Lourdes, France. Every allegation that Pius XII was silent is contradicted by the evidence.
The record of Pope Pius XII in saving Jews from the Nazis has also been an established fact, well supported by mountains of evidence. Why this campaign now to vilify and slander him? Why has not any evidence to the contrary ever been presented? The motive for the attack on his WWII behavior is linked to confused, dissident, demoralized Catholics (Kung, Carroll, et al.), who, in their zeal to rightfully take to task Church leaders whose moral leadership was lacking in the war years, ignored established facts and substituted their own opinionated personal feelings. In similar league was the anti-Pius XII 1960's play by German playwright Rolf Holchhuth, Der Stellvertreter (The Deputy), which claims that the Vatican remained silent in the face of the Jewish Holocaust. It is astounding how much of the anti-Pius XII mob cites that play as authoritative! Even The New York Times now dismisses the mountain of testimony praising Pius XII for his role in saving European Jews during the Nazi attempts to annihilate them. In doing so it ignores its own editorial of Christmas Day, 1941, which praises the Pope as the singular voice squarely speaking out against Hitlerism in Europe. So then, a mere assertion -- that Pius XII was silent on the plight of the Jews -- is given widespread credibility and circulation despite the fact that all the evidence points to the contrary. Of course, when asked to prove a negative -- No, Pius XII was not silent on the Jews -- no amount of evidence will ever be satisfactory to the accuser. Frankly, a bigotry lurks beneath some of the criticisms of the Catholic Church’s role in WWII. As someone has noted, anti-Catholicism is the “respectable” anti-Semitism of the pseudo-intellectual left today.
To cite but a tiny bit of the evidence clearly demonstrating the role Pius played in saving Jews would take hundreds of pages. Let me just cite one especially poignant testimony on behalf of his aid to Jews -- the example of Israel Zolli. The Chief Rabbi of Rome during WWII, Israel Zolli and his wife survived the Holocaust only because of the protection of the Roman Pontiff. Zolli converted to Catholicism after WWII, taking as his Christian name Eugenio in honor of the pope -- Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII -- who had saved him and other Jews from annihilation.
I can appreciate some of the critical commentary on the Vatican document that comes from various Jewish sources. After all, the Holocaust was the consequence of a concerted effort to destroy the Jewish people themselves. So discussion of Jewish-Christian relations will always have a fervid and volatile component. But the Vatican document is a solid beginning in the effort to reconcile Christians and their elder brothers, and it is incumbent for all men of good will to not be distracted, dismayed or misled by those who would prefer to sit and curse the darkness rather than appreciate the light from the candle John Paul II is offering.