For decades controversy has raged over the absence of any specific reference to Jews, or to their persecution by the Nazis, in Catholic Church statements between 1933 and 1945. In addition to historically justified questions, we have seen endlessly repeated charges against the Church and Pope Pius XII, some of them merely exaggerated, others (especially in books by John Cornwell and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen) so devoid of historical foundation that they range from the absurd to the outrageous.
A number of popular Catholic apologists, most of them non-historians, have answered these attacks in a similarly one-sided manner, by trying to demonstrate that the Church’s record during these years is beyond reproach. Their central focus is the undoubted enmity between National Socialism and the Catholic Church. They point to the Church’s uncompromising condemnation of Nazi racial doctrine, most specifically in the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (1937), and to the Nazis’ increasing hatred of the Catholic Church, viewed by them as the heir of Judaism because of its roots in the Jewish Old Testament. But this apologetic somehow misses the point. The Church was indeed a powerful bulwark against National Socialism and its insidious racial theories. Was the Church, however, also a bulwark against anti-Semitism?
In addressing this question, I am conscious of a double loyalty. I am a Catholic priest—but I come from a family that is three-quarters Jewish. I love my Church. I believe in the truth that the Church proclaims. I proclaim that truth myself. Yet I also have an emotional bond to Judaism, and to my Jewish relatives. I am pained by unfair Jewish attacks on the Catholic Church. But I am also pained by a one-sided Catholic apologetic that minimizes the injustice done by Christians to Jews in history, or seeks to relegate it to oblivion. I am especially aware of the Jewish sensitivity to topics that Catholics often pass over either too quickly or in silence. Even if some of the Church’s present-day critics are clearly more interested in promoting their own careers or ideological agendas than in seeking the truth, some of the blame for their “success” clearly rests on Catholic shoulders.
Even when we have taken full account of the enmity between the Catholic Church and National Socialism, the Church’s “silence”—the astonishing fact that no Church statement about Nazism ever mentioned Jews explicitly or defended them—cries out for explanation. Also in need of explanation is the lack of any fundamental Church protest against the Nuremberg and Italian racial laws. Even after the November 1938 pogrom against the Jews, the only person to speak out was the Berlin cathedral provost Bernard Lichtenberg (since canonized), whose protest ultimately cost him his life. A Catholic apologetic that seeks to cover over this record by constant repetition of other facts, however undeniable they may be, plays into the hands of those who unfairly criticize the Church.
Prominent Catholic historians mostly offer a different apologetic. Before and even after 1937, they argue, there was no need for Church statements to mention Jews specifically, to defend them, or to issue an explicit condemnation of anti-Semitism: the Roman Holy Office had already condemned anti-Semitism on March 25, 1928. Thereafter (the argument goes) anti-Semitism, defined in the 1928 decree as “hatred of the people once called by God,” was inadmissible for Catholics. Some historians also cite an alleged “condemnation of anti-Semitism” from 1916.
We are told that the Church’s condemnation of racism and the Nazi ideology of the state, expressed most clearly in Mit brennender Sorge, and in the “Syllabus against Racism” of 1938 (a Vatican decree directing Catholic universities throughout the world to counter racist theories), was clear to everyone. Equally clear, according to this argument, was the Church’s defense of the Jews and its condemnation of their persecutors. The same is sometimes claimed also for Pius XII’s first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus, issued in October 1939.
This defense of the Church, however, fails to account for a number of important facts. It ignores the existence of a specifically modern anti-Semitism, shared in varying degrees by Catholics. Nourished by traditional Christian anti-Judaism, it had social, political, and economic aspects as well. In its Catholic form it was rooted in the Church’s political and social antimodernism, especially its opposition to liberalism and all its works. For German Catholics this resulted in openness to volkisch and racist ideas that blurred the boundaries with Nazi ideology. Finally, there was the Catholic openness to an authoritarian state, which allowed people to think, at the start of Hitler’s rule, that the Nazi state might be an acceptable alternative to liberal democracy and a bulwark against the looming threat of Bolshevism.
It was thus possible in 1933, and even as late as 1937, for a Catholic to reject Nazi racial doctrine yet remain an anti-Semite and a supporter of the Nazi regime. Indeed, historical research has shown that after 1933 parts of the Catholic press in Germany, and even more so in Austria, were increasingly hostile to Jews—and this despite their consistent rejection of Nazi racial doctrine. As a “Christian anti-Semite” and patriotic German, a Catholic could approve of the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews, or at least show understanding for it.
Take, for example, an article on “The Jewish Question,” published in the Catholic Augsburger Postzeitung on March 31, 1933, which incorporated a statement of the (Catholic) Bavarian People’s Party. Deploring “the increasing ‘judaizing’ (Verjudung) of our intellectual, cultural, and scholarly life in Germany,” the article asserted that “there is a certain kind of Jewish intellectualism which, despite its high intelligence, mixes with the German element in a destructive and baneful way. A people striving for national and intellectual renewal is reacting in a healthy manner when it opposes this admixture and demands that the German mind be thoroughly cleansed of Jewish influences.”
