A Year of Catholic-Jewish Controversy

In 1998, a number of separate, deeply linked issues have emerged between Jewish and Catholic leaders. All regard negative Jewish reactions to actions or statements perceived as “Catholic.” All touch deep sensibilities in both communities. All have to do with the Holocaust or, more precisely, with how our memory of the Holocaust is to be framed and handed down to future generations of Jews and Catholics. In all cases, some Jews have expressed concerns that, in remembering the Shoah, Catholics can't or won't “get it right.”

No less than three events represent official actions of the Holy See to which Jews have objected: the March statement of repentance for the Holocaust, We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah and, in October, the canonization of Edith Stein and the beatification of Alojzije Cardinal Stepinac.


With regard to the Vatican statement, the consensus among Jewish organizations in dialogue with the Church was clear: what the statement said, with the possible exception of the passages regarding Pius XII, was less problematic than what the statement did not say clearly enough.

Concerns centered on historical matters. One example: The statement distinguished the ancient religious anti-Judaism of Christians, from modern, racially based anti-Semitism — a term first coined in the 19th century, in an attempt to give pseudo-scientific respectability to the hatred of Jews. Yet many Jewish groups felt that the link between the two was not clearly enough established — that the former paved the way for the latter by, in the Pope's words, “lulling the consciences” of all too many European Christians, so that they did not act toward their Jewish neighbors “as the world had the right to expect.”

Yet Edward Cardinal Cassidy of the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews made the link quite explicit in a key address delivered last May to the American Jewish Committee in Washington, D.C. For example, he termed the ghettoes established by the Church throughout Europe in the Middle Ages “the antechambers of the death camps” of the 20th Century.

Christian anti-Judaism was indeed a necessary cause of the Holocaust. Without it, the Jews would not have been so easily targeted for scapegoating by Nazi ideology. But it was not a sufficient cause — otherwise the Holocaust would have happened far sooner in European history, before the Enlightenment swept away the moral restraints of a God-centered, rather than human-centered, world vision.

Others have asked what the text means in saying that “the sons and daughters” of the Church were guilty of anti-Jewish teachings, rather than “the Church as such.” Here, Cardinal Cassidy responded that the distinction is theological rather than historical. “Sons and daughters” includes the whole Church as a human institution. “The Church as such” is seen from the viewpoint of its divine founding as the Body of Christ, as the sacrament of the encounter between the human and the divine. It is in this theological sense alone that the Church is held blameless for the sins of its members.

Yet this distinction, the cardinal declared, calls the Church as a human institution to repent, both for its commonly held anti-Judaism over the centuries, and for the specific sins of omission and commission perpetrated by Catholics during the Holocaust in Europe — as has been done in the remarkable series of statements issued since 1994 by the bishops' conferences of Hungary, Germany, Poland, the United States, Holland, Switzerland, France, and Italy. In September, the U.S. Catholic Conference compiled these statements, with the Holy See's original pronouncement and Cardinal Cassidy's clarification, in the volume, Catholics Remember the Holocaust (publication no. 5-290). Set in this context, the vibrancy and challenge of We Remember re-emerges from the debates surrounding it, with a ringing conclusion:

“At the end of this millennium the Catholic Church desires to express her deep sorrow for the failures of her sons and daughters in every age. This is an act of repentance (teshuvah), since as members of the Church we are linked to the sins as well as the merits of all her children. … It is not a matter of mere words, but indeed of binding commitment. … We pray that our sorrow for the tragedy which the Jewish people has suffered in our century will lead to a new relationship with the Jewish people. We wish to turn awareness of past sins into a firm resolve to build a new future in which there will be no more anti-Judaism among Christians.”


The canonization of Edith Stein and the beatification of Cardinal Stepinac represent quite different challenges to Jewish-Christian understanding. In the first instance, a woman born and raised a Jew, who lapsed into atheism, came back to God by way of Catholicism, and who died at Auschwitz as a Jew, was declared a Catholic martyr. Did this mean that the Church felt that she was more a martyr than the other six million Jews who died in the Shoah? That, through her, the Church was proclaiming itself Hitler's primary victim, and the Holocaust an event of Catholic, rather than Jewish, history?

Those who know the Pope's many statements regarding the primacy of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust (see E. Fisher and L. Klenicki, editors of Spiritual Pilgrimage: Pope John Paul II on Jews and Judaism, Crossroad, 1995), know that such an intent is impossible. Impossible also is the potential of Edith Stein — or St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, as she is also known — ever being used to proselytize Jews. The words of the Holy Father and of William Cardinal Keeler, episcopal moderator for Catholic Jewish Relations for the National Conference on Catholic Bishops (cf. Origins, Oct. 4, 1998), among others, clearly frame the new feast day of St. Edith Stein, Aug. 9, as a day of repentance for sins committed by her murderers (baptized Christians, by and large), not only against her, but against all the Jews of Europe.

