Politics & Policy

Bigotry’s New Low

The New Republic's taunt.

The government of the United States, George Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport in 1790, “gives to bigotry no sanction.” But now The New Republic does.

”The anti-Semitism of the intellectuals,” Peter Vierek once shrewdly remarked, “is anti-Catholicism.” In its January 21 issue, The New Republic has sunk into the swamp of bigotry as low as it could go. It gave 25 pages to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen so that he could offer Catholics a theological interpretation of what their faith entails, and hint broadly that the Church deserves destruction as an ally of the anti-Christ and enemy of humankind.

In Goldhagen’s fevered view, the startling uniqueness of Adolf Hitler’s totalitarian racial hatred, a uniqueness that preoccupied a generation of philosophers of history, has been diminished until Hitler for him is only a later “chapter” in the long history of Catholic perfidy and nefariousness toward the Jews.

So Judeo-centered is Goldhagen’s theology, moreover, that in his view Catholic faith is reduced to its doctrines about the Jews, as these are imagined in his own passionate mind.

True enough, Professor Goldhagen has many reasons for internal agony and unquenchable anger. Many members of his family were brutally exterminated by the Nazis simply for being Jews. The scope and the execution of the Shoah are vile beyond description, worthy of all our anger, inexhaustibly so, and his too.

True enough, many evils, sufferings, and humiliations were inflicted upon Jews by Catholics down the centuries, for which tears, repentances, and askings of pardon are in order; for which no amount of tears, repentances, and askings of pardon could suffice in justice. Mercy must be pleaded for.

The calm and objective assessment of wrong — with due regard for every circumstance — was not, however, Goldhagen’s aim, neither as moral judge nor as historian. His tirade is theological in form, making an argument about the theological nature of Catholicism, its doctrines, its criteria for martyrdom and for sainthood, its proper relation to Judaism, its conception of what its mission as Church is (its ecclesiology), its relation to truth and its ideal relation to other religions.

In its title (chosen perhaps by his editors, but well justified by his closing questions), Goldhagen opens with a theological taunt: “What would Jesus do?” There is no evidence in Goldhagen’s work, nor in the recent history of The New Republic, that such a question is one he himself or the magazine for which he writes takes seriously. Nor is there any sign that he, or the magazine, has examined the life, work, and words of Jesus to see just what Jesus in fact did in the circumstances of his day closest to those of today. In other words, not a serious question but a taunt.

Regarding Roman imperialism, the subjection of the Jews, the Roman practices of slavery and torture (such as Jesus was made to suffer himself), according to the New Testament Jesus was, well, silent. “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were of this world, do you doubt that my Father would send legions of angels to my aid?”

His silence infuriated his accusers.

Unlike Jesus, Pius XII was not silent regarding the Jews. As secretary of state to Pius XI, he almost certainly had a determining hand in the letter condemning Hitler that Goldhagen praises, With Burning Concern (Mit Brennender Sorge). Through the broadcasts of Vatican Radio, regularly amplified for the English-speaking world through The Tablet of London and the British intelligence and broadcasting services, Pius XII was the first to tell the world about the sufferings of Jews (by name) and other minorities, including during the war years more millions of Catholics than Jews. Much that the New York Times and the London Times published about the plight of Jews, Poles, and other civilians during the early war years came from the Vatican, through its radio broadcasts, papal statements, and the Pope’s newspaper (totally dependent on Mussolini for newsprint and less free than Vatican Radio) Osservatore Romano.

Although I have not read them myself, I am told by people I trust that the sworn depositions for the evidentiary process of beatification and canonization of Pius XII contain testimonies by persons well-known for their efforts to help the Jews, who affirm that they received specific instructions from the Pope to do so.

Even those scholars who minimize what the Pope did have had to admit that his personal efforts saved scores of thousands of Jews (in Hungary, Goldhagen admits) — too little, too late, they say. Was not what Schindler and Raul Wallenberg did also too little, too late, and yet altogether noble?

Why didn’t Pope Pius XII just warn all Europeans that mass extermination was happening, Goldhagen asks, so that they might hear the warning, and get away while they could? It is touching, the power that Goldhagen attributes to the Pope. Nearly all the popes of the twentieth century had had the experience of giving warnings about the impending madness of war and the barbarity it would lead to. The popes did not gain the impression that people were listening to them with baited breath. They were totally ignored.