Such statements require us to reconsider the Church’s public declarations about the Nazi concept of the state and racism in the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge. Not only were Church declarations belated. They were also inadequate to counter the passivity and widespread indifference to the fate of Jews caused by this kind of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, especially when it was combined with newly awakened national pride. The encyclical, then, came far too late to be of any help to Jews.
In reality, however, the Church’s statements were never really designed to help the Jews. The “Catholic apologetic” described above is something developed after the fact and has no roots in the historical record. Indeed, given the dominant view of the Jews in the Nazi period, it would have been astonishing if the Church had mounted the barricades in their defense. As we shall see, the failure of Church statements about Nazism and racism ever to mention the Jews specifically (save in negative ways) corresponds to an inner logic that is historically understandable—but no less disturbing to us today.
By the beginning of the twentieth century Christian anti-Judaism, traditional for centuries, had attained virtual canonical status. In association with modern racial doctrines, and influenced by political and economic considerations, it had developed in many instances into a Church-promoted anti-Semitism, which in the years following the First World War grew in scope and intensity. An example that can stand for many others is the article on “Jews” in the Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, published in 1933 under the editorship of Bishop Michael Buchberger of Regensburg. There we read: “Since their emancipation the Jews have achieved political and social power. They soon attained leading positions in the capitalist system and exploited their power in ways which were often ruthless. In addition there is the bad influence of many Jewish writers who do not respect the Christian religion. Especially important is the dominance of Jews in business, in the press, often in politics. Moreover, their great influence in the theater permits Jews with revolutionary and libertine ideas to undermine religious sentiment and the national character. Combined with the concept of race, this has produced in recent years a reaction in the form of increased anti-Semitism. The accession to power of the National Socialists has brought about a widespread exclusion of Jews from public and cultural life.” (Without further discussion of this exclusion, the article concludes by mentioning the prohibition of kosher butchers!)
In the first volume of the same lexicon, published in 1930, the well-known article on “Anti-Semitism” by the German Jesuit Gustav Gundlach had drawn a distinction between a volkisch anti-Semitism promoted for strictly racist motives (which was to be rejected), and an anti-Semitism promoted for general political, economic, and cultural reasons that Christians might accept. As examples of the latter Gundlach cited two Austrian politicians, Karl Lueger and Georg von Schoenerer, prominent and outspoken anti-Semites who had strongly influenced Hitler during his years in Vienna. It is noteworthy that in the same article Gundlach rejected as unjust “laws which single out Jews simply because they are Jews,” while not hesitating to call “global plutocracy and Bolshevism” forces that manifest “dark aspects of the Jewish soul expelled from its homeland” and which are “destructive of human society.”
But what about the supposed “condemnation of anti-Semitism” by the Vatican in 1916? The facts are these. On February 9, 1916, Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Gasparri, acting at the behest of Pope Benedict XV, wrote a letter to the American Jewish Committee in New York, responding to a letter from the Committee to the Pope on December 30, 1915. The latter asked the Pope to exert his supreme moral authority to halt mistreatment of Jews throughout the world—in particular the pogroms then raging on the Russian front (in Polish Galicia). The letter from New York was accompanied by a lengthy memorandum. The papal response was a courteous rejection of the request, on the grounds that the Pope had no way of verifying the facts alleged in the memorandum. The papal letter assured his Jewish correspondents, however, that according to Christian principles Jews were included in the universal law of love according to which all men are brothers. The Pope wrote also that he never ceased “to inculcate among individuals, as well as among peoples, the observance of the principles of the natural law . . . . This law must be observed and respected in the case of the children of Israel, as well as of all others, because it would not be conformable to justice or to religion itself to derogate from it solely on account of divergence of religious confessions.” This was merely a restatement of the Church’s traditional position.
The letter was immediately published in La Civilt Cattolica and in the London Tablet. The New York Times reported it under the headline: “Papal Bull Urges Equality for Jews.” That was an exaggeration. The document was a private letter, not a papal bull. And it said nothing about equality in civil rights. Nor did the letter contain any rejection of social, political, or legal restrictions on Jews (as long as such restrictions did not violate natural law and the law of love) aimed at limiting “harmful” Jewish influences on society. It is reasonable to assume that those who were responsible for the pogroms which the American Jewish Committee had asked the Pope to halt never learned of the papal letter. We must remember: Europe was at war. The Holy See was determined to have a voice in future peace negotiations and hence wanted to preserve strict neutrality. The situation had certain analogies to later events, especially when we recall that it was precisely at this time that Eugenio Pacelli—later Pope Pius XII—was learning the craft of papal diplomacy.
There are similar problems with the 1928 condemnation of anti-Semitism—this one public and official—that is frequently cited in Catholic apologetics. It came in a decree of the Holy Office suppressing “The Friends of Israel,” an organization that sought to overcome traditional Christian anti-Judaism in theology and liturgy, and that included a number of priests, bishops, and cardinals among its members. The 1928 decree stated that the organization’s goal could not be reconciled with the Church’s traditional faith. The condemnation of anti-Semitism was incidental, and it was defined very narrowly: as “hatred” (and only that) against “the people once called by God.” That we read this statement today, like that of 1916—as well as others discussed below—as condemnations of anti-Semitism in any form is an indication of the distance we have traveled since the Second Vatican Council, and especially during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. In a day when the Catholic Church not only tolerated but actively promoted the view that Jews were a harmful influence on society, such statements had a very different—much more limited—significance from what we assume today. They were simply injunctions not to hate, persecute, kill, or unjustly expropriate Jews.
