A Survey of Jewish Reaction to the Vatican Statement on the Holocaust

A Survey of Jewish Reaction to the Vatican Statement on the Holocaust

Kevin Madigan

The French said it better.

In March of 1998, the Vatican released a long-awaited statement on the Catholic Church and the Holocaust. In a preface to the document, entitled We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, Pope John Paul II expressed his hope that it would “help to heal the wounds of past misunderstandings and injustices.” [1] Eighteen months after the publication of the document, it seems now possible to conclude that, however sincere the Vatican’s intentions, the pope’s hopes will almost certainly not be realized. Indeed, far from healing, the document has succeeded largely in reopening, if not actually deepening, old wounds. Not only did it divide the Catholic intellectual and journalistic communities, [2] more importantly it bewildered and frustrated many Jewish readers and bitterly disappointed others. It also called forth a literary response from Jewish intellectuals and organizations that, while especially vigorous in the immediate wake of the document’s publication, had force and feeling to last more than a year. Since t he energy driving these responses appears to have subsided, [3] it seems possible now to undertake a comprehensive survey of Jewish reaction to We Remember and to attempt to account for its intensity and duration.

The French Bishops’ Statement

One way to interpret the Vatican document and isolate what was distinctive and disappointing about it for so many is to compare it to prior ecclesiastical statements on the Holocaust and the Church. Probably none of the many documents issued by the various national episcopal conferences of the Church better allows us to appreciate by contrast the reaction to the Vatican document than the one issued in October of 1997 by France’s Roman Catholic clergy. [4] The impact of this strongly worded and, it certainly seemed to both Catholic and Jewish auditors, strongly felt apology was magnified both by the place and time at which it was given, as well as by the identity of those present at the declaration.

The place was the grounds of Drancy, memorialized in a plaque there that calls it “the antechamber of death.” In 1942 it began serving as the transit camp from which many of the seventy-six thousand Jews who would ultimately be deported from France boarded cattle cars destined for Auschwitz. Among the thousand Jews and Christians present at Drancy for the French Declaration of Repentance was Jean-Marie Lustiger. Lustiger is now a Catholic; he is, in fact, the Cardinal-Archbishop of Paris. Sixty years ago, however, he was a young Jewish boy menaced by the pro-Nazi government of France, which separated him from his mother. She, once detained, would pass through Drancy on her way to the gas chambers in Auschwitz.

The timing of the apology was also carefully planned in several ways. Aside from coinciding with the celebration of the Jewish New Year, its delivery came fifty-seven years after the passage of Marshall Petain’s so-called “Jewish Laws,” which not only banned Jews from the major professions and discriminated against Jews in a variety of other ways — indeed, in some ways more harshly than the Nuremberg Laws had against the Jews of Germany — but also facilitated census-taking by Vichy officials, which in turn made it easy for police to track down French Jews for detention and deportation. [5] Second, the apology virtually coincided with the trial of Maurice Papon, a former police supervisor from Bordeaux charged with signing the orders that led to the deportation of some seventeen hundred Jews, including hundreds of children. [6]

Thus, at the very moment the French government was trying the highest-ranking Vichy official ever accused of complicity in crimes against humanity, the French bishops were, in effect, delivering a verdict on self-imposed charges that ecclesiastical docility (their word) in the face of catastrophe had caused the church not just to be complicit in these crimes but, in so doing, to have violated divine laws and to have failed in its divinely ordained mission.

To these serious charges, the French bishops plead, with sober and quite unambiguous clarity, guilty. In fact, the French episcopal document is–especially for those accustomed to the genteel circumlocution of many Roman episcopal documents — almost shockingly direct, self-critical and precise in responding to the question, exactly who in the church was guilty of moral dereliction? Throughout, the guilty parties are identified as “priests,” “leaders,” “church officials,” “the hierarchy,” and “the bishops of France.” [7]

If the French bishops were blunt about the identity of the guilty ecclesiastical parties, they were no less direct on the issue of how their predecessors had failed. In their view, the French bishops generally failed — they say sinned (36) — above all by their silence (a word used many times in the document), especially in the immediate wake of the publication of the anti-Jewish laws. “Silence,” the bishops confess, “was the rule” and words “in favor of the victims the exception” (35). If the bishops’ preoccupation with institutional continuity in a time of insecurity was legitimate in itself, their “docility,” “conformity,” and “loyalism” caused them to ignore the biblical imperative to respect every human creature in the image of God (32). “Ecclesiastical interests, understood in an overly restrictive sense,” the bishops say, “took priority over the demands of conscience” (33). The moral and political consequences of this silence were profound. Their predecessors’ silence, the bishops declare, made them ” acquiescent” in “flagrant violations of human rights” and left an open field for the spiral of death (33). Their predecessors failed to recognize that they had “considerable power and influence” (32) when the anti-Jewish laws were promulgated. Although there were “countless acts of courage later on,” they should, they admit, have offered help immediately, when protest and protection were possible and necessary (32). Among other things, the impact of a public statement from them would have been amplified not only by their moral position in French society but “the silence of other institutions” (32). Indeed, the impact of a public statement, the bishops conclude, might have forestalled an irreparable catastrophe.

