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Roberto Rivera on Christianity & Anti-Semitism
“What Would Jesus Have Done?” was the question posed by a cover story in The New Republic in January 2001. In it, Daniel Goldhagen continued the argument he first made in his book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: that for at least two centuries prior to Hitler, the German people were in the thrall of what he calls “exterminationist anti-Semitism.” Thus, Hitler’s contribution to the Holocaust did not consist so much in creating a murderous ideology as in providing the means for the German people to do what they had always wanted to do.
And at the heart of this “exterminationist anti-Semitism” was Christianity. As Goldhagen writes, “[It is important] for us to focus on the Christian churches when trying to understand the nature of anti-Semitism in Germany during the Nazi period.”
To put it mildly, Goldhagen’s thesis is controversial, even among Holocaust scholars. Many of them point out that Goldhagen has not uncovered any new facts, just given old ones a contentious new spin. The best riposte to Goldhagen came from Clive James in The New Yorker, who said that Goldhagen, in effect, lets Hitler “off the hook” by treating the Holocaust as the product of historical forces and not the evil of one man and the demonic ideology he spawned. As James famously put it, it is impossible for Goldhagen to fathom that “in the form of Hitler, Satan visited the Earth, recruited an army of sinners, and fought and won a battle against God.”
Five years later, Goldhagen has, to paraphrase Father Richard Neuhaus, committed another book. This one is called A Moral Reckoning: The Catholic Church During the Holocaust and Today. Goldhagen’s 27,000-word New Republic article previewed the argument of the book. If anything, he has created an even bigger controversy this time around. Using books such as Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews by James Carroll and Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII by John Cornwell as a springboard, Goldhagen goes beyond indicting the pope and the Church for failing to act in a way that was commensurate with the evil of the Holocaust.
He does not even stop at blaming the Church for contributing to the anti-Semitism that was a prerequisite to the slaughter of six million Jews. No, according to Goldhagen, the Church “prepared the social soil eventually tilled by others for Nazism to flourish.” He writes that the Church was “greatly sympathetic to the Germans’ eliminationist impulses. . . .” Readers are told that “there is no difference in kind between the Church’s ‘anti-Judaism’ and its off-shoot European ‘anti-Semitism.’”
And what about those statements that indicated sympathy for European Jews? Charades! When a Catholic newspaper urged its readers to “show Christian charity to the Jews,” it was being insincere. And the 1939 papal encyclical that condemned Nazism and doctrines of racial purity was actually a form of what Goldhagen calls “soft Nazism.” In the end, as Andrew Sullivan concluded, Goldhagen does not stop until one is left with the conclusion that “there was no relevant moral difference between Nazism and Catholicism in the 1930s and 1940s,” and that “the cross and the swastika are interchangeable.”
It is worth noting that this time, as last time, Goldhagen’s critics include Jewish writers and scholars. Sam Schulman, writing in the Jewish World Review, compares Goldhagen to a “badly educated prosecuting attorney” who ignores crucial evidence, such as the Nazis deriding Pius XII, back when he was Vatican Secretary of State, as a “Jew-loving cardinal” for his 55 protests against the treatment of Jews.
Rabbi David Dalin, a fellow at Princeton’s James Madison program, goes even further. Writing in The Weekly Standard, Dalin says that Goldhagen’s “polemic” against Catholicism “fails to meet even the minimum standards of scholarship” and calls Knopf’s decision to publish the book “an intellectual and publishing scandal.” (Goldhagen’s work, he suggests, “seems to be turning into a staple for leftists whose hatred of Catholicism derives from the Church’s opposition to abortion and the rest of the liberationist agenda.”)
Other writers have noted that even scholars critical of the pope’s public statements admit that his personal efforts saved scores of thousands of Jews (even Goldhagen admits that he helped save many Jews in Hungary). If, as the pope’s critics say, his efforts were “too little, too late,” Michael Novak asks, “was not what Schindler and Raul Wallenberg did also too little, too late, and yet altogether noble?”
It is tempting for non-Catholics to think of all of this as a purely Catholic problem. That would be a mistake. For starters, the German state was, as Schulman puts it, traditionally more Protestant than Catholic. What’s more, the so-called German Christians were much more Protestant than Catholic. Yes, Hitler was baptized a Catholic, but using that against Rome is like blaming Baptists for the Enron debacle because Kenneth Lay’s dad was a Baptist preacher.
The real reason all Christians should consider smears like Goldhagen’s an attack against all of Christianity lies in Goldhagen’s account of Christian anti-Semitism. He tells readers that the Catholic Church has “harbored anti-Semitism at its core; as an integral part of its doctrine, its theology, and its liturgy. It did so with the divine justification of the Christian Bible that Jews were ‘Christ-killers,’ minions of the Devil.”
In other words, the problem lies in what Catholics believe. And guess what? He’s not talking about the Immaculate Conception or the Real Presence. And it goes beyond the Scripture’s—specifically, the Gospel of John’s—assignment of blame for Christ’s death.
For Goldhagen, Catholicism’s great sin is its belief that the New (and eternal) Covenant fulfills, completes, and interprets the Old Covenant—what is sometimes called (inaccurately) “supersessionism.” Merely to refer to the “Old” and “New” Testaments is an act of belligerence and intolerance towards Jews, even if we go out of our way to express our respect and affection for those John Paul II has called “our elder brothers.”
Of course, this is just as true of orthodox Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Christians as Catholics. If you believe that in Christ God fulfilled the promises made to Israel, you are an anti-Semite. If you believe that the Old Testament should be read in light of the New Testament, you are an anti-Semite. And if you believe that, as St. Paul says, the Church is the new Israel, well, you might as well beat the rush and enroll your kids in Hitlerjugend now. In Goldhagen’s world, the only way any Christian escapes the taint of anti-Semitism is to distance himself from historic Christian teaching.
So why single out Rome? Partly because of the dominant role that the Catholic Church has played in Western history. But it is also true that if you discredit the Bishop of Rome, if you cast doubt on the Vatican’s standing to provide moral instruction, you have gone a significant part of the way towards ridding this so-called global village of any Christian influence in its public square.
This is not Catholic triumphalism. It is just a statement of fact. As is this: The campaign to discredit Christianity will not stop with Rome. So, if Evangelicals and Catholics cannot bring themselves to stand together now, when will they?
Andrew Sullivan’s comments are taken from his “Goldhagen’s Smear” in The New Republic (January 28, 2002).
Roberto Rivera is a Fellow at the Wilberforce Forum at Prison Fellowship. His work has appeared in Books & Culture, and he is also a regular contributor to the web magazine Boundless. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.