This is evident in the fact that the 1928 decree left the Church’s traditional anti-Judaism untouched; indeed, the same document explicitly confirmed it. This tradition, based on patristic biblical exegesis, declared that the Jews were the people “once called by God,” but now cursed and guilty of Christ’s death; condemned, moreover, to wander the earth without a homeland; and as such witnesses to the truth of Christianity. To be sure, Jews must not be persecuted. But society, and Christians especially, must also be protected from the Jews’ harmful influence in culture and education.
The Christian view at that time was that the only solution to the “Jewish question” was conversion to Christianity. Hence racial anti-Semitism was unacceptable for Catholics: a baptized Jew ceased to be a Jew. Racism was an attack on the essence of Christianity, which had its roots in the Old Testament, and which embraced all people in the world. Opposition to racial anti-Semitism was thus a defense of Christians’ self-understanding and a challenge to faithfulness. Precisely for these reasons it was a necessary part of the Church’s strategy for survival in the face of the ideological pressures exerted by a totalitarian dictatorship. As such it was a clear rejection of the Nazis’ doctrine of a master race, which would end by bringing death to “non-Aryans.” In no way, however, did this imply rejection of “moderate” anti-Semitism, which included a certain understanding for volkisch policies and corresponding limits on the “judaizing” of society.
This comes out clearly in the semi-official commentary on the 1928 decree of the Holy Office in the very influential Jesuit journal La Civilt Cattolica. Entitled “The Jewish Danger and the ‘Friends of Israel,’” it was approved (like all the articles in that journal) by the Vatican Secretariat of State. Moreover, it was in full accord, as we now know, with the view of the Jews formed by Monsignor Achille Ratti—reigning in 1928 as Pope Pius XI—during his years as papal emissary and Nuncio in Poland (1918-1921). According to the author (the editor, Father Enrico Rosa, S.J.), the decree condemned anti-Semitism “only in its anti-Christian form and mentality,” which was “morally and religiously unjust.” The Holy Office rejected “excessive” and “extreme” anti-Semitism, the article said, but not anti-Semitism based on a clear recognition of the danger posed to society by Jews, as a consequence of their emancipation and of their connection with liberalism, socialism, and Bolshevism. “Jews are a danger to the whole world because of their pernicious infiltration, their hidden influence, and their resulting disproportionate power which violates both reason and the common good.” This danger, the article said, was especially acute for people in Christian countries.
As late as 1936 the same journal wrote about the need to render the Jews “incapable of inflicting harm,” always with the proviso that this must “of course be done without any persecution.” The ideal remained the historic ghetto. Only in 1938 did La Civilt Cattolica moderate its tone. By that time, however, the boundary between persecution, discrimination, and “other measures” against the “judaizing” of society had been blurred.
As the Nazi regime’s campaign against the Church intensified, it became increasingly clear that Catholic opposition to racism had more to do with defending the Church than with any fundamental rejection of anti-Semitism or of hostility to Jews. True, the Church was always nonconformist because of its opposition to totalitarianism. But because the Nazis viewed Christianity as the heir of Judaism, the Church, especially in Germany, had to defend itself against the combination of hatred for Jews and Christians alike. The more the Church devoted itself to this task, the more it was forced to distinguish between Old Testament and post-Christian Jewry, with the inevitable result that contemporary Jews were left to look after themselves.
This was already clear in Michael Cardinal von Faulhaber’s 1933 Advent sermons, in which he defended the Old Testament as the foundation of Christianity. The Munich archbishop had long been known as a friend of the Jews. In order to prevent his sermons from being exploited for political purposes, however, he had his secretary write to the Jewish World Congress to say that they did not deal with the present-day Jewish question; the sermons were only a defense of the Old Testament and of the “children of Israel” in Old Testament times. It is clear that Faulhaber’s steadfast opposition to Nazi racial theories was never intended as a defense of post-Christian Jewry or of his Jewish fellow citizens against their persecutors.
The clearest example of this attitude was the pastoral letter of the Austrian Bishop Johannes Gföllner of Linz, issued on January 21, 1933, which branded as “radically un-Christian” all “contempt, hatred, and persecution of the Jewish people.” No less irreconcilable with “the position of the Church” was “the rejection of the Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament on racial grounds.” “Nazi racial views,” Gföllner explained, were “regression into the worst kind of paganism . . . completely irreconcilable with Christianity, and must therefore be totally rejected.” At the same time, however, he didn’t hesitate to claim that many “irreligious Jews had a very damaging influence in almost all areas of contemporary cultural life.” This influence was also visible in business and trade, in the law, and in medicine. Indeed, “many of our social and political upheavals are permeated by materialistic and liberal principles stemming primarily from Jews. Every committed Christian has not only the right but the conscientious duty to fight and overcome the pernicious influence of such decadent Judaism.”