During the preceding 150 years, beginning when Napoleon dragged Pius VI as a prisoner to Paris and kept him in solitary confinement, pope after pope was threatened with violence and humiliation by secular rulers. Memories of the thorough destruction of the Church in France after the Revolution of 1789 — monks and nuns driven from their religious houses, seminaries turned into barracks, churches used as stables, libraries and colleges confiscated, and scores of thousands of the devout slaughtered — were still fresh. As late as 1890, young nuns in France taking their vows did not have their hair cut off in the traditional ceremony, in the expectation that they might be driven from the convent at any time and would need to have their hair at normal length.

Pius XII quite bravely had resisted advice to take refuge in America for the duration, living within daily danger of imprisonment by Mussolini and Hitler. He formulated a clear policy and stuck to it faithfully throughout the war, under the intense and passionate criticism of many within and outside the Vatican. The Poles, especially, were outraged that all through 1939 and 1940, the Pope never spoke out forcefully in their explicit defense, even though hundreds of thousands of them were already being herded into concentration camps, work trains bound for Germany, prisons, or simply slaughtered in villages, especially priests, nuns, and intellectuals of any sort. Nor did the Pope single out the fate of the Gypsies, or the handicapped, or any single group. Knowing Hitler well from first-hand experience in Germany, he knew what statements would only make Hitler redouble his depredations.

One may argue with Pius XII’s principles, but one cannot argue that they marked out the course from which he did not waver: (1) neutrality as between the belligerent powers, in the case that papal mediation might one day be sought; (2) timely and clear enunciation of relevant moral principles (platitudes, as Goldhagen calls them; the timeless moral law); and (3) the denunciation of egregious abuses of moral principles, such as mass murders, the imprisonment of civilians solely for racial or religious or ethnic reasons, and mass bombings from airplanes of civilian populations in cities. Many people at the time — the British ambassador who was living inside the Vatican, for instance — told the Pope to his face that his words were not concrete and vivid enough, and that he should say more. Judging by how clearly the Nazis and the Allies interpreted what he had already said, the Pope argued that his words were getting through loud and clear, and that the course he had chosen was the course most likely to do the most good.

The Pope did not lack courage, and he did not lack clarity of mind. Mistaken he may have been. Open to criticism like any other mortal he certainly is. He prayed much and suffered much internally under the pressure. But he did not waver. After the war, he received immense plaudits from the citizens of Italy, including the Jewish community of Rome, the nation of Israel, the Israeli Philharmonic that traveled to the Vatican in 1955 to give a concert in gratitude, and Jewish and other groups throughout the world. The rabbi of Rome became a Catholic, in large measure through being stirred by the assistance given Jews by the Pope and friendships formed in the process.

Though I am not a professional historian, I have read enough on Pius XII — and have a sizable personal library on the period — that I see the transparent tendentiousness of nearly every historical point that Goldhagen raises. In every case, he selects accounts or facts that set the Pope in the light he wishes to put popes into, and ignores facts, testimonies, and accounts that sharply contradict his version of events.

Yet let us suppose for a moment that every accusation Goldhagen makes against Pius XII is true. So then we had, as Publisher Peretz has it, a “wicked man” as pope. Well, it wouldn’t have been the first one. Indeed, Goldhagen says there is a danger in concentrating on Pius XII, because his personal behavior isn’t the issue. What is wrong with Christianity runs through all the popes. It infects the core of Christian theology itself. It corrupts the very essence of the Church. What Goldhagen calls for is nothing less than the extermination of the Church as it now is and has been since the beginning. Ecrasez l’infame.

The great sin of which Goldhagen accuses the Church is its “supersessionist creed,” namely, its clear teaching that the New Covenant supersedes the Old Covenant. Even to speak of “New” and “Old,” Goldhagen quotes a soulmate, “is inherently supersessionist.”

As John Paul II has made clear, however, the Jewish Testament remains valid; God can no more become unfaithful to His covenant with the Jews than He can to His covenant with Christians. The relation between Jews and Christians, therefore, is asymmetrical. Christians must understand and accept Jewish faith, in order to accept Christian faith. Their God is also the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Apart from the background, principles, and prophecies of the Jewish Testament, the Christian Testament does not make sense. Christians, in order to be Christians, must be Jews in belief (though not in circumcision and ritual), in a way that, in order to be Jews, Jews need not be Christians. That is the asymmetry.

