The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

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An article on Jewish Review, titled "Conference explores 
Catholic teachings from Holocaust" discusses the declaration 
"We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah". The Catholic Church 
issued his important document at the behest of Pope Paul in 1998.

The declaration was good intentioned but self-exculpatory. 
It said things like, "The Shoah was the work of a thoroughly 
modern neo-pagan regime. Its anti-Semitism had its roots 
outside of Christianity" and "Sentiments of anti-Judaism in 
some Christian quarters and the gap which existed between the 
Church and the Jewish people led to a generalized discrimination..."
and "[Jews] were looked upon with a certain suspicion and 
mistrust. In times of crisis such as famine, war, pestilence 
or social tensions, the Jewish minority was sometimes taken 
as a scapegoat and became the victim of violence, looting, 
even massacres".<1> 

Pope John Paul II himself said "In the Christian world - I do 
not say on the part of the Church as such - erroneous and 
unjust interpretations of the New Testament 
regarding the Jewish people and their alleged culpability have 
circulated for too long."<2> 

Both the declaration and what the 
pope said are misleading, because even though I can agree that 
Nazism was neo-pagan, it was standing on a Christian foundation. 
Despite the regime's strongest efforts, the vast majority of 
the population remained church-going Christians. It's also 
simply untrue that the antisemitism of the Nazis had its roots 
outside Christianity. Nazi antisemitism was secular and racial, 
but its roots were deeply entrenched in Christian teachings. 
Also, discrimination against Jews in Christendom did not come 
from "Sentiments of anti-Judaism" in "some" Christian quarters. 

It came from official, systematic disparagement from the popes 
down to parish priests, from Church Fathers to theologians. 
And it didn't affect "some" Christians. The hatred was pervasive 
and generalized. It was the norm, not the exception. When 
John Paul talked about "the Christian world" but not "the 
Church as such" he was misleading because he was suggesting 
the problem was a bunch of rotten apples, and thus exculpated 
the church and most Catholics. But the reality was the other 
way around. Some Christians argue that these "rotten apples"
were not true Christians, not representative of the general 
population. This is not correct. If we were to call "Christian"
only those who conform to an idealized, Jesus-like individual, 
then there would be very few Christians in the world.

The "he was not a Christian" type of argument is not 
restricted to Christianity. The post-WWII Germans said 
"We didn't know", "It wasn't us" or "It was just a few 
thousand SS, not the German people". Well, it's true that 
thousands of Germans perpetrated the Holocaust, in the sense 
of throwing poison gas into a gas chamber or mowing hundreds 
of people down into a mass grave, but this people did not 
spontaneously come from nowhere. The perpetrators were able 
to do what they did because millions of bystanders thought 
it was the right thing to do.

At the Conference on History 1933-1948 at the University of 
Portland Rev. John Pawlikowski discussed the role of Catholic 
theology in  the Holocaust. (You can read Rev. Pawlikowski’s 
endorsement of Six Million Crucifixions here.) As he said, 
scholars agree that “The Holocaust succeeded in a climate 
impacted by Christians for centuries. … [Christianity] provided 
a seedbed--at least for acquiescence during the attacks on Jews." 
He quoted various Catholic leaders who recognized this background, 
including "We Remember". But unfortunately Pope Benedict is 
moving away from the courage shown by other Catholic leaders, 
like the French bishops who issued the "Declaration of Repentance"
in 1997, certainly a more forthright mea culpa than We Remember: 
"It is important to admit the primary role, if not direct, then 
indirect, played by the constantly repeated anti-Jewish stereotypes 
wrongly perpetuated among Christians in the historical process that 
led to the Holocaust...

According to theologians it is a well-attested fact that a tradition of 
anti-Judaism affected Christian doctrine and teachings, theology 
and apologetics, preaching and liturgy in various degrees and 
prevailed among Christians throughout the centuries until 
Vatican Council II. This soil nurtured the poisonous plant 
of contempt for Jews with its legacy of serious consequences, 
which until our century, have been difficult to remove. Wounds 
resulting from this contempt are still open and unhealed.

To the extent that the priests and leaders of the Church for so 
long allowed the teaching of contempt to develop and fostered 
in Christian communities a collective religious culture which 
permanently affected and deformed mentalities, they bear a 
serious responsibility. One can conclude that even though 
they condemned the pagan roots of antisemitic theories, they 
failed to challenge these secular thoughts and attitudes by 
not clarifying understandings as they should have.

As a result consciences were often lethargic, their capacity 
considerably weakened in face of the sudden appearance of 
national socialist antisemitism's criminal violence, a diabolic 
and extreme form of contempt for Jews based in categories of 
race and blood, openly directed at the physical elimination of 
the Jewish people."<3>


1. We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,
2. Address to Participants in a Symposium on "The Roots of 
   Anti-Judaism in the Christian Milieu", n. 1, 
   31 October 1997; ORE, 5 November 1997, p. 1

Gabriel Wilensky

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