It is important to observe here by way of brief anticipation that this is precisely the kind of confession the Vatican document did not make. Some Jewish commentators, including Robert Wistrich and Roger Cohen, observed that this move is even more remarkable when it is remembered that several French bishops, including Archbishop Jean-Geraud Saliege of Toulouse (who declared in August 1942, “the Jews are our brothers… and no Christian can forget this fact”), Cardinal Gerlier of Lyon, and Bishop Pierre-Marie Theas of Montauban, spoke out strongly against the Vichy regime in the wake of the roundup of Jews by the French police in July 1942. [8] Their stand, Cohen observed, stimulated French resistance activity and contributed to the survival of three-quarters of France’s Jewish population, many of whom were sheltered by French Catholics. In general, Wistrich has observed, the record of the French episcopate is, while far from unimpeachable, favorably compared to that of the German bishops.

News of the declaration led television newscasts and made the front page of many French newspapers. If Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of France’s rightist National Front Party, was heard to comment (not unpredictably) that the statement was “absolutely scandalous,” and if Bishop Jean-Charles Thomas of Versailles, who was present at the ceremony, complained that “Old sensibilities were going to be severely ruffled,” [9] Jewish reaction to this document was overwhelmingly positive. Cohen, for example, called the French episcopal declaration “an expression of remorse more complete, more uncompromising and anguished than anything previously pronounced by the church.” [10] “Your words of repentance constitute a major turning point,” said Henri Hajdenberg, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions, who was present at the declaration. “Your request for forgiveness is so intense, so powerful, so poignant, that it can’t but be heard by the surviving victims and their children.” [11] However, other Jew ish observers present at Drancy, such as Serge Klarsfeld, president of the Sons and Daughters of Deported French Jews, perceptively observed that so candid and heartfelt a statement of repentance would “put pressure on the Vatican” to make “its public declaration on the Holocaust” and to make it good. [12] Six months later, the Vatican did indeed publish its own declaration of repentance, though to far less enthusiastic reviews.

We Remember

The document begins by describing the Nazi genocide as “an unspeakable tragedy” (48), one which the church is urged never to forget. The church is especially to remember it “by reason of her very close bonds of spiritual kinship with the Jewish people” (48) and also because of “her remembrance of the injustices of the past” (48). The document also acknowledges right at the start that the Shoah took place in “countries of long-standing Christian civilization” (49) and so it immediately raises the question of the relation between the Holocaust and Christian attitudes to Jews over the centuries. The tormented relations of Jews and Christians through the ages the document ascribes to “erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament in the Christian world” (49). It then hastens to distinguish these interpretations from those held by “the Church as such” (49) and observes that these interpretations “have been totally and definitively rejected by the Second Vatican Council” (49).

The document also distinguishes, with a sharpness Jewish commentators almost unanimously found objectionable, between the anti-Judaism of which many Christians have historically been guilty and modern anti-Semitism. The latter, it argues, is a nineteenth-century development more sociological and political than religious in origin. Indeed, it owes its genesis in part to “a false and exacerbated nationalism” (50) and to theories which “denied the unity of the human race” (50) and were used in Nazi Germany to distinguish between the so-called Nordic-Aryan races and other supposedly inferior ones. Nazi anti-Semitism, refusing to acknowledge as it did any transcendent reality as the source of life and the criterion of moral good, was “the work of a thoroughly modern neopagan regime. “Its anti-Semitism had its roots outside of Christianity” (50; emphasis mine), the document proclaimed. Indeed, in pursuing its aims, it did not hesitate to oppose the church and persecute her members also.

Nonetheless, the document does ask if the Nazi persecution wasn’t “made easier by the anti-Jewish prejudices imbedded in some Christian minds and hearts” (52), rendering Christians “less sensitive, or even indifferent” (52) to persecutions launched by the Nazis. “Did Christians give every possible assistance to those being persecuted, and in particular to the persecuted Jews?” (52) To the bewilderment of some, the document states that “many people” were “altogether unaware of the ‘final solution”‘ (52) — a statement whose inclusion in the document can now be questioned on historical as well as diplomatic grounds. Still, it goes on, if “many” individuals gave every possible assistance even to the point of placing their own lives in danger, the behavior of the rest “was not that which might have been expected from Christ’s followers” (53). Passing from the individual to the collective level, the document is particularly critical of “the governments of some Western countries of Christian tradition” (52) which hesitated to open their borders to persecuted Jews, even though the “leaders of those nations were aware of the hardships and dangers to which Jews living in the Greater Reich were exposed” (52). The church therefore deeply regrets “the errors and failures of those sons and daughters of the church” (53). This, the document says, is to be understood as an act of teshuvczh (54).