To put this another way, in order to go deeper into their own faith as Christians, it is both common and altogether necessary for Christians to go deeper into the Jewish Testament and plumb all they can of Judaism, the Judaism of serious reflection today, as well as of yesteryear. For this reason, Christians today need a vital, believing Jewish community that will lead them into the depths of Jewish faith. The reverse can scarcely be said of Jews, many of whom feel no need whatever, in order to be Jews, to study Christian doctrine or history.

Goldhagen puzzles over what the Church can mean when it says, “Church,” in a way that is separate from the individual “sons and daughters of the Church,” who include popes and bishops and priests, as well as laity. What is left over, beyond the sociological individuals who make up the Church? Well, once upon a time, Saul of Tarsus was holding the coats of Jewish youths who were stoning to death a young Christian, Stephen. A bit later, when Saul was riding on his horse to death toward Damascus, a bright light overcame him and, fallen from his horse, he recognized the voice of Jesus, who asked him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” Saul had not been persecuting Jesus, but only Stephen. It burst upon him that Jesus was saying that what was done to any Christian was done to Him, Jesus, the Son of God. An invisible vitality links all Christians as one in Christ.

Christians believe that Jesus is God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the One indivisible God. They believe that God lives in every baptized Christian (and many other persons of good will, who love God with all their hearts and minds and souls). When they say “Church,” they mean primarily this presence of God. They do not attribute sin to God, only to those who are false to what is in them. Thus, only secondarily do they mean, in the ordinary sociological sense, all those sinners who make up the actual lists of parishes, dioceses, and worldwide tribunals. It would be otiose to expect non-Catholics to use this language, or even to find it believable (or intelligible). But since Goldhagen asked, it seemed a duty to mention it.

Goldhagen might recall that something similar was once said of Israel, the unblemished Beloved of Yahweh, even when individual Israelites turned to worship idols, and rejected Moses and the Law. Even then God faithfully loved Israel.

Goldhagen’s center of gravity is the Jewish Covenant. It is obviously not easy for him to see the world from a different center of gravity. It is quite wrong of him to try to force Christians into his frame of reference. After the trial, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which confirmed his three years of teaching, it would not be reasonable to ask Christians to renounce the centrality to their faith of the Second Covenant.

Had Goldhagen been content as a historian merely to assess both the pluses and the minuses of the moral life of Pius XII, and even if given his own preoccupations he had come down hard on the verdict that Pius XII was a wicked man, he would not be liable to the charge of bigotry. Indeed, he himself tries to defend himself against this charge, as if in foreknowledge that he may deserve it, by reporting the apology for sins of anti-Semitism voiced by the bishops of France in 1997 — an apology which many of us accept as our own, and which John Paul II has renewed in many words and deeds.

The reason Goldhagen is quite guilty of the charge of anti-Catholicism lies in the breadth and passion of the smears he spreads across a broad history, the distortion and hysteria of his tone, the extremity of his rage, and the lack of proportion in his judgments — dwarfing Hitler and making Pius XII a giant of evil, and then diminishing Pius XII so as to indict the whole of Christian theology down the ages. It is disingenuous of him to stop at Christ, the good and gentle Christ of his parody, and at the edges of the Christian Testament, which is our main source for knowledge about the character and teachings of Christ.

Goldhagen went over the top in disqualifying Catholics from any moral standing, so long as they hold to Catholic faith as it is. He wants a new type of Catholicism to supersede the old. In this, he reminds me not a little of Voltaire and other haters of the Church. The Enlightenment, too, was supersessionist in its self-conception, its light triumphing over the darkness of Rome — and not just of Rome, but of Jerusalem as well.

We have all had to learn that we must accept one another’s reality as we are, without trying to make others over into our own image of what they ought to be. We can appeal to one another in argument and in debate, in mutual searching, and even in mutual fraternal correction of one another’s oversights and errors. But mutual honor and respect are the first preconditions of dialogue. It is sad that The New Republic went over to the side of a bigotry that makes dialogue impossible. After many centuries of woe, we need every moment of dialogue that we can get.


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