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The Church and the Holocaust

To the extent that it is read by Catholic apologists and others who have a broad and deep knowledge of Europe in the 1930s and 40s, Martin Rhonheimer’s “The Holocaust: What Was Not Said” (November 2003) has considerable value. However, it will also be read by many who do not know much about that time, and by others who will see it as vindicating their idea that the Church did nothing to help the Jews. They will not find in Father Rhonheimer’s article the balanced perspective appropriate to understanding those terrible days.

The great story of the Catholic Church during the Holocaust is that the Church did a great deal to help the Jews, far more than any other institution of any kind. At the same time, Pius XII did not provide stentorian rhetoric. Presenting both of these observations together would have constituted a balanced assessment, but Fr. Rhonheimer concentrated exclusively on “what was not said.” Looking only at the weakest part of the Church’s record does not constitute a balanced assessment.

But even if focusing only on “what was not said” were a fair subject for his article, a balanced perspective would have required some explanation of why it was not said. Pius XII’s highest responsibility was the protection and preservation of the Holy See, a tiny 109-acre enclave in the middle of the capital city of an Axis power at war. Could that have made a difference?

When we say that someone should have said more, we always need a standard by which we measure sufficiency. In the Holocaust context, the American Jewish response is an appropriate reference. American Jews had the greatest sympathy for their brother European Jews, they had the physical safety that Pius XII lacked, and they had the New York Times, at that time the world’s newspaper of record. Yet American Jewish organizations also maintained a discreet silence. If Fr. Rhonheimer had said that neither the Church nor American Jews said enough about the Holocaust, there would have been some sense of balance.

Martin K. Barrack
Hardy, Arkansas

I read Father Martin Rhonheimer’s article with great interest. I must say that I found it to be informative and intriguing but also highly disappointing. While I appreciate the author’s desire to highlight the errant ways in which many Catholic apologists have overemphasized the Church’s actions during this period of history, I am quite shocked at his tone and the cavalier manner in which he derides the Church for caring for her own.

Although I acknowledge that the Church, as the universal instrument and sacrament of salvation, had (and has) an obligation to speak out and defend the dignity and rights of all human persons, the Church also had (and has) an obligation to defend the dignity and rights of her own faithful. Indeed, does not our faith teach that the Church is our Mother? What mother would concentrate on defending neighborhood children from a bully at the expense of her own children? Or what mother, when forced to make a choice as to whom she had more power to help, would sacrifice her own children? I believe this was the situation of the Church during the Second World War––clearly in Nazi Germany but also throughout Europe.

I also take issue with Fr. Rhonheimer’s statement that “the only thing that could have derailed the trains to Auschwitz––if indeed that was ever possible––was unmistakeable condemnation of anti-Semitism in any form.” I find this statement to be the height of folly. History proved that the trains to Auschwitz were derailed only by the troops and tanks of Generals Bradley, Patton, Montgomery, Koniev, Zhukov, and Rokossovski.

Finally, I find Fr. Rhonheimer’s treatment of Michael Cardinal von Faulhaber to be pedantic. Was this not the same cardinal who ordered yellow Star of David armbands to be placed on the statues of Christ and Mary in his archdiocese in response to the Nazi treatment of Jews?

I do sincerely appreciate Fr. Rhonheimer’s article, but I find it hard to understand why a Catholic priest would use hindsight to deride the Church for defending herself and her faithful during an intense time of persecution, fear, and death. Perhaps my memory does not serve me well, but I do not recall any anti-Roman statements issued by the popes of the first three centuries of the Church, when the Roman legions actively engaged in the wholesale slaughter of the barbarians. The Church must have been too concerned for her own “self-defense and pastoral interests.” Perhaps a more appropriate study for Fr. Rhonheimer would be to look at how the Church has acted throughout her history when faced with persecution. Would that study not show that the Church as Mother spent her resources primarily on “self-defense and the pastoral interests” of her faithful?