At the same time, the document insists that those individuals and institutions that heroically resisted Nazism must not be forgotten. In one sentence that actually has not elicited much comment, the document observed of the German church’s response to Nazism, that “it replied by condemning racism” (50)–surely one of the cruder and even erroneous statements in the document. It singles out Cardinals Bertram of Breslau and Faulhaber of Munich, as well as regional episcopal conferences, for criticism of Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda and celebrates Bernard Lichtenberg’s public prayer for Jews in the wake of Kristallnacht. Similarly, it acknowledges Pius XI’s encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, [13] read in German churches in 1937, and quotes his famous assertion, delivered to Belgian pilgrims in September 1938, that “[s]piritually we are all Semites” (50-51).

Much more controversially, the document celebrated Pius XII not only for warning, in his very first encyclical (Summi Pontificatus), [14] against theories which “denied the unity of the human race and the deification of the State,” but for “all that he had done” either personally or through representatives to save hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives.” (53). Then, in a footnote, roughly ten times longer than the next longest footnote, We Remember documents the praise by Jewish leaders given to “the wisdom of Pius XII’s diplomacy,” quoting, among others, Golda Meir (55-56, note 16). [15]

Positive Jewish Reaction

A number of Jewish commentators, even those who were critical of certain elements of the document, nonetheless praised it as a whole and for its good intentions. Wistrich spoke for many in observing that “whatever one’s final judgment” on the document, “one cannot but commend both its tone and its basic aims. “16 Similarly, Michael Berenbaum of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation remarked: “Jews didn’t get everything they wanted, but what they got was so significant.” [17] Yehuda Bauer, head of the Holocaust Research Institute at Yad Vashem and professor of Holocaust studies at Hebrew University, concluded: “The document has to be evaluated positively.” [18] Contradicting the sentiments of many Jewish commentators, who called the Vatican document a step backward, [19] Dr. Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Britain, celebrated We Remember as “a step forward.” [20] These sentiments were echoed in substance by France’s Grand Rabbi Joseph Sitruk, who observed that his disappointment was blunted b y his excellent rapport with the bishops of France and their courageous statement. [21]

More specifically, some Jewish groups, like the American Jewish Committee and the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, hailed the Vatican document, one hopes not too optimistically, for rendering impossible the obscenity of Holocaust denial among Catholics in the next century. Rabbi A. James Rudin, who was at the time inter-religious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee and a member of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, remarked that “50, 75, 100 years from now, there can never be any doubt that the Holocaust took place, because here is a definitive statement from the Catholic Church by a pope from Poland.” [22] Finally, David Gordis, president of Hebrew College, argued that “the statement must not be read in isolation but in the context of an extraordinary and epochal change in the Catholic Church’s teaching and behavior…if read in the context of history, the document ‘represents both a true act of Xn repentance and an act of teshuvah;” — sentim ents echoed by Rabbi David Rosen, director of the Anti-Defamation League in Israel, who read the document as a step in a continuing process of ecclesiastical self-criticism and repentance. [23]

Critical Jewish Reaction

Despite these expressions of generalized approval, Jewish reaction to this document was largely negative. Lord Janner, of Britain’s Holocaust Educational Trust, confessed that he was “deeply disappointed” and denounced We Remember as an “unworthy document.” [24] Ignatz Bubis, chairman of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, likewise condemned the document as “completely unsatisfactory.” [25] Many Jewish commentators expressed frustration that the document as a whole was so nebulous, so equivocal, so partial, and so euphemistically formulated that it amounted to a lower-order sort of denial. Robert Rifkind, president of the American Jewish Committee, commented: “It only begins to address many issues and questions concerning the role of the Catholic Church in the evolution of antisemitism throughout the ages and its culmination in the Holocaust.” [26] Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, likewise observed: “Without derogating from the Church’s efforts at atonement, some of the most troub ling questions of responsibility and complicity in those horrendous events still have not been addressed. [27] And Israel’s Chief Rabbi, Israel Lau, said: “We expected a more specific apology,” one that was less equivocal about “the silence of the Christian world and those who headed it during the Holocaust.” [28]

As these comments suggest, the problem here really is the diplomatic and legalistic character of the document. Indeed, one of the main reasons this document touched such a nerve is undoubtedly that many Jews sensed, as Holocaust survivor Pierre Sauvage tells us he did, in its feebleness and vagueness an expression of diplomatic hesitation, equivocation, and timidity all too painfully redolent of papal attitudes toward Nazi policy during the war. [29] As Efraim Zuroff, director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, has bluntly put it, “the statement still lacks the guts that would make it satisfactory.” [30] Some commentators felt particularly and painfully surprised by these features of the document, ironically in part because of the perceived excellence of John Paul II’s record on Jewish-Christian relations. Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a Holocaust survivor, for example, observed, “We expected more from this pontiff, who has been so courageous in reco nciling the church with the Jewish people.” [31] Other commentators noted that expectations had been heightened by the French Catholic Bishops’ document. Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress argued, that We Remember compared unfavorably both with it and with the apology issued by the German Bishops’ Conference. [32]

