Open Letter to My Students 37: The Newest Totalitarians

In my last Letter, discussing the Catholic Church before Vatican II, I was not overly kind, though I hope I was fair (my letter #9, “Seriously Speaking”[October 23, 2020] which praised Pope Francis should testify to my open-mindedness). I know too that it was both Catholics and Protestants who embraced the Third Reich; and both Catholics and Protestants who did not. 

A related issue is the inherited structure of the Catholic church — not just for what it says about Catholics, but for what it warns about us all at this moment in time.

To start, consider the sheer number of Catholics — some 1.3 billion worldwide – compared to my own paltry 15.2 million Jews. To serve that population, the church has evolved into an enormous bureaucracy, compared to which parallel Jewish organizations are like mom-and-pop stores. When Catholics change their liturgy, they develop worldwide committees informed by experts, some of whom are assigned full-time to the task at hand. When Jews change their liturgy, they find some already overworked rabbi, who meets part-time with a dozen other overworked rabbis, only some of whom have prior liturgical expertise or training to start with, and who cobble together a new prayer book. I don’t make light of either instance; it is hard to know which is the more difficult to pull off.  But the sheer size of the Catholic bureaucracy astounds me. 

So far so good, but there are different kinds of bureaucracy. Particularly before Vatican II, but even now to some extent, the Catholic one is a version of what Max Weber labelled “traditional,” in that it is 1. hierarchical; 2. with total authority vested in one traditionally appointed leader at the top; 3. and with a system that relies on the capacity to squelch or punish internal critique of those farther down the ladder.

One example will suffice. In 1925, some Dutch Catholics founded Amici Israel, “Friends of Israel,” an organization that still prayed for the conversion of the Jews, but (seeing racist anti-Semitism on the rise) sought also to erase negative references to Jews in the liturgy (like “Perfidious Jews” in Good Friday worship); and to end the traditional charge against Jews of desecrating the host and even of deicide. By 1928, the single founding chapter had mushroomed into an international movement – and the pope (Pius XI) closed it down. It could remain only as long as it prayed for the Jews to convert; more than that was to fall prey to “the hand and inspiration of the Jews themselves” part of the longstanding Jewish plot to “penetrate everywhere in modern society.” [1] 

Hard stop, everyone. I am not out to bash the Catholic Church, the depth of which, you must already know by now, I appreciate and admire. The “Friends of Israel” example is just indicative of what happens when any organization, religious or secular, is run with total authority, a claim on every aspect of people’s lives, and the ever-present power to punish dissent. In politics, that approaches what we call totalitarianism. 

It was Hannah Arendt who gave us the classic study of totalitarianism. To be sure, the Catholic Church is by no stretch of the imagination the same as the USSR and the Third Reich. But “totalitarian” is a type, to which any institution is prone, in varying degrees, insofar as (following Arendt): 1. The regime in question makes a total claim on its population: every gathering, lecture, artistic expression, and social institution is subject to that claim. 2. The regime supports this “totalizing” claim with an apparatus of power and the ever-present threat of punishment, which, taken to its ultimate extreme (Stalin and Hitler), produces regularized brutality and terror. 3. Unlike ordinary dictatorships which don’t care what the people believe, as long as they “behave,” totalitarianism uses the threat of punishment to inculcate ideological loyalty to the principles that the regime holds “sacred.”

By that definition, most premodern religion was totalitarian – not just medieval Christianity but medieval Islam and medieval Judaism as well. For better and for worse, Jews had no “secular” Jewish governments with which to contend, whereas Christianity and Islam did. At times, rivalry between church and state limited religious power. At times, however, the two sources of power coalesced, and when they did, the chances of effective totalitarianism increased dramatically. 

Modernity changed all of that, because its Enlightenment mentality unseated absolute monarchies, denounced medieval religion, and venerated individual freedom. Tellingly, the Catholic Church (until Vatican II), ultra-Orthodox Jews of eastern Europe (until murdered by the Nazis), and most Islamic regimes (even today), were (or are) steadfastly at war with modernity.

Modernity was far from the final answer, however, because modernity itself crystallized into the totalitarian regimes of Stalin and Hitler. Hitler coopted the established churches to preach support of the Nazi doctrine; and annihilated those religionists who objected. Communism was officially atheistic, but erected its own “secular” religious structure, practically deifying Marx and Lenin, for example, as transcendent sources of absolute truth. [2] 

It is Enlightenment thinking that saved science and scholarship from medieval church control; that gave Jews civic rights; that gave humanity promises of “Liberty, equality, fraternity,” and “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Absolute religion allied to absolute state governments are the epitome of all that the Enlightenment feared most. 

It is the coalition we should fear as well, because instances of it are on the rise: Putin’s Russia, for example. The same Putin who deplored Christianity as a Communist now upholds its Russian Orthodoxy, which blesses the war in Ukraine.  And then there’s Israel and our own United States of America. 

Israel faces an election in which a coalition government threatens to enlist fascist-like forces of the extreme right, with the religious blessing of the equally extreme Orthodox. What an unholy alliance that would be! Not that Israel will become totalitarian in its entirety: its citizen army is nothing like what we saw in the classic fascist and communist regimes; it is, and will remain, a democracy. But we can only begin to imagine the terror that will reign down on innocent Muslims. By analogy, the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church too was nowhere near the classic examples of Hitler and Stalin. But Jews were subject to vilification and its consequence: anti-Jewish outbreaks as their own reign of terror. 