Bishop Gföllner, who was one of the sharpest opponents of National Socialism in the Austrian episcopate, was speaking in the tradition of Christian Socialism represented by Karl Lueger (mentioned above). Gföllner’s words are a clear example of the tranquil coexistence of Catholic anti-racism in the service of the Church and a Christian anti-Semitism nourished by traditional anti-Judaism that made Jews the scapegoats for modern trends that opposed the Church. In this view, the Jews were held responsible for everything opposed to Christianity in politics and society—and Christians had a duty to distinguish between “good” and “bad” Jews, the latter being identified as irreligious and fully assimilated Jews.
Such an outlook made it difficult for Catholics to develop any clear and fundamental opposition to the Nazis’ Jewish policy. The constantly repeated rejection of “hatred” and “persecution” of Jews, with the insistence that the “Jewish question” could be solved only in a framework of “justice and charity,” should not blind us to the fact that Church spokesmen fundamentally approved of measures to limit Jewish influence. This helps explain why, at least at first, Catholics saw little reason to defend Jews. Indeed, any attempt to do so would have caused astonishment. It also explains why Catholics were unable to react clearly to Nazi racial policy until the opportunity to influence events had long passed. The argument that, for example, protests against the November 1938 pogrom would have been useless can be turned against the Church. For it was the Church’s own attitude toward the Jews that had made it difficult, if not impossible, to mobilize Christian consciences against Nazi anti-Semitism at an earlier stage, when protests might have been effective.
It is of course true that the Catholic Church was itself exposed to brutal persecution. Catholics of that time felt that they had quite enough to do defending their own interests. The tragedy is that due to Church-generated anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism, and also because of the Church’s initial sympathy for a government that fought against liberalism and communism, the Church itself had done much to legitimize the very regime that persecuted it.
The “Catholic position” described above certainly did not entail any approval of Nazi anti-Semitism. Indeed, Nazi ideology and methods were totally incompatible with the Catholic position. This comes out clearly, to cite one example, in a letter written by Cardinal Faulhaber on April 8, 1933 (a week after the Nazi-instigated boycott of Jews), to Alois Wurm. A Regensburg priest, Wurm had written the Cardinal protesting that following the proclamation of the boycott “not a single Catholic paper has had the courage to proclaim the teaching of the catechism, that no one may be hated or persecuted—certainly not on racial grounds. Many people see this as a Catholic failure.” Wurm pleaded for a clear protest by the bishops against Nazi policy.
What the Nazis were doing to the Jews, Faulhaber wrote in his reply to Wurm, was “so un-Christian that not only every priest but every Christian must protest.” At the moment, however, Church leaders had more important matters to deal with. “The preservation of our schools and Catholic organizations and the question of compulsory sterilization [of the mentally ill] are more important matters for Christianity in our country—especially when we consider that the Jews, as we have already seen in some recent instances, are quite able to look after themselves. We must not give the government an opportunity to turn the campaign against the Jews into a campaign against Jesuits.” Faulhaber added that he was “astonished” by repeated questions as to “why the Church is doing nothing about the persecution of Jews. When Catholics or their bishops are persecuted we hear not a peep. That is and remains the mystery of the passion.”
Faulhaber’s words suggest that he was unable to see that the problem was not just the Nazis’ unjust and brutal methods, but their entire anti-Jewish policy of discrimination and marginalization. He was also blind to the immensity of the danger threatening the Jews, which would soon render them defenseless. And at the same time, Church leaders were hoping they could achieve an understanding with the regime regarding the “more important matters” mentioned in Faulhaber’s letter to Wurm. (The Munich Archbishop still entertained this hope after the appearance of Mit brennender Sorge in 1937.) Wurm’s reference to the racist and un-Christian nature of the Nazis’ persecution of Jews obviously did not prevent the Cardinal from being “astonished” by the many questions he was receiving as to “why the Church was doing nothing about the persecution.”
Another person who urged Faulhaber to act publicly in defense of the Jews was the Dominican student chaplain in Berlin, and a leader of the German Peace League, Fr. Franziskus Stratmann. In a lengthy letter to Faulhaber of April 10, 1933, Stratmann branded Nazi racism as heresy: “But no one makes any effective protest against this indescribable German and Christian disgrace. Even priests find their anti-Semitic instincts appeased by this disgraceful behavior . . . . We know that exceptional courage is required today to bear witness to the truth. But we know too that only through such witness can humanity and Christianity be saved. True Christianity is dying of opportunism.” There is no record of a reply to Stratmann from Faulhaber. Heinz Hürten writes in his standard work, Deutsche Katholiken, 1918-1945: “Stratmann was unable to move Faulhaber from the position he had adopted. The Cardinal’s concern remained baptized Jews, members of his own Church, his own flock.”
It is reasonable to assume that this stance of paralysis and passivity was strengthened by the “official” Catholic understanding of Judaism. An example can be found in an article published in 1933 in the Catholic paper Junge Front. Written by the editor, Johannes Maaßen, it stated: “The cry of the people who crucified Christ, Son of the eternal God, ‘His blood be on us and on our children,’ echoes down the centuries and brings upon the Jewish community ever new human suffering.” The article said that no one may increase this suffering. But it also said nothing about any duty to alleviate the suffering or to protest against it. An article in a subsequent issue of the same paper—probably written by Karl Thieme—said that the injustice that the Jews were experiencing had nothing to do with their race. However, the Nazis’ racist anti-Semitism confirmed “the unique status conferred on the Jews in the Old Testament. From the standpoint of sacred history their situation must be viewed as a punishment.” No “political and social solution” for the Jews could ever “replace redemption by Jesus Christ.” The solution of the “Jewish question” was their “fulfilment”: the Jews’ conversion. “In the confusion of our time it is becoming ever clearer that this fulfilment entails confession of Christ and of the Father,” Thieme wrote.
