What the church owes Jews, and itself

John K. Roth, professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, is the co-editor of "Good News After Auschwitz? Christian Faith Within a Post-Holocaust World" as well as "Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust."

When Daniel Goldhagen’s first book, “Hitler’s Willing Executioners,” was published in 1996, it ignited controversy for arguing that ordinary Germans, not just the SS and Nazi party members, chose to implement the Final Solution. Goldhagen was widely criticized for views that seemed oversimplified, empirically questionable and arrogantly argued, but as time passed -- and especially owing to the book’s favorable reception in Germany -- his work withstood much of the criticism.

Such a reaction undoubtedly awaits “A Moral Reckoning,” a book that vigorously challenges the Roman Catholic Church to take responsibility for its role in the Holocaust. According to Goldhagen, Pope Pius XII was an anti-Semite and the church was “more a collaborator than a victim of Nazism.” He argues that the New Testament’s “libelous and hate-inducing passages about Jews” must go, and he calls for a radical reformation to remove from Christianity the anti-Semitism that implicated it in the Holocaust and still leaves that tradition immorally mired in deception and hypocrisy.

“Unpretentious,” “indecisive,” “moderate” and “patient” are not words that come to mind when reading Goldhagen. Insisting that it is high time to “call a spade a spade,” he has written a post-Holocaust moral reckoning with Christianity, and the Roman Catholic Church in particular, that pulls few punches and guarantees a hard-hitting bout over history, ethics and theology. Goldhagen’s book is unlikely to leave its readers indifferent. Its significance, however, depends less on immediate reactions and more on what happens 10, 20 or even 100 years after its appearance. Goldhagen may be helping to create a new Christianity. It will take time to tell.

Goldhagen’s reckoning begins in two places. First, he believes that the Roman Catholic Church, the Vatican and the wartime popes, Pius XI and especially Pius XII, should be judged no differently than any other institutions or persons -- with one qualification: The church, its members and particularly its leaders should be held accountable to the highest ethical standards of justice and love that they profess as Christians. Second, Goldhagen places anti-Semitism at the heart of his indictment. Deeply rooted in falsehoods about Jews -- none worse than the New Testament’s allegation that the Jews are Christ-killers or even the offspring of Satan -- anti-Semitism’s many varieties reflect and inflame hostility against Jews “simply because they are Jews.”


Goldhagen acknowledges that the post-Holocaust church has gradually repudiated the allegations of Jewish responsibility for the killing of Jesus. It has also rejected collective Jewish guilt and punishment for that crime. Before and during the Holocaust, however, such repudiations by Christians -- Protestants as well as Catholics -- were few and far between. To the contrary, Goldhagen documents that the church’s anti-Semitism was institutional. As the church’s anti-Jewish teachings were transmitted from one generation to another, Western civilization became increasingly drenched in anti-Semitism’s poison.

The anti-Semitism that Christianity embodied, inspired and inflamed was “eliminationist.” Clarifying a point central to controversy that swirled when “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” appeared, Goldhagen underscores that eliminationist anti-Semitism “does not necessarily mean killing” Jews and that “the Catholic Church was doctrinally opposed to, and itself did not advocate, killing Jews.” That said, Goldhagen adds that the lack of persistent and public church protest against the Third Reich’s slaughter of European Jewry scarcely inspires confidence that the church was completely opposed to the mass annihilation.

Goldhagen rejects the apologetics that excuse the lack of public protest against the persecution and murder of Jews. He utterly rejects any reasoning that tries to excuse Pope Pius XII in particular on the grounds that if he had spoken out more forthrightly in their favor, then the Jews would have suffered even more under Hitler. Cutting in the opposite direction, his analysis of the evidence points to a devastating conclusion: The church found that “letting Jews die was preferable to intervening on their behalf.” Goldhagen’s analysis leaves a nagging suspicion. Despite deplorably bloody tactics in which the church would not involve itself directly, did its leaders feel, without ever saying so, that it would be beneficial to be rid of the Jews, one way or another?