In terms of specific criticisms, virtually all Jewish commentators faulted the document for failing to acknowledge the deep connection between ecclesiastically sponsored anti-Judaism and the anti-Semitism that achieved such disastrous expression in the Shoah. Foxman, for example, observed: “Two thousand years of teaching contempt of Jews by the church was part of the underpinning of the Holocaust….The people who killed Jews during the day then went to church on Sunday….They were not aberrations. They were part and parcel of what Western civilization was.” [33] Bauer noted that, despite the examples of Catholic heroism, “it is still true that the vast majority of individual priests and Catholic faithful were completely indifferent, or downright hostile to Jews” and that this indifference is traceable to the two-thousand-year-old tradition of contempt for the Jews. [34] Zuroff added that doctrinal anti-Semitism “enabled Catholics” not simply to be passive or indifferent but to participate in the Holocaust, not only in Germany, but “more especially in places like Lithuania and Croatia,” where the Nazis almost effortlessly found enthusiastic collaboration. [35] In short, Nazi ideology, policy, and genocide all presupposed a cultural framework that had been fashioned,” as Wistrich has summarized the matter, “by centuries of medieval Christian theology, ecclesiastical policy and popular religious myth.” [36]

However, it was over We Remember’s flawed portrayal of the hierarchy as ever-heroic and compassionate that created the most profound frustration for Jewish commentators. While most of them focused on the picture of Pius XII, a few, though very few, found unconvincing and even offensive the portrayal of the German bishops lionized for their heroism. If the document was surely right to honor the memory of Bernard Lichtenberg, they thought, for speaking out from his Berlin Cathedral pulpit against anti-Jewish atrocity — actions that eventually led to his perishing on a train en route to Dachau — it attempted to distort the facts by mentioning Cardinals Faulhaber of Munich and Bertram of Breslau in the same breath with the martyred Provost Lichtenberg of Berlin Cathedral. Robert Wistrich talks at some length about the ambiguous legacy of both of these princes of the church, and then, widening his scope to the German episcopate in general, observes that their elevation is anomalously accompanied in the document by “utter silence about the German church’s acquiescence and, at times, complicity in the Shoah.” [37] Unlike their counterparts in France, Belgium, Italy, and Holland, Wistrich observes, leaders of the German Catholic Church, “rather than attempting to guide their flock, tamely chose to follow it.” [38] They accepted the Nuremberg race laws and offered virtually no protest in the wake of Kristallnacht. Worse still, the German Catholic Church collaborated with the Nazis in helping to establish who in the Third Reich was of Jewish descent. [39] At best, Wistrich concludes, the German bishops were disastrously naive; at worst, they were complicit in genocide. Either way, they should not have been candidates for glorification in We Remember.

Still, the criticism of the Vatican document for its portrayal of the German bishops was rare — and mild compared to the ubiquitously critical response evoked by its image of Pope Pius XII. Virtually no Jewish commentator, even those who responded favorably to We Remember as a whole, applauded the document for its representation of Pius, and very, very few spoke favorably of his activities on behalf of menaced Jews during the war. In fact, the responses to these aspects of the document were, for all intents and purposes, uniformly negative. The only complexities and distinctions came in the degree of criticism, ranging from the view that, in this respect, the document was soft, defensive, or partial to the view that it was mendacious and insulting to readers, to historical memory, and to the victims.

Typical of this latter view was the opinion of Meir Lau, who commented of the pope that, “[h]is silence cost millions of human lives.” [40] Zuroff described We Remember as “a total cop-out” on the role of Pope Pius XII and also adds he “could have saved millions.” [41] B’nai Brith international president Tommy Baer remarked that the document “sadly attempts to varnish the controversial wartime conduct of Pope Pius XII.” [42] If the American Jewish Congress does not go that far, it certainly was not alone in finding the portrait of Pius as a tireless and heroic laborer on behalf of menaced Jews wildly exaggerated and even false. So far from being tireless, it observed, he was virtually passive. As Phil Baum put it: “The historical record does not allow us to disregard the harsh fact of the refusal of important church leaders to take even those minimal steps of compassion and rescue that were clearly within their power to provide.” [43] As for the claim that Pius XII saved hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives , many called for at least some documentary evidence to support that claim. [44] Robert Wistrich was certainly not alone in observing that, while we may never know exactly how many Jewish lives he was responsible for saving, “the number is almost certainly far smaller than that implied by the Vatican.” [45]

