National Catholic Register


Jewish and Catholic Scholars Assess Holocaust Document

BY Joseph Esposito

May 10, 1998 Issue | Posted 5/10/98 at 1:00 PM


WASHINGTON—Arguing that Catholic-Jewish relations have been significantly improved by the recent Vatican document on the Holocaust, Rabbi Mordecai Waxman said that still more needs to be done, particularly in implementing the document. Rabbi Waxman, a Jewish leader who has actively worked with the Vatican for more than a decade, was one of four leading scholars to discuss the paper at the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), a Washington-based think tank, April 30.

The Vatican's Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews released We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah March 16 after 11 years of discussions and four years of active drafting. The lengthy text, officially identified as a teaching document of the Church, calls on Catholics to reject anti-Semitism, reflect on the horrors of the Holocaust, and repent for failing to do more to save Jewish victims.

The statement has generated considerable controversy since its release. Jewish leaders have called it “a first step” but have criticized it for not saying more about the Vatican's possible role in creating a climate where Nazism could take root and flourish in Germany. The EPPC conference was one of several public discussions that have occurred as Catholic and Jewish leaders seek to understand the paper's implications. It brought together Rabbi Waxman, Dr. Eugene Fisher of the U.S. Catholic Conference, Professor Marc Saperstein of George Washington University, and the EPPC's George Weigel.

Rabbi Waxman was chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation in 1987 when the impetus for the Shoah document may have begun. Jewish leaders canceled a scheduled meeting with Pope John Paul II after it was announced he would meet with then Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, whose role in World War II had become the subject of great controversy. In an effort to address Jewish concerns, Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, who was president of the Vatican Council on Christian Unity, asked Rabbi Waxman to meet with then-Bishop William Keeler of Harrisburg, Pa., (now cardinal archbishop of Baltimore). Rabbi Waxman did so and later met with Agostino Cardinal Casaroli, the Vatican's secretary of state.

At discussions with these officials (and ultimately with the Pope at Castel Gandolfo in 1987), Rabbi Waxman said Jewish leaders asked for two statements to enhance Catholic-Jewish relations. One was that the Church had no objection to a separate Jewish state, Israel, and the other was a condemnation of antiSemitism and the Holocaust. The Pope and Cardinal Casaroli agreed to issuing such statements, although not as an encyclical as Jewish leaders had originally urged. Eleven years elapsed before We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah was released, a delay that was attributable to both sides, Rabbi Waxman said.

He stressed the importance of this statement and three preceding documents issued in 1965 (Nostra Aetate), 1975, and 1985.

“There has been a fundamental change in Catholic-Jewish relations” Rabbi Waxman told the Register. “This still has to siphon down in the Catholic and Jewish communities; it is a three-generational matter.”

He stressed that work is needed to bring the initiative from the hierarchical levels of both faiths to the grass roots. Much of the success will depend on the next pope, he added, but it is unlikely there will be a turning back.

Rabbi Waxman, who serves as the rabbi at Temple Israel in Great Neck, N.Y., told the conference, “We've come a long, long way in the history of Catholic-Jewish relations.” Yet, he was disappointed with some of the language used in the statement. Saying that although all the right bases were touched, “It is not the sort of forthright statement it should be.”

Too many statements were “nuanced,” he said, regarding the Vatican's role. He added that Edward Cardinal Cassidy, head of the Pontifical Commission on the Relations with Jews, understood his concern about the nuancing of language. Rabbi Waxman believes high-ranking Vatican officials, particularly Angelo Cardinal Sodano, the current Vatican secretary of state, and perhaps Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, were responsible for the final language.

Dr. Eugene Fisher, another long-time leader in the Catholic-Jewish dialogue, agreed with Rabbi Waxman that the recent statement “is not a perfect document,” but is an important beginning. Indeed, immediately after the paper's release, John Paul II said, “I hope and pray that our interreligious dialogue will continue in a climate of renewed openness and trust.”