Steven A. Weidenkopf
Denver, Colorado

Father Martin Rhonheimer argues that the failure of the Catholic Church to unequivocally repudiate anti-Judaism with regard to all Jews, not just Jewish converts, produced a “climate” hostile to Jews and thereby made it impossible to generate a broad popular opposition to the Holocaust. Unfortunately, Fr. Rhonheimer provides no evidence whatever for this claim. He quotes a few random sources that make reference to the “Jewish problem” but does not connect these with mass opinion or even show that these statements were widely known.

Two points need to be made here. First, the only audience that mattered regarding Catholic pronouncements was the Nazi heirarchy. In all the private and public pronouncements that I have seen, they affirmed in the strongest possible way that the Catholic Church was the defender of all Jews or, as Fr. Rhonheimer would have it, of Jews as such. References to Pius XI as the “Jew Pope” and to Catholicism as the “Jew religion” abound. The Nazis did not see the distinction that Fr. Rhonheimer draws between the Church as defender of converts and of “Jews in general.” If the Nazis did not see the difference, why does Fr. Rhonheimer suppose that ordinary Catholics did?

Second, in the 1930s discussion of the “Jewish problem” occurred in the context of a long-established doctrine of the desirability of a Catholic state. This was based on the understanding that the Catholic Church possesses the certain means of salvation and that the state is, in consequence, obliged to enforce the moral law and to assist the Church in her work of salvation. Inevitably, a question arose regarding the status of unassimilable non-Christian minorities. This was not a one-way street. Robust nineteenth-century Zionism represented the will of millions of Jews not to assimilate. Thus, in a Catholic state, Jews could not rule but were to be protected from harm and permitted to practice their religion, a status similar to that of Christians in Israel today. Fr. Rhonheimer does not appear to comprehend the political, cultural, and religious context in which these discussions occurred, and thus he concludes that talk of the “Jewish problem” was raw anti-Semitism. The result is a retrospective political correctness that is familiarly used today to stifle any criticism of Israeli policy, lest we again embark on “the road to Auschwitz.”

Of course, the Second Vatican Council repudiated the ideal of a Catholic state, thus assuring the victory of secularism with its anti-life “values”: contraception, divorce, sexual disorder, euthanasia, and abortion”whose systematic slaughter of innocents exceeds Hitler’s wildest dreams. When, I wonder, will “purification of memory and conscience” be applied to those responsible for the deconstruction of Catholicism and the obliteration of Christendom?

Robert L. Phillips
Professor of Philosophy
University of Connecticut
West Hartford, Connecticut

Permit me to offer my appreciation to First Things for publishing Martin Rhonheimer’s excellent article. Unfortunately, the debate over the role of the wartime leadership of the Catholic Church during the Holocaust has become the object of heated polemics on both sides. Far too often, it seems to me, participants in this discussion lose sight of how the wartime Vatican operated in a cultural context quite unlike anything that most of us can imagine. Written with particular authority because of his familiarity with the religious and cultural context of papal discourse, Father Rhonheimer’s article reminds us of how different the worldview of Church leaders in the 1930s and 40s was from our own. That is why it was possible for the Vatican stoutly to oppose Nazism without taking up the cause of the Jews. Fr. Rhonheimer’s essay calls attention not only to the shortcomings of Church reactions during the Holocaust–– shortcomings in which the Church was hardly alone––but also to the distance that we have come since the Holocaust. By implication, his reflections underscore the importance of the great changes that have taken place in the Church as a result of the Second Vatican Council––and of the continuing need for honesty, humility, and nuance when making historical judgments.

Michael R. Marrus
Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies
University of Toronto
Ontario, Canada

Martin Rhonheimer responds:

My critics ignore the central argument of my article and criticize positions that I have not advanced. One example: Martin K. Barrack writes: “Pius XII’s highest responsibility was the protection and preservation of the Holy See.” What has that to do with the central questions raised in my article? Why, for instance, did neither the Church in Germany nor the Vatican ever clearly protest the 1935 Nuremberg racial laws or the pogrom of November 1938? Why did the Church never protest against the Nazis’ increasing persecution of the Jews? Moreover, my article was not about Pius XII and the Holocaust. (The best treatment of this highly complex subject is, in my view, Giovanni Miccoli’s excellent book, I dilemmi e i silenzi di Pio XII, published in Milan in 2000 and unfortunately not available in English.)

