As could have been anticipated, the Declaration of Repentance issued by French bishops last fall concerning the silence and passivity of the Church in the face of the Holocaust evoked strong reactions. It is unfortunate that the document that triggered the commotion does not seem to have been carefully read and studied.

The press did not help matters. Le Monde , which is the Parisian counterpart of the New York Times , published ahead of time what was claimed to be the full text. But that was a pirated incomplete working draft, from which the final version differed seriously on several key points. In general, the headlines on the story contended that the French Church had apologized to Jews. That is an inaccurate summary.

In the first place, the Declaration was not an official document of the French Bishops’ Conference. It was signed by the bishops of the dioceses where detention and transit camps were located underGerman occupation and the Vichy regime during World War II. Those dioceses represent between a quarter and a third of the French Church. This means that the national Church”which at the time, in any case, had no canonical or theological identity and existed only in the minds of a few academics and (mostly anticlerical) politicians”was not explicitly involved.

The signatories were selected, therefore, not on their personal feelings about this sensitive issue, but on a strictly historical and geographical criterion. None of them indicated any objection or reservation about the statement. No bishop who was not involved has said he wished he could have been associated or that he would have declined. The Bishop of Strasbourg, who had not cosigned the document although his diocese was concerned, has since explained that he stood by his brothers, but that the case of his diocese, which was then annexed to the Third Reich, was associated with the Church in Germany (where another statement of contrition has already been published). The episcopal communion in France thus remained united on the issue”despite reports to the contrary”even though not all bishops were involved and the national ecclesiastical structure played no role.

One further point of detail. The text of the Declaration”which was issued at Drancy, site of the notorious camp from which the greatest number of French Jews (including Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger’s mother) were sent to their deaths”was read not by an archbishop, as was widely reported, but by the local ordinary, Bishop Olivier de Berranger of St. Denis. The journalists who rushed to kick this youngish prelate upstairs, perhaps on the assumption that being in the limelight is tantamount to a promotion, failed to notice that he is a Jesuit.

More substantively, Bishop de Berranger did not actually apologize to Jews for Christian passivity during the Shoah. What he said, in the name of all the bishops concerned, was: “We beg for the pardon of God , and we ask the Jewish people to hear this word of repentance” (emphasis added). Only God can forgive and grant humans the strength to do the same. Any believer knows this, but it seems that few of the professional commentators do. The consequence is that the Declaration has generally been interpreted as purely human business, where God virtually need not have been mentioned, and that the fundamentally religious and spiritual substance has too often been overlooked.

Most Jewish leaders, however, did “hear this word of repentance,” and responded in thoughtful tones. Several other organizations (including the national police union and the Order of Doctors created by Vichy) issued their own confessions of moral failure during the war. There were a few radical rabbis (and a handful of staunch leftist secularists) who said the Declaration was too late and could not make any difference anyway. But most of the angry reactions came from people who argued that Christians had nothing to be sorry for.

Some nationalist politicians, for example, clung to de Gaulle’s theory (which François Mitterand seconded) that, since the Vichy regime was illegal and did not represent France, and since, further, all those who had freely collaborated with Nazi Germany were duly punished after the war, no citizen should feel ashamed of what he might have been forced to do (or not do) during that unfortunate parenthesis in the country’s history. President Chirac had already eroded this convenient notion a few months earlier by admitting publicly that State authorities from top to bottom had sometimes gone further than they were obliged to by the circumstances.

Everything was complicated by the upcoming trial of Maurice Papon, the eighty-seven-year-old former Vichy official and later top-ranking civil servant and Cabinet minister accused of active involvement in the deportation of Jews. The problem in Papon’s case and others is how to draw the line between willful and passive participation. The Drancy Declaration was seen by Mr. Papon’s supporters as an untimely interference, unduly suggesting just as the trial was about to begin that in his position under Vichy he was no less guilty than the Church.

But again, this is to reduce the whole affair to a merely human and political wound that the national conscience remains reluctant to face. It denies the spiritual dimension of the problem. Healing should not be confused with oblivion, the Declaration firmly suggests, and it involves the law and justice of God, who alone makes forgiveness and reconciliation possible.

Another objection to the Declaration was that the Church in fact did do its duty during World War II. The idea is that, just as the martyrs purified the Church during early persecutions, a few heroes”both clergy and lay people, ranging from committed members of resistance movements to ordinary citizens who found the strength to show more or less efficient compassion”revitalized the whole body and prevented its spiritual decay and death. After the statement was released, there were protests noting that five hundred French priests had been deported by the Nazis for helping Jews, and that Jewish groups had warmly and repeatedly thanked the Church, from the Pope on down, for its activities on their behalf across Europe during the war.