In a fundamental disagreement with “We Remember,” the Roman Catholic Church’s official statement on the Holocaust in 1998, Goldhagen finds the church speaking nonsense when it asserts that the Nazis’ racial anti-Semitism “had its roots outside of Christianity.” He argues persuasively that “the church’s accusations against Jews were often virtually indistinguishable from those of the racist antisemites.”

At the time of the Holocaust, for example, Nazi and Catholic anti-Semitism agreed that the Jews were increasingly linked to communism, an ideology that Pope Pius XII and many other Catholic leaders loathed. Goldhagen shows that “examples of the Church’s incitement to radical anti-Jewish action are legion.” Absent the seedbed and support provided by Christian anti-Semitism, the Nazis’ racist anti-Semitism could not have been so powerfully credible to the Germans and their allies, who eventually attempted the total elimination of the Jews in the Holocaust.

Other critics have made similar points long before Goldhagen, but he goes further than most in holding the church accountable. Accountability requires truth telling and restitution. The church, Goldhagen appropriately contends, has not told the whole truth about its anti-Semitism and its failure during the Holocaust. A moral reckoning requires it to do so, but that step would not be sufficient. The church, Goldhagen adds, must make amends to Jews and reform itself.

Goldhagen uses the word “must” frequently and unabashedly. His list of “musts” for the church is as challenging as it is long. Especially after the Holocaust, three types of restitution are crucial: material, political and moral. Wherever the church was implicated in exploiting Jews or in expropriating their property, it must work to set every account straight. Goldhagen notes that the German Catholic Church has taken steps in that direction, and he gives credit where it is due. Political restitution is more complicated, because Goldhagen links it to the state of Israel. At the very least, he insists, the church will fail in its moral responsibility toward Jews if it acts to “weaken the foundation of Israel” or takes measures that “might imperil its existence or the lives of many of its citizens.” If those arguably vague criteria create a minefield, moral restitution does so even more.

The most basic task of moral restitution -- eradicate anti-Semitism from Christianity -- sounds simple, but it is not. The changes must go deep down because anti-Semitism lies at the very roots of Christianity. What, then, should the church do, and how must it change? For starters, the church should halt immediately the canonization of any person -- read Pius XII specifically -- who aided and abetted the persecution of Jews.


In addition, the church must recognize that anti-Semitism has been inseparable from its authoritarian and imperialistic pretensions and must abandon papal infallibility, dissolve the Vatican as a political state, embrace religious pluralism to make clear that salvation does not come through the church alone and revise its official catechism to make unmistakable that any teaching smacking of anti-Semitism is “wrong, null and void.”

The biggest issue, however, is the church’s “Bible problem.” Goldhagen’s reading of the New Testament leaves him with two striking impressions: First, Christianity is “a religion of love that teaches its members the highest moral principles for acting well. Love your neighbor. Seek peace. Help those in need. Sympathize with and raise up the oppressed. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Second, the New Testament’s “relentless and withering assault on Jews and Judaism” is not incidental because it portrays the Jews as “the ontological enemy” of Jesus, goodness and God.

The “Bible problem,” moreover, is not just that two apparently contradictory perspectives collide but that the collision takes place in texts that are regarded as sacred and divinely inspired. The need, Goldhagen contends, is for Christians to rewrite the New Testament, to expunge anti-Semitism from it, but he recognizes how difficult, perhaps insurmountable, that task may be. Nevertheless, Goldhagen does not despair. He thinks that the Christian tradition can be self-corrective, resilient and revitalized if Christians find the will to be true to their tradition’s best teachings about love and justice.

Goldhagen does not presume to rewrite the New Testament. Nor does he venture to define everything that a truly post-Holocaust church should be. His book contains touches of modesty after all. Meanwhile, if the Roman Catholic Church, and by implication all churches, moved in his direction, it would not be the first time that a Jewish teacher has shown Christians the way. Goldhagen seems to be betting that Christianity can gain new life by letting its old one die. How many Christians will welcome such prospects remains unknown, but such hope should be familiar to them. It would be good for post-Holocaust followers of Jesus to embrace it.