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An Excerpt from “Jesuit Kaddish” by James Bernauer, S.J.

While much has been written about the Catholic Church and the Holocaust, little has been published about the hostile role of priests, in particular Jesuits, toward Jews and Judaism. Jesuit Kaddish: Jesuits, Jews, and Holocaust Remembrance is a long overdue study that looks at Jesuit hostility toward Judaism before the Shoah, and then examines the development of a new understanding of the Catholic Church’s relation to Judaism that culminated with Vatican II’s landmark decree Nostra aetate.

From Chapter One, “The Exorcising Examen of John Paul II”

Shortly after Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy took charge of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews in January of 1990, the commission began work on what was intended to be a single Roman Catholic document on the Shoah. It soon became quite clear that this was not the ideal course, because the experiences of different countries were so different during the Holocaust period. As a consequence, various national conferences of bishops spoke out before the Vatican’s own statement was released in March 1998. 

The German bishops issued their statement in 1995 as an explicit observance of the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. While recognizing that there were many individual acts of assistance to Jews, they admitted that “Christians did not offer due resistance to racial antisemitism,” and they confessed a general indifference that paved the way for crimes or even for some to become criminals themselves. The German declaration integrated two previous episcopal statements that had confessed guilt. A 1975 resolution had stated that “we were nevertheless, as a whole, a church community who kept on living our lives while turning our backs too often on the fate of this persecuted Jewish people.” In 1988, on the fiftieth anniversary of the pogroms against the Jewish community of November 9/10, the Conferences of West Germany, Austria, and Berlin issued a statement titled “Accepting the Burden of History.” The document claimed that, in the interest of not provoking a further escalation of the Nazi State’s struggle against the Church, the bishops had not made a public protest against the pogroms. Despite that, they had asked “if in November 1938 yet other expressions of brotherly solidarity would not have been possible and expected; for example, a common prayer for the innocently persecuted, or a demonstrative, renewed intensification of the Christian law of love. That this was neglected, saddens us today when we perceive the defense of basic human rights as a duty that goes beyond denominations, classes and races.” 

Two months before the German statement was made, the Hungarian bishops commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the deportation of the Hungarian Jews and requested forgiveness for those Church members who “through fear, cowardice, or opportunism, failed to raise their voices against the mass humiliation, deportation, and murder of their Jewish neighbors.” The Polish bishops had issued an important declaration in 1990, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of “Nostra Aetate,” in which they had asked for forgiveness: “If only one Christian could have helped and did not stretch out a helping hand to a Jew during the time of danger or caused his death, we must ask for forgiveness of our Jewish brothers and sisters.” In their statement of January 1995, the Polish bishops condemned those Catholics who had contributed to the deaths of Jews. They also paid tribute to the many Poles who had lost their lives in efforts to rescue Jews. In October of 1995 the Dutch bishops spoke. They took notice of the sufferings of the Dutch people and praised the courageous actions of the Dutch episcopacy during the war, but then they denounced “a tradition of theological and ecclesiastical anti-Judaism” that “contributed to the climate which made the Shoah possible.” They continued, “With our pope and other episcopal conferences, we condemn every form of antisemitism as a sin against God and humanity.” In March, 1997, the Swiss bishops criticized their own country for its compromises during the war, especially its failure to welcome as many refugees as it could have. But they also criticized Christians as such for those teachings that persecuted and marginalized Jews and were the sources of antisemitic sentiments. In reference to these acts and teachings, the bishops declared: “We proclaim ourselves culpable and ask pardon of the descendents of the victims.” 

The French bishops chose to make their forceful statement in Drancy, the Paris suburb from which Jews had been shipped to Nazi death camps. They accused those who had exercised authority in the Church of a “loyalism and docility which went far beyond the obedience traditionally accorded civil authorities.” They said that religious teachings had “deformed people’s attitudes” and provided the ground “on which the venomous plant of hatred for the Jews was able to flourish.” Even if it can be shown that religious authorities had condemned antisemitism as pagan in origin, “they did not enlighten people’s minds as they ought because they failed to call into question these centuries-old ideas and attitudes.” The depth of the French declaration echoed the private analysis that the French Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac, SJ, had written in 1944 for Jacques Maritain, who had just been named the ambassador to the Holy See. The document, conserved in Maritain’s archives, was published only in 1992. De Lubac’s indictment of the French bishops is severe: he said they did not have a real sense of the Church’s independence, of its spiritual authority no matter who is in power; their involvement in administration led them to downplay their evangelical mission; they did not possess a good understanding of Christian doctrine, and thus were weak in their confrontation of Hitler’s propaganda; the Church had lost touch with its people, most of whom seemed to support the Resistance, while the bishops appeared to favor the Vichy government of Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain; finally, de Lubac charged that the bishops had tended to think of themselves as functionaries of the state rather than as exercising shared leadership in the international Catholic Church.

This blog post is part of the Enriching Scholarly Communication and Connections through Notre Dame Press project and has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at www.neh.gov.

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