If few Jewish commentators portrayed Pius either as criminally complicit with the Nazis or altogether passive in the face of atrocity, and fewer still as courageously heroic and active, many faulted him for extreme and naive caution and timidity. While acknowledging that Pius’s Christmas message of 1942 does, in general terms, deplore the condemnation to death of hundreds of thousands solely because of their nation or race, Wistrich, for one, has noticed that this was the protest that lasted “for the duration of a breath and mentioned neither Jews, nor Nazis nor any Nazi ally.” [46] Given the obvious ambiguity of this record, Wistrich observes, it is odd that not only the Vatican but many Catholics have felt the need to defend him at all costs. After all, he notes (though not quite accurately), “no one is blaming the wartime Pope or the Catholic Church for the destruction of European Jewry, or even suggesting that Pius XII could have done much to stop the slaughter. Nor can one reasonably object to his quiet diplomacy where it did actually save the lives of Jews and other victims of the Nazis.” But what is undeniable, he argues, is the “paucity of moral courage displayed by the Vatican when it came to the fate of the Jews.” [47] Many Jewish commentators have deplored Pius’s prudeuce and discretion. It was not a time, they agreed, for diplomats but for prophets. [48]

One commentator, Susannah Heschel, in an article published in Dissent, [49] has argued that the Vatican statement failed to come to grips with “the most damning piece of evidence” regarding the Vatican: namely how it, or at least some of its priests, behaved at the end of the war. “Pius XII might have been intimidated before the spring of 1945, but why did he remain silent after Hitler’s defeat?” The “most incriminating insight” into the Vatican’s real attitudes is its effort to secure safe passage out of Europe for former SS officers being hunted by the Allies. “No less a figure than Franz Stangl,” former commandant at Treblinka, wanted for the murder of six hundred thousand people, was, Heschel points out, “spirited to South America by an underground railroad of Catholic priests, under the guidance of the Vatican’s own bishop, Alois Hudal.” The “intriguing question is what might have motivated the Vatican to assist those murderers….Could it be that the Vatican felt closer ties to the Nazis than the Jews? Which lives did the Church really want to save?” [50]

Other commentators deplored the document’s decision to point out that Nazi hostility was expressed toward Christianity as well as Judaism. Some saw it as a Catholic attempt to appropriate the Holocaust, a literary analogue to installing crosses outside of Auschwitz. Again, some perceived in this a subtle form of denial, for it cannot be forgotten that, if thousands of Catholics died in the Holocaust, the Shoah was overwhelmingly a Jewish, not a Christian, catastrophe.

Finally, virtually all Jewish commentators called on the Vatican to open its archives to historians. [51] Baer declared: “We therefore call again on the Vatican to tear down [its] archival wall and let the light of truth in for the world to see,” adding that while not presuming to suggest what the archives may disclose, “suspicions can only continue to grow about what they may contain.” “Only when the Vatican archives are opened to historians,” Heschel has said, “and the record set straight in all honesty, can a genuine Catholic reflection on the Shoah take place.” [52]

Defensive Jewish Reaction to Jewish Criticism

One of the most challenging reactions, both intellectually and morally, comes from the pen of the University of Toronto scholar David Novak. Delivered first as the Swig Judaica lecture at the University of San Francisco and then published in revised form in the periodical First Things, this essay is one of the longest and most complicated of all the responses to the Vatican document. [53] “My own view,” Novak says, “is that the Jewish response is largely mistaken, and that it reflects a misunderstanding not only of Catholic theology but Jewish theology as well. The Jewish leaders’ reactions were not just uncharitable, they were also unjust” (21).

The error of the Jewish response Novak assigns to an imperfect understanding of what the Vatican statement meant when it refused to apologize for the actions or passivity of “the Church as such.” When Catholics use the term “the church,” he argues, they mean one of two things: first, a human association, a collection of fallible human beings; second, her mogisterium, her teaching authority, the expression of God’s will (as Catholics see it) in scripture and in developing church doctrine. Putting aside the important question of whether Novak is historically or theologically correct in identifying the church as such with the magisterium, [54] understanding the term “church” at either of these levels allows one, he argues, to “see why an apology is inappropriate.”

If we understand church in the first sense, as a collection of fallible human beings, Novak remarks, we are still driven to ask: “Now just who would apologize to whom ?” (21) It is not clear. A Catholic who actually participated in Nazi atrocity could not apologize to someone capable of accepting his apology. Those who were murdered are obviously now in no position “to absolve anyone” (21). For their part, present-day Jews, who were only potential victims of Nazi atrocity, cannot exonerate a participant in atrocity for what he or she did to someone else. In addition, if an apology was made by people who did not commit any such crimes, and who do not even sympathize with the murderers, then what would they be apologizing for? “The Jewish tradition on this point is quite clear,” Novak says. “We do not believe in inherited guilt…. Each person is responsible only for his or her own sins.” Consequently, “an apology makes no sense.” It could, Novak says, only be “empty rhetoric” (21).

If we understand “the church” as more or less coterminous with its teaching authority or magisterium, then it becomes obvious why the church, according to Novak, “cannot possibly apologize based on her own theological assumptions” (22). For, Novak says, that would presuppose a criterion of truth and right “higher than the revelation upon which the Church bases its authority” (22). Just as a Jew committed to the Torah as the Word of God “cannot in good faith criticize anything taught within the Jewish tradition from a standpoint external to that tradition, so the Vatican could not have judged itself by “someone else’s standards” or “the way an uncommitted outsider might criticize her” (23). One can only look into the tradition itself for sources of a careful and responsible reappraisal and criticism of past teaching and past activity.