Such arguments no doubt soothed Christian consciences. They made Christians spectators, witnesses to a divine-human drama of guilt and expiation, of punishment and final conversion. As late as 1941 Archbishop Conrad Gröber of Freiburg, who was even then supporting attempts to help persecuted Jews, stated in a pastoral letter that the sad lot of the Jews was the result of the curse that they had called down upon themselves when they murdered Christ. Anton Rauscher is correct when he writes that Catholic theology of that time reflected “a view of the Jews which provoked anti-Semitism on the one hand, while on the other undermining the ability to oppose it.” And the historian Konrad Repgen is also correct when he says that “people thought differently at that time.” But this fact, which is precisely the problem, and which distresses us today, should not be used to excuse past Catholic failure.
The way Catholics of that time viewed Jews in no way diminishes the fact that many Catholics—priests, religious, laity, and above all Pius XII—helped a great many Jews, sometimes at the risk of the rescuers’ lives. There was little hatred or personal animosity to Jews as individuals. Their steadily increasing misery, culminating finally in their deportation to an unknown fate, aroused indignation or at least pity. This was especially true in Holland and France, where some bishops spoke out clearly against the deportations.
Sympathy for the increasing distress and misery of the Jews certainly seems the best explanation for the words of Pius XI to Belgian pilgrims in September 1938, which are constantly cited for apologetic purposes. With tears in his eyes the aged and ailing Pope cried out spontaneously: “Anti-Semitism is inadmissible. Spiritually we are all Semites.” The words were a reference to liturgical texts in the Missal that the Belgian pilgrims had just presented: the phrase in the Eucharistic Canon, after the narrative of institution, about the “offering of Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek.” The Pope’s words were never officially published; they were reported later in some Belgian papers. As David Kertzer writes, the words were “heartfelt and sincere, the cry of a man who saw a dark shadow growing ever darker across Europe.”
In any event, the Pope’s words remained without influence on official Church policy. They were a one-time emotional outburst of a large-hearted and impulsive man who counted Jews among his personal friends. Despite the fact that Italian racial laws had been issued shortly before this address, Pius XI did not mention them. Nor is this really surprising. For immediately before the famous words, he declared: “We recognize the right of all people to defend themselves, to take measures against all who threaten their legitimate interests.” Only then did he say: “But anti-Semitism is inadmissible—spiritually we are all Semites.” It is reasonable to understand the words as meaning: legitimate defense against undue Jewish influence, Yes; “anti-Semitism,” hatred of the Jews as a people, No.
Had the Church really wanted to mount effective opposition to the fate that awaited the Jews, it would have had to condemn—from the very start—not only racism but anti-Semitism in any form, including the social anti-Semitism espoused by not a few churchmen. This the Church never did: not in 1933, not in 1937, nor in 1938 or 1939. It is of course true that there was no direct road from Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism to Auschwitz. For Christians the solution to the “Jewish question” was conversion, not liquidation (although the history of Christian anti-Judaism also features examples of the latter). But racism alone did not lead to Auschwitz, either. Something more was needed: hatred of Jews. Rooted in large part in Christian tradition, it was this hatred that made modern anti-Semitism possible.
It is a truism to say that racism devoid of hatred for the Jews would not have endangered them. Even though the racist anti-Semitism of the Nazis and Christian anti-Judaism or Christian anti-Semitism differ fundamentally and are even mutually incompatible, the precondition that made the Nazis’ racial anti-Semitism (which led in turn to Auschwitz) even conceivable was the heritage of traditional anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. Together they created what Steven Theodore Katz, Director of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Boston, has called the “terrifying otherness” of the Jews, thus stigmatizing and demonizing them. Traditional Christian anti-Judaism was the breeding ground for what Jules Isaac has called “the teaching of contempt.” Without this contempt modern racism would never have been able to forge its alliance with enmity toward Jews and anti-Semitism. At a time when no one could even have imagined Hitler’s “final solution” (not even the bureaucrats who would later carry it out), the only thing that could have derailed the trains to Auschwitz—if indeed that was ever possible—was unmistakable condemnation of anti-Semitism in any form.
It is true that the Church’s condemnation of racism was an implicit rejection of the policy that led to the Holocaust. Seen, however, against the background of Christian and official Church attitudes towards the Jews, this was insufficient to prevent the inexorable course of events. That would have required a mobilization of Christian consciences by Protestants as well as Catholics. Germany was, after all, a predominantly Protestant country. On that side of the confessional divide, however, things were no better for the Jews: in fact they were worse. Most of the official Protestant Church failed. In growing measure German Protestants were receptive to the Nazis’ racist and volkisch ideology and to their myth of the German people’s rebirth. Even the “Confessing Church” (the most anti-Nazi group in German Protestantism) continued, like the Catholic Church, to uphold traditional Christian anti-Judaism, and defended only baptized Jews.
