Open Letter to My Students 36: The Catholic Church and Me, Then and Now

A good part of my adult life has been spent in wonderful collaboration with Christian liturgists, many of whom remain my very best friends. Through them, I was introduced to the Catholic Church post-Vatican II (“The Council” in short), which I saw as the mid-20th-century Catholic equivalent of my own 19th-century reform of Judaism. I learned to admire Pope John XXIII, who initiated it, as immensely courageous and farseeing. But reform always begets counter-reform, and with John Paul II and Benedict XVI after him, the conservative reaction set in. 

What really is the Catholic Church of Rome? Is it the expansive, daring, and open-minded church of Vatican II, the church that empowered its laity, transformed its liturgy, opened wide its windows onto the world, and openly disavowed its anti-Semitism? Or is it the reactionary aftermath, the church that threatens to retreat into its more dismal past and resurrect the Latin Mass that still prays for the conversion of the Jews?

I am now discovering yet a third Catholic Church, largely through David Kertzer’s recently published The Pope at War. If you read no other book before summer quietude becomes  autumn madness, make it this one. It reads like a novel, but it is history at its best, based largely on the recently-opened Vatican archives concerning Pope Pius XII. Kertzer won a Pulitzer Prize for his earlier book (2014), The Pope and Mussolini, which traced Pope Pius XI’s tortuous connection to the rise of Italian fascism; The Pope at War is his follow-up study of the much more controversial Pius XII, whose years as Eugenio Pacelli, papal nuncio to the Weimar Republic (1920-1929) made him a committed Germanophile and served as backdrop for his papacy during World War II itself.

It is fifty years, now, since Rolf Hochhuth first faulted Pius XII for his silence in the face of Hitlerian horror, in his 1963 play, The Representative (in English) — but far more troubling (in German), Der Stellvertreter: Ein christliches Trauerspiel  (“The Deputy: a Christian Tragedy”). Hochhuth claimed however, that he was “condemning the sin and not the sinner – not the Church but its silence” and highlighting “the enormous difficulty of living up to the Catholic creed,” something any of us, in any religion, might say of our own faith, given the sins to which religions allied with power are prone. 

By the 1990s, expecting to rescue Pius XII’s reputation from Hochhuth’s damning portrayal, British journalist and committed Catholic, John Cornwall, convinced the Vatican to open its archives to him. The result was Hitler’s Pope (1999), which Cornwall himself summarized in an article in Vanity Fair (October 29, 2013). 

“I was in a state of moral shock. The material I had gathered amounted not to an exoneration but to an indictment more scandalous than Hochhuth’s. The evidence was explosive. It showed for the first time that Pacelli was patently, and by the proof of his own words, anti-Jewish. It revealed that he had helped Hitler to power and at the same time undermined potential Catholic resistance in Germany. It showed that he had implicitly denied and trivialized the Holocaust, despite having reliable knowledge of its true extent.” 

Kertzer’s verdict is more judicious: “Pope Pius XII was certainly not ‘Hitler’s Pope,’” he says. Nazism was “anathema to the pope and to virtually all those around him in the Vatican.” But if not Hitler’s pope, he was at least Hitler’s pawn (or, dare I say, his bishop?), a piece of the world’s chessboard that Hitler played most brilliantly. Perhaps it is true (as the pope’s supporters have claimed) that the megalomaniacal Final Solution would have ground relentlessly on, whatever the pope had said or done. But 35% of Germany and 77% of Poland was Catholic, after all. Wouldn’t at least some of those Catholics on whom the concentration camps at least partly depended have had second thoughts if the pope had instructed his own army of bishops and priests to denounce participation in Jewish genocide as a mortal sin, punishable by eternal damnation?

The fact is, this pope didn’t, even though he knew full well what was happening. By the fall of  1942, he was hearing independently from an American envoy to the Vatican, the Polish ambassador to the Vatican,  an archbishop of the  Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church,  and a member of his own Secretariat of State, that (among other things), Mauthausen was “a place of the cruelest and inhumane treatment, including the use of asphyxiating gas”; that “in just a few days, 130,000 Jews” were executed in Kiev; and that with the “liquidation of the Warsaw  ghetto….  all Jews irrespective of age or sex” were being “shot… their corpses utilized for making fats and their bones for the manufacture of fertilizer.” To be sure, he deplored all this. But he kept quiet. 

Kertzer has several explanations, the most damning one being his suggestion that those many Catholics in the Reich wouldn’t have listened to him anyway. “If Pius XII’s silence was motivated by fears of the actions that the Axis powers might take against the church if he spoke out, it was motivated as well by his fears that denouncing the Nazis would alienate millions of Catholics and risk of producing a schism in the Church.”

All of which raises for me the specter of the pre-Council Church that I never knew. I knew all along that medieval Christianity officially saw Jews as cursed for killing Christ. But I did not adequately appreciate how deeply that theology went and how widely it was believed even in my own lifetime. Nor did I comprehend the finesse by which 20th-century theologians described Jews as cursed a second time: by its justly deserved exile which infixed upon its DNA all those despicable qualities that anti-Semites cited to prove that Jews are not just the religious but the racial scourge of history. More than one Nazi official justified its Jewish policy as just the logical extension of what the church had been doing to Jews all along; and even those Vatican officials who did denounce actual genocide, sometimes argued that short of being murdered, Jews were quite rightly being put in their place, as Catholic theology had insisted from the start.  

I now have an even greater respect for John XXIII and the Vatican council that rejected the Church’s damning medievalism, including most specifically, its doctrine of the “perfidious” Jews. I hope the current Catholic “counter-reformation” is coming to an end with Pope Francis. I embrace my own Catholic friends and colleagues with special warmth, knowing the Church they left behind and the vision of Church they believe they serve, a Church reborn as an ally of my own Jewish community – itself a reformation of some medievalisms that I abhor. The world needs us all: religionists of all faiths, but committed to mutual respect and working together for a humane and moral future. 


4 responses to “Open Letter to My Students 36: The Catholic Church and Me, Then and Now

  1. Gary Bretton-Granatoor

    This is a truly important letter. The transformation brought about by Vatican II was epic and Herculean. Yes, it was John XXIII (Roncali) who initiated Vatican II, but the true heroes and creators of what became the final article passed and signed by Paul VI -Montini, Nostra Aetate, were Cardinal Augustin Bea and Jules Itzik who pushed the Church to confront the silence ( and passive aggressive support) of Pacelli Pius XI. It was the two of them who forced the Church to confront its historic theological anti-Judaism and the resultant antisemitism. While Nostra Artate was the first article raised at Vatican II, it was the last passed. It took two years of active lobbying and educating to get the 2000 + Bishops to pass it (with 88 nay votes). Culture change ain’t so easy. The Church (or at least the majority of it) deserves credit for the change. But without Bea and Itzik it would not have happened in the wake of Pius XII’s papacy.

  2. Larry, very powerful – what most of us lay people never knew. I am sending this on to my community Shalom club for them to read. I will try to order one of the books from our library. Thank you.

    I tried to sign in to the website but don’t want to set up another account, don’t do face book nor understand the other symbols. I know, I am behind the times.

    Hugs, Eve


  3. Arlene Michalovitz

    Thank you rabbi for this most enlightening post I grew up with many catholic friends and will always remember those dreaded words “you killed Christ” And our priest said so

  4. Phyllis Stopeck Steiner

    Thank you – I’ve just ordered the book

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