Once “one sees how moral logic within religious traditions like Judaism and Christianity operates, then it is possible to understand why it is not an apology that is called for” (23). What is called for, argues Novak, is an act of repentance, or teshuvah. To expect an apology rather than teshuvah is to “call for something quite cheap when there is the possibility of something much more precious. Only Jews who are theologically sensitive can appreciate what the Church is trying to do in this statement” (23–24).

This, Novak concludes, is a document which has resonance with Jewish theology and Law. Moreover, because it was a statement that recognized the chosenness and vocation of the Jewish people qiddush ha-shem, the sanctification of the Holy Name (24), Jews must see this document as making a positive contribution to the relationship between Jews and Christians. “Its integrity and wisdom should not be missed,” Novak concludes, “because of the moral and political antagonism stemming from those having less integrity and less wisdom” (25).


Despite the reaction of Novak, it remains true that the overwhelming majority of Jewish commentators expressed disappointment, ranging from mild to severe, with the document. Their disappointment had several sources. First, both the perceived excellence of John Paul II’s record on Jewish-Catholic relations and the candor and contrition expressed by the various national episcopal documents raised expectations that the Vatican would issue a document which fully came to terms with its conduct during the War. Few Jewish commentators thought it did. Many of them found themselves in agreement with Catholic journalist Peter Steinfels, who remarked that the document read as if crafted by a cadre of lawyers “whose job it was to protect Catholicism from the theological equivalent of civil suits.” [55] Indeed, it seems to many to be, in the most literal sense of the term, a jurisprudential document which constantly forced its genuine expressions of remorse to compete with its less honorable impulse to self-exoneration.

So far as the theological flaws of the document are concerned, many Jewish commentators found the main problem with We Remember to be its reiterated distinction between “the church as such” and its sinful members. Cardinal Cassidy, in a reflection given two months after the publication of the document, and addressed to the vigorous and voluminous criticism that had already been published, insisted that the church as such did not refer to the hierarchy, and that the sinful sons and daughters of the church could include popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, and laity. But it is understandable that almost all Jewish (and many Catholic) readers felt–not only because of the intrinsically hierarchical and filial character of the sons and daughter language used here, but also because the heroes celebrated by name in We Remember are, without exception, popes, bishops, and priests–that this theological distinction was an attempt to absolve the institutional church of blame, as was the distinction between historic, ec clesiastically sponsored anti-Judaism and modern, secular anti-Semitism.

Finally, the deepest frustrations of many Jewish commentators come on historical grounds. Of course, all recognized that We Remember is not a historical analysis of the Shoah. Nonetheless, it did make historical statements, many of them shockingly selective and partial. In their eyes, nothing so undermined the credibility of the document as the selectivity and gross crudity of many of those statements, especially those connected with the behavior of the German episcopate and, especially, of Pope Pius XII. The historical statements made should either have been accurate and nuanced, many felt, or not included at all. The statements made created the impression that the church was primarily interested less in a courageous confrontation with its past than in prudent self-protection. Even more seriously, they seemed to involve the church in a subtle, lower-order form of denial. Worst of all, many perceived in the diplomatic waffling of the document a parallel to papal attitudes toward the Jews and to Nazi policy i n the hour of extreme Jewish agony.

For these reasons, especially, I have to agree with most Jewish commentators that a precious opportunity has been missed. “After centuries of prejudice and hostility, culminating in the murder of European Jewry,” Robert Wistrich has observed, “the prospect has tantalizingly appeared of a day when anti-Semitism will no longer hold a place in Christian hearts.” But, he adds, “the arrival of that day depends not only on repentance and a generalized will to change but, ultimately, on an honest reckoning with the past.” [56] That honest reckoning will eventually come, I hope, not only because of widespread Jewish desire for it, and the influence of the radiant example of the French bishops, but also, one hopes, because of the eternal obligatory force of an ancient Jewish text binding on us Catholics too. I am thinking of Exodus 20:16: “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” To which I might add, in conclusion, nor partial witness either.

KEVIN MADIGAN is Visiting Associate Professor of the History of Christianity at Harvard Divinity School for the academic year 2000-2001, on leave from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, where he has the same position. His interests are Jewish-Christian interaction in the ancient and medieval period and, more recently, the Holocaust.


(1.) See Catholics Remember the HolocQust, ed. Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, National Conference of Catholic Bishops (Washington, D.C.: 1998), 47-55. Page numbers for quotations from this document will be cited in parentheses in the text. Except in references, I will abbreviate the document hereafter as WR.