Later episcopal protests against the deportation of Jews in Holland and France cannot conceal the fact, noted by the respected Italian historian Giovanni Miccoli, that up to then not a single bishop anywhere had said a word about discrimination against non-baptized Jews. During the 1930s no one ever imagined that the culmination of the persecution of Jews would be their systematic liquidation. Hence people were unable to perceive the murderous danger that lurked behind the Nazis’ racist theories (and, later on, the mass deportations), let alone connect it with something like the Holocaust.
This was not on anyone’s horizon. The only motive people could discern for what the Nazis were doing was enmity towards Jews pure and simple. Anyone wanting to avert the Jews’ fate would have had to condemn even non-racist forms of anti-Semitism. For it was these, at least in the early years, that gave the Nazis’ racial policy a certain legitimacy even in Catholic eyes. And anti-Semitism was what made the Nazis’ racist ideology—the deifying of “Aryan man”—into an engine of death for Jews. Questioning the legitimacy of the Nazis’ racial policy, and possibly even slowing it down, required the condemnation from the very start of measures that discriminated against Jews and deprived them of their rights—as well as condemnation of the regime that instituted such measures. This is precisely what Edith Stein, bitterly aware that the German bishops were allowing themselves to be deceived, demanded of Pius XI in her now widely publicized letter of early April 1933.
This was the very time when Hitler was trying to convince the bishops of his benevolent intentions towards the Church in order to obtain a Concordat. Far from excluding the “Jewish question,” Hitler put it front and center. Receiving the representative of the German Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Wilhelm Berning of Osnabrück, in audience on April 26, Hitler declared: “I have been attacked because of my handling of the Jewish question. The Catholic Church considered the Jews pestilent for fifteen hundred years, put them in ghettos, etc., because it recognized the Jews for what they were. In the epoch of liberalism the danger was no longer recognized. I am moving back toward the time in which a fifteen-hundred-year-long tradition was implemented. I do not set race over religion, but I recognize the representatives of this race as pestilent for the state and for the Church, and perhaps I am thereby doing Christianity a great service by pushing them out of schools and public functions.” The transcript that records these remarks contains no response by Bishop Berning. This is hardly surprising: for a Catholic Bishop in 1933 there was really nothing terribly objectionable in this historically correct reminder. And on this occasion, as always, Hitler was concealing his true intentions.
It is also true that no institution opposed the Nazis’ deification of the state, people, and race as clearly as the Catholic Church. To judge rightly, however, the significance for the Jews of the condemnation of racial absolutism in the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (issued, as noted above, very late in the day), we must keep in mind the morally compromised historical context. By 1937 clarification of the Church’s doctrine had become urgently necessary in order to refute the Nazis’ mendacious anti-Catholic propaganda. This was the encyclical’s precise purpose: to defend the Church in the face of totalitarian dictatorship. As Secretary of State Pacelli wrote to Cardinal Faulhaber on April 2, 1937, the encyclical was theologically and pastorally necessary “to preserve the true faith in Germany.” The encyclical also defended baptized Jews, considered still Jews by the Nazis because of racial theories that the Church could not accept. But the encyclical never discussed Jews in general.
Pacelli himself added to Faulhaber’s milder draft of the encyclical the well-known and more sharply worded passage: “Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the state, or a particular form of state, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community—however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things—whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God.” Speaking as pope to the cardinals on June 2, 1945, the author of this passage gave what may be considered its authentic interpretation. “The fundamental incompatibility of the National Socialist state and the Catholic Church culminates in this sentence of the encyclical. Once this had become clear, the Church could not refrain, without being unfaithful to its mission, from stating its position before the whole world.” Astonishingly, there is not a single reference in this allocution, delivered a month after the end of the war in Europe, to the slaughter of millions of Jews. Instead the Pope, with his vision still limited to Catholics and Church concerns, lamented the killing of thousands of priests, religious, and laypeople. He added: “With virtual unanimity German Catholics recognized that the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge gave direction, consolation, and strength to all who took the Christian religion seriously and wished to put it into practice.”
It is clear that as late as June 1945, and despite knowledge of the Holocaust, Pius XII still did not view the condemnation of racism as something intended to benefit the Jews. And it is also questionable whether the condemnation was so viewed in 1937. The same may be said of the oft-cited “Syllabus against Racism” (1938). This Vatican document says nothing about Jews or their persecution, but does mention “grief at the terrible persecution to which, as everyone knows, the Church in Germany is exposed.”
The general condemnation of racism of course included the Nazis’ anti-Semitic racial mania, and condemned it implicitly. The question, however, is not what the Church’s theological position with regard to Nazi racism and anti-Semitism was in 1937, but whether Church statements were clear enough for everyone to realize that the Church included Jews in its pastoral concern, thus summoning Christian consciences to solidarity with them. In light of what we have seen, it seems clear that the answer to this question must be No. In 1937 the Church was concerned not with the Jews but with entirely different matters that the Church considered more important and more urgent. An explicit defense of the Jews might well have jeopardized success in these other areas.