Americans too have an election on the way; and we too face the rising clamor of the religious right in league with extremist politicians to urge the imposition of Christian nationalism upon the country. 

Old-style religion reborn – Christian, Muslim or Jewish — claims total authority over our lives. Beware of it: the newest would-be totalitarians. I am all for a religious voice in the public square. I want freedom for all religions. But I also want freedom from religion, especially religion wed to political power, from which no good can ever come. 

  1. Cf. David Kertzer, The Pope and Mussolini, p. 250; John Connoly, From Enemy to Brother, p. 97
  2. The Classic account is Eric Voegelin, The Political Religions  (1938).

2 responses to “Open Letter to My Students 37: The Newest Totalitarians

  1. Thanks for this essay, Rabbaynu. I love all your writing, but this piece struck me particularly deeply – and is especially timely. !יישר כחך

  2. Lowell Williams

    Rabbi Hoffman’s insightful reflections on the role of Pope Pius XII in the destruction of the Jews during World War II invites comment and teaches us a great deal about the outlook of the Catholic Church and other institutions of faith. A first and profoundly important point to note is that Rabbi Hoffman’s comments are uniquely valuable in this setting. He has spent most of his professional life teaching and molding the faith leaders of Reform Judaism. Both David Kertzer’s book and the Rabbi Hoffman’s comments about it focus us squarely on the role of ethical and moral leadership by rabbis and other faith leaders.
    The Pope at War certainly reveals new details and insights about Pius XII’s actions and more seriously his inactions during the Shoah. Kertzer’s scholarship builds on many reflections by churchmen, both German and non-German, concerning the role of the Catholic Church during the slaughter of the Jews and others by the Nazi SS, Einsatzgruppen (special attack forces) and the German Order Police and their allies. Certainly there can no longer be any dissembling or obfuscation about whether Pius XII, the Curia and the leadership of the Church knew of the killings undertaken by the Nazis while those killings were unfolding. Pius XII and many, probably most, of the cardinals and bishops had first-hand reports of mass executions of Jews, Polish Catholic army officers and Polish priests as early as the winter of 1940. Those reports continued to stream into the Vatican and Church leadership all through the war in a growing crescendo of documentation and evidence.
    Pius XII was made aware by his priests and others that the Nazis were shooting Jews in major villages and towns throughout the German occupied parts of Poland. This activity later became known as the Shoah of Bullets, as opposed to the Shoah of the Camps. In the Shoah of Bullets death was delivered to the Jews and perceived enemies of the Third Reich wherever they were found. Lethal execution was not dependent on infrastructure or camps, most of which were only built in late 1940-41. The most notorious mass execution was the shooting of more than 34,000 men, women and children near Kiev at Babi Yar. The Shoah of Bullets continued well into 1945 when the defeat of the Nazis was clear, and the Shoah of the Camps continued until Soviet troops were at the gates.
    The inaction of most of the Church hierarchy is attributable to many different attributes. As Rabbi Hoffman makes clear, the Church has a long and practiced history of squelching any dissent or speaking out by priests or nuns in a way inconsistent with Church hierarchy. Pius XII set the Church’s tone towards the horrific deeds of the Shoah. He had served as the Papal Nuncio in Berlin and Munich for more than eight years before returning to the Vatican. He was a convinced Germanophile. He distrusted and disliked Jews on principle, and endorsed the often-cited fascist propaganda that Jews were allied with socialism and even communism, and that “godless Bolshevism” was a much greater threat to the Church than fascism.
    Nazi philosophy and political actions sought to undermine the established German churches, and the Catholic Youth Action movement in Germany was actively suppressed to channel youngsters towards Hitler Youth for boys and Bund Deutscher Mädel, the Nazi organization girls. Catholic primary and high schools were often closed in Germany. Both in Germany and Italy, Pacelli sought never to give grounds for offense in the Vatican newspapers or the other Italian newspapers allied with the Church. In Germany and the occupied countries, Rome kept a tight lid on objections to the conduct of the war even as the killings became more and more evident and widespread.
    What life lessons can we take from these events and actions? All credible leaders wear two hats. One is their responsibility to and for the institution they lead; the other is their personal moral and ethical accountability. We hope that for the most part those two capacities can be in synch or at least congruent in broad lines. This duality is true for business and political leaders, and it is certainly true for faith leaders. Must we not conclude that Pius XII had a personal moral duty to speak out against the murder of millions of women and children and against the maltreatment of all non-combatants, both as an ethical person and as a priest and Pope?
    There were volumes of scores of secret meetings about the killings, while personal emissaries were sent by Hitler and Mussolini to Pius XII and other members of the senior Curia. Steady and massive pressure was exerted by the ambassadors of many nations on the Vatican to have Pius XII condemn the killings. All of that resulted in nothing more than weak-kneed phrases about the horrors of war in the 1943 Christmas speech of Pius XII. Nowhere is there evidence that Pius XII ever directly said to Hitler or Mussolini “This will not stand. Stop it.”
    Churchill and Roosevelt do not have clean hands in this regard either. But both those men were political leaders who were charged with winning huge, sprawling, complex wars on behalf of nations directly attacked by political enemies. Could both have done more? Probably. But those men are not the ones holding high the tablet that says on it “Do not kill.” Faith leaders have a higher responsibility to protect humanity.
    Pius XII has been measured against that standard and has been found tragically wanting. Rabbi Hoffman’s reflections on this terrible moral and ethical failure must remind us of the role of faith leaders and our role to speak out against inhumanity.

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