(2.) For critical Catholic reaction, see John T. Pawlikawski, “The Vatican and the Holocaust: Putting We Remember in Context,” Dimensions 12, no. 2 (1998): 11-16; Garry Wills, “The Vatican’s Dismaying Statement,” Outrider, 25 March 1998; Michael Phayer, “Pope Pius XII, the Holocaust and the Cold War,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 12, no. 2 (Fall 1998): 223-56. Roughly one year before the publication of We Remember, James Carroll published a critical assessment of the pope’s wartime passivity. Entitled “The Silence,” it appeared in The New Yorker April 7, 1997. For a moderately critical reaction, see John F. Morley, “We Remember: Reaction and Analysis,” Dimensions 12, no. 2 (1998): 3-10. For defensive Catholic reaction to Catholic criticism, see Kenneth L. Woodward, “In Defense of Pius XII,” Newsweek, March 30, 1998; and Joseph Sobran, “The ‘Silence’ of Pius XII,” Conservative Current, March 19, 1998.

(3.) Though one of the most thorough, careful and scholarly responses was published shortly after the writing of this essay was completed. See Randolph L. Braham, “Remembering and Forgetting: The Vatican, the Cerman Catholic Hierarchy, and the Holocaust,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 13, no. 2 (Fall 1999): 222-51.

(4.) “Declaration of Repentance,” in Catholics Remember the Holocaust, 31-37. Page numbers for quotations from this document will be cited in parentheses in the text. Far the French original, see, “Les eveques de France et le statut des juifs sous le regime de Vichy,” La Documentation Catholique 2168 (October 19, 1997). Statements by the Hungarian, German, Polish, Dutch, Swiss and Italian bishops are also included in the volume Catholics Remember the Holocaust.

(5.) See Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton, Vichy France and the Jews (New York: Basic Books, 1981).

(6.) Papon was later elevated to Budget Minister under Valery Giscard d’Estaing. This, naturally, did much to embarrass the Republic’s pretenses to being a wholly distinct entity from Vichy, a distinction that had been exploited by both church and state to avoid an honest confrontation with the past. Papon also made international headlines on October 20, 1999 for having fled France rather than serve his ten-year prison sentence. He would soon be discovered hiding in Switzerland.

(7.) See “Declaration of Repentance,” passim.

(8.) R. Wistrich, “The Pope, the Church and the Jews,” Commentary 107, no. 4 (April 1999); R. Cohen, “French Catholic Church Apologizes for Silence on Holocaust,” New York Times, October 1, 1997.

(9.) “French Catholic Church Apologizes,” New York Times, October 1, 1997,

(10.) Ibid.

(11.) Marilyn August, “French Bishops Make Unprecedented Apology for World War II Silence,” Associated Press, October 1, 1997.

(12.) “French Catholic Church Apologizes,” New York Times, October 1, 1997.

(13.) Dated March 14, 1937. See Acta Apostolicae Sedis 29 (1937): 145-67.

(14.) Dated October 20, 1939. See Acta Apostolicae Sedis 31 (1939): 413-53.

(15.) The Vatican was also presumably relying on the testimony of the former Israeli consul Pinchas E. Lapide, who estimated that the Church under Pius was instrumental in saving the lives of 860,000 Jews, or at least in preserving that many from Nazi detainment in the camps. See Three Popes and the Jews (New York: Hawthorn Books), 214.

(16.) “The Pope, the Church and the Jews,” 24.

(17.) Thomas O’Dwyer, “Vatican’s Struggle to Save the Church’s Soul,” Jerusalem Post, March 23, 1998.

(18.) Ibid.

(19.) To give just one example: Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of the Department of Interfaith Affairs of the Anti-Defamation League, commented, “The document falls short of the mark; it’s taking a step backward.” BBC News, March 16, 1998.

(20.) “Vatican Apology to Jews ‘Rings Hollow,'” The Times, March 17, 1998.

(21.) “Leading Rabbi Defends Vatican on Holocaust,” The Irish Times, March 18, 1998.

(22.) “World Jewish Group Chastises Vatican’s Shoah Stance,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency September 4, 1998. This is a point Rudin made in an interview on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, April 8, 1998.

(23.) Richard Owen, “Vatican Apology to Jews ‘Rings Hollow,'” The Times, March 17, 1998.

(24.) BBC News, March 16, 1998.

(25.) “Leading Rabbi Defends Vatican on Holocaust,” The Irish Times, March 18, 1998.

(26.) W. Drozdiak, “Vatican Gives Formal Apology for Inaction during Holocaust,” Washington Post, March 17, 1998.

(27.) American Jewish Congress Press Release, March 16, 1998

(28.) Anton La Guardia, “Jews Cool on Apology,” The Age, March 18, 1998.

(29.) “An Equivocal Apology Hurts More than It Heals,” Los Angeles Times, March 20, 1998.

(30.) “Vatican’s Struggle,” Jerusalem Post, March 23, 1998

(31.) Diego Ribadeneira, “Vatican Falls Short of Jewish Hopes,” Boston Globe, March 17, 1998.

(32.) BBC News, March 16, 1998. This was a point made from the Catholic point of view by Notre Dame theologian Richard McBrien in an interview on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, April 8, 1998: “the bar has been raised in recent years…. This document does not” acknowledge “the guilt of the Church as such.”