Mr. Barrack is correct in writing that the Church “did a great deal to help the Jews, far more than any other institution,” and my article explicitly mentioned this. Its first paragraph even called the arguments of those who dispute this fact “so devoid of historical foundation that they range from the absurd to the outrageous.” Using Church rescue efforts, however, for apologetic purposes (as Catholic apologists regularly do) is a diversion”not least because these efforts belong almost entirely to the wartime period, not to the time when the Church could still have spoken clearly with some hope of influencing events. Nor do I dispute (indeed, I explicitly affirm) Steven A. Weidenkopf’s argument that the Church’s first duty is to protect its own children. Yet Church apologists tell us that, to the extent that the Church remained “silent,” it was to prevent worse sufferings for the Jews. This is, at best, a half-truth. The primary reason for such silence was protection of Church interests. It is high time for Catholics to admit this, rather than continuing to propagate myths. The decision of the Church hierarchy to concentrate on its own pastoral responsibilities and leave the Jews to look after themselves is, from a historical point of view, fully understandable. With the benefit of hindsight we can also see, however, that the decision was sadly misguided. Would not an expression of regret be more appropriate than a self-righteous apologetic?

As I stated in the article’s conclusion, we are not called to judge the consciences of those who were subject to pressures we have never experienced. But Catholics owe it to our Jewish brethren, and to history, to admit that the Church felt little responsibility for Jews during the Nazi period; that it was inextricably bound up with social structures and ways of thinking which, though they did not cause the Holocaust, nonetheless helped make it possible; and that all this made it difficult for all but a few (such as Edith Stein and Franziskus Stratmann, O.P.) to realize what was going on, and thus to avoid being deceived by Hitler.

I never claimed, as Mr. Weidenkopf contends, that a clear condemnation of anti-Semitism could have “derailed” the trains to Auschwitz. On the contrary, I wrote that “once the trains started rolling, the Church was powerless to stop them.” But I added: “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.” Inability to foresee the Holocaust does not relieve people of all responsibility. At a time when no one could even imagine the horrors to come, the only thing that might possibly have averted them was a clear and explicit condemnation of every form of discrimination against Jews, as well as principled opposition to the Nazis’ Jewish policy and the state that promoted it. From the start, however, the Church consciously and deliberately avoided such opposition. It did so in order to avoid making things worse” not for the Jews, but for the Church itself. An important reason for this stance was the view, widespread among both the laity and church leaders, that the Jews were a danger to society. This made it difficult for Catholics to perceive the implications and dangers of the Nazis’ Jewish policy.

I repeat: to an extent this is understandable. But in view of the Holocaust we must regret that Catholics of that period were totally unaware that their traditionally negative view of the Jews, the fruit of centuries of a “teaching of contempt” by the Church itself, facilitated Nazi policies. In his celebrated Advent sermons of 1933 defending pre-Christian Jewry, Cardinal Faulhaber said that post-Christian Jews had “received a bill of divorce, and from that time forth Assuerus wanders, forever restless, over the face of the earth.” The Church was certainly not responsible for the rise of Nazi anti-Semitism––indeed, it did much to counter Nazi ideology. But the Church (as well as others) did help prepare the soil to receive the Nazis’ poisonous seed, and to bring it to fruition. In the decades prior to the Holocaust the Church supported, and often actively promoted, the aversion to Jews that was so widespread in Europe. Hence the Church must bear some responsibility for what happened to the Jews. Consciousness of this responsibility was totally lacking at the time. Many Christians today still seem to suffer from this historical amnesia.

In the final paragraph of his letter, Robert L. Phillips seems to reject Vatican II by dreaming of a restored “Catholic state” with a special discriminatory status for Jews. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that he distorts my arguments. I never claimed that the Church’s “silence” created “a ‘climate’ hostile to Jews.” My contention is that traditional anti-Judaism and social prejudice against Jews––as well as a theology that viewed persecution of Jews as reparation for the murder of Christ and thus as a help toward Jewish conversion––induced most Christians, from 1933 on, to assume the role of passive observers. As late as 1945 the celebrated French Church historian Daniel-Rops raised the question (in his book Jésus en son temps ) whether the horror of Jewish pogroms might not be “in the mysterious balance of the divine will a compensation for the unfathomable horror of the crucifixion.”