The Drancy Declaration does not ignore the courage of many Christians in German-occupied France. The questions it raises is whether this virtuous minority should now be considered as sufficiently representative of what the Church should stand for but will always (as a human society) prove unable fully to do. Divine love is interpersonal in its essence. Righteousness does not fundamentally depend on belonging to the right community (although this may certainly help). God does not weigh the merits and shortcomings of a national (or local) Church to find out whether its individual members deserve to be justified. In short, people have souls; communities don’t. Yet the latter do play a key role, be it merely instrumental or anticipative, in individual moral choices, inasmuch as people need to be taught about God’s law of love and its implications in particular circumstances.

In this respect, the question is whether the bishops who were pastorally responsible for the local churches on whose territory the Nazi persecution of Jews occurred carried out their ecclesial duty by warning their flock (and all others who were willing to hear) of the moral and spiritual stakes. The answer given in the Declaration on the basis of historical studies is that, although a few bishops did expose the mass arrests of Jews as both un-Christian and inhuman, most church leaders thought they had other, more important priorities. They avoided confronting the occupiers so as to remain able to keep on performing their immediate ministerial tasks and implementing their pastoral policies of evangelization.

What was so sinful? many asked when they heard the successors of these bishops contend that this was a serious failure. After all, most French people did much the same: they did not support the Nazis, but simply struggled to survive and do what little they could when doing more was almost unthinkable.

In response, today’s prelates assert, first, that as the successors of Christ’s apostles bishops have special responsibilities. Pastoral routines, however generous or thoughtful, may lead to short-sightedness, a fatal spiritual weakness. The Church leaders’ duty is not simply to make sure that the ecclesial institutions keep purring along. It also includes moral discernment, which means enlightening human conscience and calling evil by its name when people wonder whether or not to resist it. At this level, the Declaration should be understood not as an exercise in self-humiliation but as a claim of the Church to the right and duty to exert a permanent moral magisterium.

The second and perhaps more troublesome reason why today’s French bishops decided to deplore their predecessors’ passivity is that there seem to have been among those predecessors disturbing doubts about the reality of the evil they should have denounced. In other words, the mostly tacit anti-Semitism deeply rooted in French Catholicism is very likely to have contributed to the Church’s relative inactivity. Prior to the Second Vatican Council many among the faithful believed that Jews had knowingly rejected the Messiah they had been waiting for and were culpable for Christ’s execution. Even if they were not actively to be persecuted, it was thought only fair that they should somehow be made to pay”even to the end of time”for this dreadful collective sin. The Nazi extermination plan could thus confusedly appear as simply one more materialization of this supposedly indelible curse.

The Declaration did not mention that the Vichy regime was, to a certain extent, a revenge of the anti-Dreyfusards on the pro-Dreyfusards. At the turn of the century, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army captain, had been unjustly accused of espionage for Germany, and his successive trials had triggered heated controversies. Most Catholics had instinctively considered Dreyfus as guilty: the patriotic and devout top brass who prosecuted him could not be wrong on so grave a matter, and a Jew, who could not be genuinely French in any case, could easily be a traitor. But Dreyfus was innocent, and when this was proved the humiliation of those who had blindly condemned him was inestimable. Many supporters of the Vichy regime that took over in 1940 were the sons or heirs of anti-Dreyfusards. This explains why so many Catholics failed to react or to see any special evil when the occupying Germans demanded the new government’s participation in their anti-Jewish policies.

Since Vatican II, mainstream Catholics in France have striven to “open up to modernity” and to forget that their grandfathers were anti-Semitic nationalists and that their fathers failed to detect what was wrong with Vichy. The Drancy Declaration has made almost everyone uneasy, because it recalls uncomfortable truths and asserts that only an uncompromising memory of the past will make reconciliation possible.

But the Declaration does not aim merely at settling old accounts among the French. Its relevance reaches far beyond the regional borders and the context of the end of a painful century. It is first a turning point in Christian-Jewish relationships: now that mutual misunderstandings have been overcome thanks to the confession of past sins, the arduous task of reciprocal comprehension may proceed. No little is at stake, since Christianity can hardly envision itself without assimilating its Jewish origins and confronting the continued existence and vitality of Judaism.

The Declaration also follows the recognition by the Vatican of the scientific contributions of Galileo and Darwin, and more generally accompanies the great movement of assessment and conversion initiated by Pope John Paul II as the 2000 Jubilee nears. That event, after all, will be essentially Christian”the beginning of the third millennium of the Christian era. The French bishops’ initiative can be read as one sign among many that the Church will not give up its responsibility to demonstrate that religious faith is at the very heart of human life and history.

Jean Duchesne is Professor of English Literature and Civilization at Condorcet College in Paris, and cofounder of the French edition of Communio .