(33.) “Vatican Falls Short,” Boston Globe, March 17, 1998.

(34.) “Vatican’s Struggle,” Jerusalem Post, March 23, 1998.

(35.) Ibid.

(36.) “The Pope, the Church and the Jews,” 24.

(37.) “The Pope, the Church and the Jews,” 25. Wistrich observes that Cardinal Bertram of Breslau, ranking prelate in German Catholicism throughout the period of the Third Reich, condemned Nazism in print in 1931, but after Hitler rose to power his objections became “increasingly timid and inaudible.” Never did Cardinal Bertram speak out (as Lichtenberg had) from the pulpit, and he celebrated a solemn requiem mass for Hitler shortly after his suicide.

(38.) Ibid.

(39.) The supply of genealogical records was crucial to the Nazi genocide and continued through the war years, a fact that has led some historians to place certain ecclesiastical officials in the category of “perpetrator.”

(40.) “Vatican Gives Formal Apology,” Washington Post, March 17, 1998.

(41.) “Vatican’s Struggle,” Jerusalem Post, March 23, 1998

(42.) Rabbi Marvin Hier, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, also remarked: “To take 10 years to study the critical question of the Vatican’s role in the Holocaust and not to criticize Pius XII is in my view incredible.” See “Vatican Apology ‘Too Little, Too Late,’ Jews Say,” in The Salt Lake Tribune, March 17, 1998.

(43.) “Vatican Falls Short,” Boston Globe, March 17, 1998.

(44.) See, e.g., Rudin, “Reflections,” 521.

(45.) “The Pope, the Church and the Jews,” 26.

(46.) Ibid., 27.

(47.) Ibid.

(48.) Still, the process of beatification, the penultimate step to sanctification or canonization, has been going on for several years, under the leadership of the Vatican’s Father Gumpel. A recent report, however, suggested that the Church had decided to slow down the process toward sainthood. See “Vatican Slows Beatification for Pius XII — Group,” Reuters, October 27, 1999. The timing of this decision coincided with widespread publicity given to the British journalist John Cornwell’s controversial new book, Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII (New York: Viking, 1999).

(49.) See Heschel, “The Vatican and the Holocaust,” Dissent (Summer, 1998): 13- 14.

(50.) On this story, see Gitta Sereny: Into that Darkness (New York: Vintage, 1983); Phayer, “Pope Pius XII,” 233-56; and Mark Aarons and John Loftus, Unholy Trinity (New York: St. Martin’s 1991). In the November 15, 1999, issue of U.S. News & World Report, an article was published that suggests a soon-to-be-released Argentine government report has confirmed the involvement of the Vatican in seeking Latin American visas for fleeing Nazis, many made by the Vatican Secretariat of State. Some were also made for Vichy collaborators, and much intercession occurred on behalf of the Ustasha criminals. The Argentine report has not, however, yet been published.

(51.) As did some prominent Catholics, including John Cardinal O’Connor, Archbishop of New York. See The Jewish Week, October 9, 1998. The Vatican responded by declaring itself the judge of the timing and scope of archive accessibility. See Eric J. Greenberg, “Vatican to U.S.: No Archives,” in The Jewish Week, December 11, 1998. Morley, who has worked with the eleven volumes of diplomatic documents related to the War published by the Vatican between 1965 and 1981 [Actes et Documentes du Saint-Siege relatifs a la Second Guerre mondiale, ed. Pierre Blet (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1965-1981)] has observed: “I fear sometimes that this contribution of the Vatican to historical research has not been clearly appreciated. Moreover, I suspect that the very existence of these primary sources is not as well known as it should be.” See Morley, “We Remember,” 6. At the time of the writing of this essay, the Vatican had appointed a team of three Catholic scholars, which included Morley, and three Jewish sch olars, which included Michael Marrus, to discuss the issue of full access to Vatican archives relating to the War and the Holocaust.

(52.) “The Vatican and the Holocaust,” 14.

(53.) “Jews and Catholics: Beyond Apologies,” First Things 89 (January 1999): 20-25. Page numbers for quotations from this article will be cited in the text.

(54.) Novak’s understanding of magisterium could be critiqued on at least two points. First, the church is not a magisterium; it has a magisterium. Secondly, the question of just which part of the magisterium, if any, is considered to be infallible will be answered differently depending on which Catholic happens to be responding. It needs to be observed, too, that the term infallible itself has a complicated history (on which, see Brian Tierney, The Origins of Papal Infallibility [Leiden: Brill, 1972]). The pope was declared to be infallible only at the very late date of 1870, at the First Vatican Council, and Catholics have differed in bona fide about what part of papal teaching, if any, should be considered infallible. See Hans Kung, Unfehalbar? Eine Anfrage. English Title: Infallible? An Inquiry, trans. Edward Quinn. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971).

(55.) “Beliefs,” New York Times, April 3, 1999.

(56.) “The Pope, the Church, and the Jews,” 28.

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