Professor Phillips asks why, if Nazi leaders saw no difference between baptized and unbaptized Jews, “ordinary Catholics” could have perceived such a difference? The answer is simple: because ordinary Catholics were not racists. Traditional hostility to Jews was based not on racial but on religious, social, economic, and cultural grounds. This meant that ordinary Catholics did not perceive the Church’s clear rejection of racial anti-Semitism as condemnation of all anti-Jewish laws––which inevitably undermined any opposition to such laws.

We must not forget the price that the Church paid for the Reich Concordat of July 1933: withdrawal from the political realm and loyalty to Hitler’s regime. At least in Germany, Church leaders originally viewed the Concordat not as a defense against the regime but as establishing a basis for effective cooperation and a contribution to what they mistakenly thought would be a national and Christian renewal of Germany. As late as February 9, 1936, Cardinal Faulhaber praised Pius XI (in whose name the Concordat was signed) for being “the first foreign ruler to conclude a solemn treaty with the government of the Reich,” thus showing himself to be Germany’s “true friend at a time when millions in other countries still reserved judgment, or regarded the new regime with skepticism.” German Catholics heard similar utterances from many of their bishops. What they never heard was a clear condemnation of the Nuremberg racial laws.

A further factor to be considered is the Church’s political and social antimodernism and (as Prof. Phillips correctly though one-sidedly mentions) nostalgia for a “Catholic state.” At the start, many Catholics viewed Hitler as a Christian statesman and the Nazi state as a bulwark against Bolshevism, socialism, and liberalism––all movements thought to be dominated by Jews. Those who are blind to these historical facts and continue to mention only the positive things the Church did need to be reminded of the negative side of the record. What the Church did for the Jews was done despite traditional prejudices and the burden of history––which makes it all the more praiseworthy. Indeed, countless Catholics”including Pius XII”brought honor to the Christian name and gave shining examples of Christian brotherly love. At the same time there were also many Catholics who actively participated in the persecution of Jews, delivering Jewish “murderers of Christ” to their Nazi executioners.

To sum up: for historically quite understandable reasons the Catholic Church never really felt itself responsible for the Jews or for their fate. We Christians must regret this today––and we owe our Jewish brethren an expression of this regret. How, otherwise, can there be any lasting reconciliation? If we seek an example of the form such an expression of regret might take, we could do worse than consider the declaration of the German Bishops in May 1995, on the fiftieth anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat: “There was a deep chasm, and mutual enmity, between the Nazi system of injustice and the Catholic Church. The Church decisively rejected the racist ideology of the Nazis. But there was no public protest when this ideology was put into ruthless practice.” The Church repeatedly protested attempts to interfere with its pastoral work, the bishops said, and tried to immunize the faithful against Nazi influences. “But there was insufficient courage, strength, and vision to support those who did not belong to the Church, or were opposed to it.” Admiration and gratitude for those who resisted, the German bishops concluded, must not diminish sorrow and shame for those who failed.

Calvin and the Commandments

In “Keeping the Commandments” (November 2003) Robert Louis Wilken presents an erudite survey of the role played by the Ten Commandments in civil and ecclesiastical life. Although he refers to Calvinists and the Puritans, he does not mention John Calvin himself, who may have understood the Ten Commandments better than anyone else in the past five hundred years. Calvin’s three uses of the Law are especially pertinent in the current debate.

The first use of the Law has two parts: 1) the Law convicts humans of their depravity; 2) the Law convinces humans that they cannot remedy their depraved condition and therefore must turn to God. Even in this first use, Calvin emphasizes God’s righteousness and His grace.

The second use of the Law concerns civil matters. Human society needs rules in order not to devolve into chaos. Calvin recognizes that few people will aspire to God’s righteousness because they love Him; most people need the “fear of punishment” to persuade them that conformity to the Law is preferable to nonconformity. The grace in the second use of the Law is that men and women who would not voluntarily seek the holiness demanded by God are helped toward it even against their wills.