Fisher stressed that the paper mandates further study and that, as an official teaching document of the Church, it will continue to have an important impact on our way of thinking a century from now. Especially important, he added, was the mandate for Holocaust education in Catholic schools.

Fisher, who is associate director of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, emphasized the difficulty involved in drafting a paper of the importance of the Shoah document. He explained how German and Polish Catholic bishops were unable to hammer out a joint paper on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and were forced to issue separate statements. Swiss, Italian, and Slovakian bishops also have issued their own documents. He said the U.S. Catholic Conference was considering releasing a compendium of such statements from Catholic leaders from around the world.

As several other conference participants also noted, Fisher discussed the impact of Rolf Hochhuth's play The Deputy, which first appeared in 1962. The work, highly critical of Pope Pius XII's role in World War II, has been a watershed in the revisionist view of Pius's papacy. As a result of this play, Fisher noted “there has been a virtual demonization of Pius XII. There has been a rush to judgment,” which has obscured objectivity.

Arguing for more serious scholarly studies on the subject, Fisher expressed hope that the dialogue encouraged in the new document would help create an understanding of the Vatican's role without rancor and undue rhetoric.

One of the scholars addressing these issues is Dr. Marc Saperstein, a historian and director of the Judaic Studies program at George Washington University, Washington, D.C. Saperstein spoke at the conference and reiterated several points he made in an op-ed article written for The Washington Post April 1. At first he contrasted the active role taken by Pope Clement VI in 1348 to protect Jews from reprisals during the Black Death period with the more passive role taken by Pius XII.

More importantly, Saperstein said, that although some have argued that, “‘If you [the Church] demonize a people for centuries, it has to lead to genocide,’” the historical record does not support Church culpability for the Holocaust.

“The correlation between Christian beliefs and Nazi genocide cannot be established by the evidence,” he argued. “The fundamental responsibility for the Holocaust lies with the Nazi perpetrators. Not with Pope Pius XII. Not with the Church. Not with the teachings of the Christian faith.”

This last comment is consistent with the language of the Shoah document, which states: “The Shoah was the work of a thoroughly modern neo-pagan regime. Its anti-Semitism had its roots outside of Christianity and, in pursuing its aims, it did not hesitate to oppose the Church and persecute her members also.”

Saperstein also stressed that the whole issue of the role of Catholics in aiding Jews during the war is complex. In predominately Catholic Poland, for example, 90% of Jews perished while 85% survived in overwhelmingly Catholic Italy. Those who survived in Poland, however, were often aided by Christians. He suggested that rather than criticize those who did not help for fear of their own lives, perhaps it is more useful to discuss the courage of those Catholics who did respond and save Jewish lives.

The last panelist, George Weigel, spoke of the Shoah document from a theological perspective. He said that too much of the discussion of the paper “has been conducted on the model of a labor negotiation.” This, he argues, does not capture the true intent of the statement. The Church, he says, is doing this “not under a sense of pressure, not for a deal made in 1987, but as a religious obligation.” This sense of a need for repentance — the document uses the Hebrew word teshuva — offered to our spiritual brothers was reinforced by Fisher, who said, “Deeper than apology, this is a resolve to do better.”

Weigel, a well-known Catholic thinker, is writing a biography of Pope John Paul II, which is scheduled to be published next year. He believes that the Holy Father, at the end of the millennium, is committed to purifying the Church while also calling attention to the horrors of totalitarianism, communism, and fascism in this century. It is especially important to address the Shoah because “it is a distinctive and singular example of totalitarianism.”

Referring to the temporal and religious authority of Constantine the Great, the fourth-century Roman emperor, Weigel also suggested that Pope John Paul was “the first post-Constantinian Pope in 1600 years.” He said the Pope was seeking to redefine the role the papacy would play in the next century.

Using a modified Constantinian model, that redefinition would involve viewing the Holy See as “operating as a sovereign entity in a world of sovereign entity states.” Such a revolutionary worldview, he added, would be complemented by providing moral witness to such issues as addressed in We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah.

Joseph Esposito writes from Springfield, Virginia.