This is confirmed by a remarkable (and sadly characteristic) exchange in November 1941 between Cardinal Faulhaber and Adolf Cardinal Bertram, President of the Fulda Bishops’ Conference. Faulhaber wrote that he was being asked by laypeople whether the bishops could not do something about the “brutal deportation of non-Aryans to Poland under inhuman conditions paralleled only in the African slave trade.” Bertram replied that in view of the Church’s limited ability to influence the regime’s policy, the bishops must “concentrate on other concerns which are more important for the Church and more far-reaching”; in particular “the ever more urgent question of how best to prevent anti-Christian and anti-Church influences on the education of Catholic youth.”
This concentration on specific pastoral concerns and Church affairs was already dominant in 1933. The Catholic Church was in imminent danger. Priority had to be given to the conclusion of a Concordat guaranteeing Church rights. Defending Jews was inadvisable, Cardinal Faulhaber wrote to Pacelli on April 10, 1933, “because that would transform the attack on the Jews into an attack on the Church; and because the Jews are able to look after themselves” (these are the same arguments used in Faulhaber’s letter to Wurm two days earlier). Needless to say, the assumption that the Jews could look after themselves turned out to be a monumental error.
After the Catholic Church had spent four years trying, with the help of the Concordat, to keep its head above water through a kind of “hostile cooperation” with the regime, it finally had to clarify its position and take a stand if the faithful were not to become hopelessly confused. At least until the outbreak of war, Church pronouncements, as well as its diplomacy, were restricted to intra-Church concerns. This was true in Italy as well, where the Vatican’s protest against the Italian racial laws (autumn 1938) concerned only baptized Jews, and the Church’s right, guaranteed in the Italian Concordat, to regulate their marriages by canon law.
Pius XII’s 1939 encyclical Summi Pontificatus contains no explicit reference to racism. The topic is covered implicitly in the section on “The unity of the human race”—which is possibly an echo of the famous and never-issued encyclical against racism. That document would have dealt with anti-Semitism and the “Jewish question”—topics which Summi Pontificatus does not mention.
It is undeniable that the Church’s defense of natural law was a major factor in causing people to recognize the injustice of what was happening to the Jews. (This is brought out in Bishop Clemens von Galen’s July 31, 1937 commentary on Mit brennender Sorge.) This injustice was the basis for the decision to draft another encyclical that, on the basis of natural law, would condemn the persecution of the Jews explicitly. “Equality in natural law,” however, was not equivalent in the Church’s eyes to equality in civil law. What the Church defended above all was the right of physical inviolability, property rights, the right of parents to bring up their children in the parents’ faith. The Church did not necessarily advocate equal political and economic rights. Indeed, the Church had denied these rights to Jews for centuries. In Christian eyes Jews remained a danger in politics and economics.
Moreover, the contemplated encyclical against racism and anti-Semitism was never published, and the drafts that have come to light in recent years do not make entirely pleasant reading. We can be thankful that the document never reached the level of papal teaching. Gustav Gundlach’s draft, for instance, called Jewish emancipation “an error,” and defended the “social separation of the people of Israel” as a divinely willed necessity to “prevent harmful contacts between Christians and Jews.” The draft condemns as unjust and a violation of charity “laws which withhold civil rights from baptized Jews, thus interfering illegitimately with the Church’s marriage laws.” That was a matter of legitimate concern. But the perspective remains very limited.
And it was precisely this perspective which dominated. Consider another letter from Cardinal Faulhaber to Cardinal Bertram, written on October 23, 1936. “The state is justified in proceeding against Jewish excesses in civil society, especially when Jewish Bolshevists and Communists endanger public order. With regard, however, to Jews who enter the Catholic Church . . . the state can have every confidence that they are not Communists or Bolshevists.” The passage immediately following shows why the rejection of racism is so crucial: “With their insistent principle, ‘Once a Jew always a Jew,’ the Nazis treat baptized Jews the same as those who are not baptized. The bishops hold that a converted Jew . . . has truly become a child of God . . . . Hence baptized Jews are entitled to be treated by the Church as Christians and not as Jews, and at least not to be delivered into the hands of their anti-Semitic enemies.”
Granted, we must judge such statements in their historical context: at stake was the compelling concern to keep baptized Jews out of the Nazis’ clutches. The protection of baptized Jews—and not a general condemnation of all hostility to Jews—was always the dominant perspective whenever the “Jewish question” was discussed, and whenever the Church condemned racism. The Church’s opposition to racism (though belated) was a defense of its own teaching as well as natural law. As such it merits admiration. Claiming that it was something more is questionable.
We must also bear in mind that Catholics never entirely rejected the idea of national or volkisch identity based on race. Here too the boundary was blurred. There is, for example, the article on “race” from the Handbook of Contemporary Religious Questions, published in 1937 and edited by Archbishop Gröber of Freiburg. While clearly rejecting Nazi racial theories, the article recognizes the need for measures to safeguard German racial purity. It adds that a people that has proved itself before the bar of history is endangered by the admixture of foreign blood.