It is vital to understand that Calvin deems the third use of the Law to be the most important: the Law guides humans toward the holiness of Christ in Christ.

Calvin’s distinctions are useful to Christians in the present debate. Two uses of the Law, the first and third, are specifically religious in character. The use and meaning of the Law in those respects is not appropriate to the public character of a secular state. The second use of the Law, however, points to the condition of human beings in any society: they need rules and a system of rewards and punishments to help them keep those rules. If secularists want to insist that the Ten Commandments be understood only as a historical reference point for Western Civilization, I see no reason to object. If they reject even that, however, then we must fight for the Law, in the words of Heraclitus, “as for the city wall.”

My own conclusions coincide substantially with those of Professor Wilken. If, thereby, we have shown Calvin and Luther to be in agreement on the civil uses of the Law, then so much the better.

(The Rev.) Jeffrey Dirk Wilson
Street, Maryland

Robert Louis Wilken responds:

I agree with Jeffrey Dirk Wilson that in fighting “for the city wall” John Calvin is an ally, which is one reason I cited his Institutes in my article.

Whose Fundamentalism?

I read with sorrowful fascination Michael Linton’s description of The Handmaid’s Tale (“The Bigot’s Opera,” November 2003), an opera adapted from Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name. I, too, was deeply wounded by the hatred of Christianity expressed by Ms. Atwood’s story, yet I was captured by the descriptions of this potential future.

While reading Professor Linton’s description of the new opera, I realize now what I had missed before: Ms. Atwood is describing a world under the grip of fundamentalist Islam, not fundamentalist Christianity. Forced concubinage, illiteracy, the imposition of a smothering garb, and public religious piety hiding debauchery in private––this is the description of life under an Islamic regime as it exists today in countries such as Saudi Arabia.

That is the most frightening thought of all, that Ms. Atwood’s vision of a country under religious totalitarianism exists. I weep for the handmaids. May they see freedom, and soon.

Bonnie Ramthun
Erie, Colorado

Michael Linton responds:

Bonnie Ramthun makes a good point. And it’s perhaps high irony that such a state is being established not in “fundamentalist” Tennessee or South Carolina but in “liberated” Afghanistan, where a fundamentalist Islamic state, without freedom of religion, is being established with the apparent full blessings of the Bush administration. I wonder if there are any tears over this in the White House.

Mortality in Tolkien

As a lifelong Tolkien fan I read with interest and admiration Anna Mathie’s article “Tolkien and the Gift of Mortality” (November 2003). As Ms. Mathie observes, human mortality in The Lord of the Rings, when accepted for what it is, ennobles men and gives hobbits a childlike freedom and simplicity. In a draft letter dated 1958, Tolkien himself, a believer in the felix culpa , states, “A divine ‘punishment’ is also a divine ‘gift,’ if accepted, since its object is ultimate blessing, and the supreme inventiveness of the Creator will make ‘punishments’ (that is, changes in design) produce a good not otherwise to be attained.”

Tolkien was also aware, though, that the view of death as gift, while indeed religious, is not necessarily Christian. In the same letter he writes: “This does not necessarily have anything to say for or against such beliefs as the Christian that ‘death’ is not part of human nature, but a punishment for sin (rebellion), a result of the ‘Fall.’”

Was Tolkien promoting an unchristian mythical worldview regarding human origins? The Lord of the Rings is, in fact, rather vague in detailing mankind’s understanding of its own mortality, and the “gift” idea is one almost always voiced by elves, as Ms. Matthie indicates. I believe the answer is found in the History of Middle Earth series, edited by Christopher Tolkien. In Volume X: Morgoth’s Ring, there is a previously unpublished manuscript written between 1959 and 1960 relating a dialogue between Finrod Felagund, one of the High Elves who befriended mortal men in the early years of Middle Earth, and Andreth, a wise human versed in the lore of humankind. Their conversation concerns the idea of release from the world as a gift to the human species. Andreth’s words gradually reveal that the children of men have a different vision of their own nature than the elves do: “We [men] knew that in our beginning we had been born never to die. And by that, my lord we meant: born to life everlasting, without any shadow of any end.” Andreth hints to Felegund that as men understand it, death is the result of some terrible rebellion her distant forefathers had undertaken, to which the Elf exclaims: “Therefore I say that if this can be believed, then mighty indeed under Eru were Men made in their beginning; and dreadful beyond all other calamities was the change in their state.”

