The Church and the Holocaust, yet again

Published March 12, 2003

The Catholic Difference

<msoNormal$3>They just won’t quit, will they?

<msoNormal$3>Late last year, Knopf published Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s book, A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair. By the second half of his subtitle, Dr. Goldhagen means nothing less than that the Catholic Church should stop being the Catholic Church: it should censor the New Testament, reject its belief in Christ as Savior, and abandon its hierarchical structure. Why? Because, according to the Harvard historian, Catholic beliefs and structures are responsible for the Holocaust of European Jews.

<msoNormal$3>Then there is the recent Costa-Gavras film, Amen, based on Rolf Hochhuth’s play, The Deputy, which launched the attack on Pope Pius XII in the early 1960s. For a decade and a half, Pius XII had been praised, by Jews and gentiles alike, as a man responsible for saving tens, and perhaps hundreds, of thousands of Jewish lives during the war; Rolf Hochhuth was a former Hitler Youth, which might have given him pause about casting stones. It evidently didn’t, and The Deputy kick-started the black legend about Pius XII and the Holocaust that has become a considerable academic and polemical industry ever since.

<msoNormal$3>Goldhagen’s Moral Reckoning isn’t serious scholarship; it’s so riddled with factual errors that it ought to be an embarrassment to its publisher. Neither is Amen a great movie. Allow me a longish quote from a review by my colleague, the distinguished film critic James Bowman, which addresses the central thesis of both the movie and the Goldhagen book:


<msoNormal$3>“A criminal lunatic takes a family hostage and begins murdering them one by one. As the police close in, a kindly neighbor creeps into the house under the kidnaper’s gun and manages to spirit two of the family’s children out and to safety. After the siege is over and the killer and the rest of the family are all dead, a former associate of the perp in one of his criminal enterprises comes forward with a stinging indictment of – the kindly neighbor! Instead of quietly saving those two lives, this person says, the neighbor should have become a moral popinjay and made a public parade of his firm disapproval of murder and kidnaping – so incurring, if possible, a pointless martyrdom. Not to have done so amounted to complicity in the crime. If this argument makes sense to you, you are probably Rolf Hochhuth…”

<msoNormal$3>Or, perhaps, Professor Goldhagen.

<msoNormal$3>No serious student of history doubts that Christian anti-Jewish prejudice, manifest in European society and law for centuries, helped prepare the psychological and cultural ground for Hitler’s “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” Indeed, Christian anti-Jewish bias was a major factor in keeping alive into the mid-twentieth century the idea that there was a “Jewish Question.” But there is a radical difference in kind between Christian anti-Jewish bias and Nazi-anti-Semitism, which was “eliminationist” (to borrow a neologism from Dr. Goldhagen) in a way that Christian anti-Jewish prejudice never could be. Christians who imagined themselves to be “eliminationist” anti-Semites as a matter of religious conviction in fact cut the legs out from under their own faith. The venerable word for people who do that is “heretic” – specifically, Marcionite.


<msoNormal$3>A wiser reader of Holocaust history, the eminent Jewish scholar Lucy Dawidowicz, argued that the Holocaust wasn’t the product of European Christianity but of European Christianity’s collapse. When “Christendom” fractured during the Reformation, two forces were set in motion that would eventually have lethal consequences for European Jewry: Europeans rejected the idea of a natural moral law – the Christian claim that there are moral truths embedded in the world and in us, truths accessible to human reason.– and Europeans embraced the absolutism of the modern nation-state. The Nazis added a weird paganism and an even weirder “scientific” anti-Semitism to the mix. But the foundation had been laid for several hundred years: not by Christian doctrine, but by the rejection of Christian ideas of the person and the state.

<msoNormal$3>That doesn’t fit the conventional secularist story-line in contemporary European and American high culture. But it’s light-years closer to the truth than Daniel John Goldhagen or Costa-Gavras manages to get. And the truth about the Holocaust is one we all ignore at our peril.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.

Upcoming Event |

Roger Scruton: America


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today