Even the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge states that “race” is a “fundamental value of the human community . . . necessary and honorable . . . in worldly things.” What the encyclical condemns is the “exaltation of race, or the people, or the state, or a particular form of state . . . above their standard value . . . to an idolatrous level.” In Cardinal Faulhaber’s original draft this passage was considerably weaker: “Be vigilant that race, or the state, or other communal values, which can claim an honorable place in worldly things, are not magnified and idolized.” Against this background we can hardly be surprised that Faulhaber proposed in an internal Church memorandum that the bishops should inform the government “that the Church, through the application of its marriage laws, has made and continues to make, an important contribution to the state’s policy of racial purity; and is thus performing a valuable service for the regime’s population policy.” Even if Faulhaber was referring only to the Nazi policy of “eliminating parenthood for the mentally ill,” his proposal, coming at the time, remained highly ambivalent.
The Church’s “silence” in the years prior to the outbreak of war arose from a complex combination of anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic thinking on the one hand, and on the other hand the feeling of Church leaders that other matters were more important. This feeling arose from the belief that they were really not responsible for Jews in general.
It is of course not even remotely true to say that there was a positive intention not to help the Jews. It would be false, indeed slanderous, to claim that the Church deliberately delivered the Jews to their Nazi executioners. Nor can anyone claim that there was no desire, at least on the part of the Holy See, to help the Jews. As the London Jewish Chronicle reported on May 12, 1933, the Pope had recently met a delegation of Jewish leaders, including his personal friend Rabbi da Fano. “It is understood,” the paper wrote, “that the Pope was extremely concerned about the sufferings imposed on the Jews in Germany.”
Moreover, on April 4, 1933, Cardinal Pacelli, at the request of “important Israelite personalities,” wrote the Papal Nuncio Cesare Orsenigo in Berlin directing him to explore the possibility of a diplomatic intervention against “anti-Semitic excesses” in Germany. Orsenigo answered immediately that any intervention by the Holy See was impossible, since anti-Semitism was now part of the official policy of the German government. The Church could not protest against German laws; that would be rejected as interference in internal politics. Orsenigo was presumably referring to the “Law for the Restoration of the Civil Service,” passed on April 7, 1933. This excluded “non-Aryans,” including Catholics and Protestants, from the civil service. This response from the Berlin nuncio, along with the letter of April 10 from Faulhaber to Pacelli, appears to have set the course for the Vatican’s future policy. Once the Concordat was agreed to the following July, the Holy See was definitively barred from interceding explicitly and publicly for the Jews. When the Concordat was ratified in September 1933, Pacelli handed the German chargé d’affaires, Hanns Kerrl, a “Promemoria” of the Holy See stating merely that “the Holy See permits itself a word in favor of Catholics who have come to the Church from Judaism.” Jews as such were not a topic for discussion.
It would appear that this is the point at which the policies of the Vatican and the German bishops (led by Cardinals Bertram and Faulhaber) began to converge, and the notorious “silence” about the Jews commenced. It is astonishing nonetheless that the Church continued to intervene on behalf of Catholic Jews, which Hitler’s government always sharply rejected as political interference, forbidden by the Concordat, and anti-German. In the event, Orsenigo’s warning, cited above, that protests against German laws would not be entertained by the government was not heeded in regard to non-Aryan Catholics. The encyclical Mit brennender Sorge is a prime example, since it confirms that the Catholic Church, and especially the German bishops who were in the front line, did risk total confrontation with the Nazi state. But as we have seen, they never did this on behalf of the Jews in general. The Church acted in self-defense, to defend its pastoral interests and the faithful”and always in the hope of bringing the Nazi state to some kind of modus vivendi that the Church could accept.
Does this make Church leaders “guilty”? We are not called to stand in judgment over the consciences of others—especially when they were subject to pressures we have never experienced. What is essential, however, is that we ascertain the facts and not mistake the Church’s condemnation of racism for a defense of Jews in general.
What is at issue, then, is not the question of guilt or innocence of individuals but recognition that the Catholic Church contributed in some measure to the developments that made the Holocaust possible. The “official Church,” to be sure, was certainly not one of the causes of the Holocaust. And once the trains started rolling toward Auschwitz, the Church was powerless to stop them. Yet neither can the Church boast that it was among those who, from the start, tried to avert Auschwitz by standing up publicly for its future victims. Given the undeniable intellectual and moral quality of the German episcopate of that era and the bishops’ impressive ideological opposition to Nazi persecution of the Church, their failure with regard to the Jews can only be described as tragic.
Well-intentioned Catholic apologists continue to produce reports of Church condemnations of Nazism and racism. But these do not really answer the Church’s critics. The real problem is not the Church’s relationship to National Socialism and racism, but the Church’s relationship to the Jews. Here we need what the Church today urges: a “purification of memory and conscience.” The Catholic Church’s undeniable hostility to National Socialism and racism cannot be used to justify its silence about the persecution of the Jews. It is one thing to explain this silence historically and make it understandable. It is quite another to use such explanations for apologetic purposes.
Christians and Jews belong together. They are both part of the one, though still divided, Israel. This is why Pope John Paul II has called Jews, in exemplary fashion, our “elder brothers.” Brotherhood includes, however, the ability to speak openly about past failures and shortcomings. This is true, of course, for both sides. But in view of all that Christians have done to Jews in history, it is Christians who should take the lead in the purification of memory and conscience.
Martin Rhonheimer a native of Switzerland and a priest of the Opus Dei Prelature, is a professor of ethics and political philosophy at Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. The article was translated from the German by Father John Jay Hughes.