As Ms. Matthie points out, the reality of physical death causes good men’s actions in The Lord of the Rings to be motivated by a hope not bound “to the circles of the world.” Yet through Andreth’s words in Morghoth’s Ring, Tolkien reveals that there is a more primeval hope at work, involving the very physical world (Arda) from which they are sundered in death:

“For it was not on the might of Men, or of any of the peoples of Arda, that the old hope was grounded.”
“What then was this hope, if you know?” Finrod asked.
“They say,” answered Andreth: “they say that the One will himself enter into Arda, and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end.”

Damian Bacich
Department of Modern Languages and Literatures
Loyola Marymount University
Los Angeles, California

Guilt and the New Evangelism

In his review of Walter Cardinal Kasper’s Leadership in the Church (“The Meanings of Apostolic,” Public Square, November 2003), Richard John Neuhaus cites Cardinal Kasper’s contrast between the time of Luther and our time. In Cardinal Kasper’s words, “Our experience today is no longer the crushing burden of sin, but the absence of any experience of sin. We have all become more or less Deists, no longer asking: ‘How can I do what God expects?’ but ‘How can I do justice to myself and to my own life?’” Father Neuhaus adds that Cardinal Kasper’s “bleak depiction of a thoroughly secularized culture no doubt reflects his own experience of the situation in Germany and Western Europe more generally, which is hardly representative of the larger world.”

Fr. Neuhaus knows more about the situation in Western Europe and in the larger world than I do, but I think that the real problem lies in Cardinal Kasper’s own understanding of sin. More than thirty years ago, the Roman Catholic theologian James F. McCue and the Lutheran theologian Robert C. Schultz convinced me that the primary question that the Western Church dealt with, from the time of its encounter with paganism in the early centuries until late in the Middle Ages, was a moral one. For the individual Christian, especially as the Western world became “Christianized,” this question took the form: “How can I do what God expects?” When a Christian deliberately did what God forbade, or failed to do what He expected, Schultz and McCue asserted, he or she experienced what we call “guilt.”

But by the early sixteenth century, Schultz and McCue continued, things were beginning to change. Luther, for example, was still asking, “How can I do what God expects?” when he chose to join the strict order of Augustinian Hermits. In the monastery, however, he soon learned that no matter how hard he tried, he still failed to do what God expects, which is to love God above all things and one’s neighbor as oneself. What Luther experienced in this failed effort was not “guilt” but “shame.”

Now Luther’s question became not “How can I do what God expects?” but “How, having done my best and still failed, can I be assured that I am acceptable and pleasing to God?” Another way to put this question is: “How can I justify myself before God when I have done my best and still failed?” If we are all “more or less Deists,” as Cardinal Kasper asserts, then this question surely is related to the question that Cardinal Kasper believes is the modern one: “How can I do justice to myself and to my own life?”

The answer that Luther found, in sacred Scriptures first, and then in scores of Church Fathers, was that one is acceptable and pleasing to God “by grace... through faith; and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God––not because of the works, lest anyone should boast.” Good works, Luther came to realize, will flow from this confident trust in God’s never-to-be-expected love (see Ephesians 2:8-9).

Fr. Neuhaus and I agree with Cardinal Kasper’s conclusion that “at the beginning of a new century and a new millennium, the churches face the ecumenical challenge of a new evangelization.” But that new evangelism will surely fail if it ignores the centuries-old Pauline-Augustinian-Lutheran dialectical understanding of the Gospel, which speaks to those who may have little experience of guilt, but know very well what it means to try their best to be a good son or daughter or husband or wife or parent or neighbor or citizen––and still fail.

Philip J. Secker
The Arthur Carl Piepkorn Center for Evangelical Catholicity
Storrs, Connecticut

Ave Maria

When we were born, our awestruck mother smiled.

God gave her love to give the wondering child.

And later, seeing such a little one,

We feel her endless grace and pass it on.

Robert Greer Cohn

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