The 16th March 2008 marks the tenth anniversary of a remarkable document, We Remember, A Reflection on the Shoah, issued under the auspices of John Paul II. (Shoah is the Hebrew name for the Jewish Holocaust.)
Apologies for the past are somewhat unusual in official Catholic circles, and this was undoubtedly an apology. In referring to those Catholics in Germany and the occupied territories who failed to protest and protect, it said: “We deeply regret the errors and failures of those sons and daughters of the Church.” The message is that we must remember, then we must repent. And we must ask ourselves whether, and to what extent, anti-Jewish prejudice has contributed to this calamity. Pope John Paul, in his introduction, says “May it enable memory to play its necessary part in the process of shaping a future in which the unspeakable iniquity of the Shoah will never again be possible.”
So, in the spirit of Pope John Paul, I want to dig a little deeper into memory, and reflect on the Reflection. But I have an initial difficulty to unravel: it is not always clear in the document what meaning is given to the entity of the Church. There is an unspoken distinction between the Church as a formal institution of teaching and authority – in effect what nowadays we call the magisterium – and the unfaithfulness of many members of the body of the Church. But history suggests that the Church, taken as a total community, has been riddled with anti-Judaism from the beginning. If blame is to be apportioned, it lies most heavily with its leadership – which by no means excuses those of the rank and file who followed that lead. And, although there is more than a technical difference between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, all too often the two streams flow in the same channel. You will have to test the soundness of my judgment from the sad summary which follows.
We may not easily blame St Paul for referring to the Jews as the killers of Christ who will reap their reward, nor his epithet of “dogs”. He was writing in the middle of the first century when the incidents were almost contemporary, and he had been much troubled by their opposition to his apostolate. He could scarcely have guessed that accusations of deicide would quote his authority throughout two millennia.
The Early Church Fathers, who are frequently quoted as high authorities in Vatican teaching, had no such excuse 400 years later. Tertullian, Origen, and Ambrose make a representative list. But they all fall way behind John Chrysostom (“golden-mouth”) whose public abuse of the Jews was used by the Nazis in defence of their activities.
St Augustine is, by comparison, almost liberal – teaching that since their offence brought about salvation, they were not to be destroyed but only to be dispersed so that their fate would be obvious to everyone. But this was a two-edged sword stretching into the future: one edge forbade violent persecution, the other promoted marginalisation. The two edges were eventually to come to a point.
In 306, the Council of Elvira was to rule “If any cleric or layperson eats with Jews, he or she shall be kept from communion as a way of correction.” Over the next three centuries at least eight synods restricting Jews in various ways took place. The Third Lateran Council (1179) ruled that no Christian ought to be servant to a Jew, and that Christian evidence should always overrule Jewish evidence. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) ruled that Jews should be distinguished by their clothing, forbade them from appearing in public at Eastertide and – confirming the Synod of Toledo (589) refused them preference in public office. It would never be proper for a Christian to be ruled by a Jew.
Over the following 500 years there were more than 20 Papal Bulls unfavourable to Jews. They cover such matters as the obligation to live in ghettoes, restriction of the trades they could adopt, including the practice of medicine, and refining the regulations on dress. Jews were at one time required to wear distinctive yellow items – which should cause a shiver of memory. The Talmud was to be destroyed. Pontifical documents often described the Jews as impious and perfidious; and it was not until the insistence of Pope John XXIII that such epithets were removed from the official liturgy. The severity of these rulings applied variously in times and places, but they were not abrogated before the mid 19th century, although semi-official anti-Semitic propaganda was to continue.
Forced conversions were forbidden, although they took place. This was flagrant under the Spanish Inquisition, which was then to put major focus on such converted Jews, and their descendants, to root out and punish any continuation of Jewish practice.
Of course the general Catholic population followed the official line with all the enthusiasm of a mob given licence to behave cruelly while feeling virtuous about it. There were outbreaks of violence, pogroms, expulsions and general abhorrence of anything Jewish. And these continued throughout history. The grotesque Dreyfus affair (1894 to 1906), in which a Jewish officer was unjustly imprisoned, was sustained by widespread anti-Semitism in France. Civiltá Cattolica, a Jesuit journal, which worked in close collaboration with the Vatican, was publishing anti-Semitic articles right up to 1938.
A recurrent theme has been the allegation of deicide. I am glad to see that it is now accepted that St Matthew may have exaggerated, for polemical purposes, the part which the Jewish mob played in the crucifixion but, even without this, it is obvious that a local crowd of Jews without the slightest belief that Christ was God, whipped into frenzy some 2000 years ago, could not damn their entire race into the future. Or if it could, what burden do we bear for our prolonged and much more recent sins against the Jews? One bright star shines from the Catechism of the Council of Trent, which declared that the guilt for the crucifixion lies more heavily on us since, when we are unfaithful to Christ we know, unlike the Jews, what we are doing. I am not going to give the “blood libel” (the sacrifice of Christian children for Jewish ritual) even the credence of refutation.
I do not consider here questions such as the behaviour of the German bishops over the period of Nazism, nor the steps taken, or not taken, by Pius XII, for my purpose has been to review in what ways we (and here I speak of the whole body of the Church) may, historically, have prepared the ground for the Shoah. Should we have been surprised that the German people, and those in several occupied countries, took so meekly, and sometimes so readily, to the persecution of the Jews? The soil of Europe had been composted with anti-Judaism for hundreds of years, when it received the Nazi’s poisoned seed.
It is clear of course that the Shoah was the direct responsibility of the Nazis and their wicked collaborators. But is also true that it occurred against a background of Christian European culture, of which we are so proud. The Reflection ends with the words “To remember this terrible experience is to become fully conscious of the salutary warning it entails: the spoiled seeds of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism must never again be allowed to take root in any human heart.”
The Council document, Nostra Aetate, firmly proclaimed our debt to Judaism and repudiated any form of anti-Semitism. But the human heart is another matter. Anti-Semitism can take many forms from the simple stereotyping of Jews to confusing it with legitimate criticism of the State of Israel as a political entity. It can even take the form of envy, for Jews have been remarkably successful, for instance in financial and artistic fields. Was the shock of the Shoah sufficient to eradicate it, or will it like bindweed only have been cut back to reappear in another year? Pope John Paul called for metanoia – a deep change of direction through repentance. Has the Church, at all levels made that deep change? If you have found this article as uncomfortable to read as I have found it to write, it may help us to remember his words: “Guilt must always be the point of departure for conversion.”
From The Catholic Herald, 25 Jan 2008
What do we find acceptable within the Church today, of which we shall be ashamed tomorrow?