Cardinal Stepinac's case was clouded by the show trial orchestrated by Yugoslavia's communist overlords after the war, which sought to portray the cardinal as a collaborator with the pro-Nazi Ustashi regime of Croatia during World War II. Yet the actual historical record is quite different: Despite his initial hopes for an independent homeland for his people, the cardinal began within months a series of public protests against the regime, especially in its persecution of Jews. He established an archdiocesan organization to aid Jewish refugees, which directly saved hundreds of Jewish lives. One Sunday, as Ustashi dictator Ante Pavelic came to Mass at the cathedral, the cardinal intercepted him on the steps, and said, ringingly, “Thou shalt not kill!” The message of the cardinal was clear; Pavelic turned and left.

Unlike the Shoah document, the beatification and canonization elicited little Jewish organizational response. Yet much of the media unfairly represented the Jewish community as hostile to the events, on the basis of a few negative Jewish reactions. With regard to Edith Stein, only the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued a formal statement of protest; other groups, having noted no particular proselytizing activity since Stein's beatification more than ten years ago, seemingly concluded that the fears they had originally shared with ADL a decade ago could be laid to rest. With regard to Cardinal Stepinac, only the Simon Wiesenthal Center, apparently having failed to do its homework before issuing its statement, spoke out in protest. Meanwhile, the local Croatian Jewish community defended Cardinal Stepinac's record during the war, and the Church's decision to honor him.

The media magnified the ADL and Wiesenthal Center press releases, ignoring the fact that these were rather lonely voices in the larger world of Jewish organizational life, implying that many or most Jewish groups were protesting the canonizations. This has left among both Catholics and Jews the image of a largely imaginary controversy.


The issue of the crosses at Auschwitz (see InPerson, pg. 1) goes back to an earlier controversy over the attempt by a small group of Carmelite nuns to establish a convent in an abandoned theater adjacent to Auschwitz, in order to offer perpetual prayers for Jewish and Christian victims who died there. From this point, the issue escalated, until it was only with the direct intervention of the Pope, asking the nuns to move to a new convent a little farther away, that it could be resolved.

When the nuns left, however, the mother superior sublet the property to a group which, it seems, turned out to be nationalist and rather right-wing, and left in place a large cross which had been given to the convent, rather than having it erected at the site of the new convent. The place where the cross is situated, incidentally, is one of great importance in Polish historical memory. It was there that the Nazis shot hundreds of Poles soon after invading Poland, in an attempt to destroy potential leadership that might emerge to fight for independence. Thus, both the site and the symbolism of the cross have deep resonances for Poles.

For many months, a joint group representing the Polish government and such Jewish organizations as the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Israeli Holocaust museum Yad vaShem, and the World Jewish Congress (WJC), worked to resolve, not only the issue of the cross at the old convent, but the overall disposition of how the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex was to be preserved for posterity. They were on the verge of signing an agreement resolving all the issues save one (and providing a frame-work for resolving this last) when the WJC balked, refusing to sign. That refusal touched off an unfortunate and still explosive chain of events. The one unresolved issue was the removal of the large cross.

Defending the refusal to sign, one WJC official went so far as to opine that Auschwitz-Birkenau should be put under the control of some sort of international body (in which the WJC, presumably, would play a major role). Such a suggestion, of course, offended the Poles as much as similar suggestions to internationalize the city of Jerusalem have offended Israelis. Worse still, the failure to sign and some heated rhetoric regarding the Polish people galvanized the nationalist right in Poland against any sort of deal. A Catholic priest, acting on his own, put up a small cross near the large one. Soon hundreds of others appeared.

The bishops of Poland, seeing a disaster in the making, issued a well balanced yet strong statement, calling for the immediate removal of the small crosses and a return to negotiations over the large cross — yet protesters, now dissenting from their Church, have failed to do so. Organizations on both sides of the religious divide have endorsed the bishops' statement, yet nothing, save prayer, seems likely to sway the protestors.


Recently, U.S. State Department historians came across a 1947 memo sent back to the U.S. by a minor Treasury Department official, Emerson Bigelow, which details a rumor that Ustashi members fleeing after the war brought gold from Croatia to “the Vatican.” Despite adding this to its research report, the State Department, after more than a year of investigation, found “no direct evidence” for Croatian gold ever making its way to the Vatican, or for its other chief allegation of direct Vatican involvement in harboring and assisting Ustashi and Nazi war criminals after the war.

In the end, all the State Department had was one rumor from an unnamed Italian source; a Croatian Catholic priest (a Father Dragonovitch) who, far from being a Vatican official, was in fact a paid agent of U.S. intelligence, who did help Ustashi members flee to South America; and the fact that some Ustashi, including Ante Pavelic, stayed at the Croatian College of St. Jerome in Rome for a time while in flight.

As it happened, U.S. intelligence actually ignored the known presence of Pavelic and others, for fear of alienating the many Ustashi agents it was using at the time. No connection between the Croatian College and any particular office of the Holy See was found, or even sought, but merely “supposed.” Astoundingly, State Department historians have tried to stitch this patchwork together into a Vatican plot to get Nazi gold, in return for helping Ustashi escape — which might make for a good spy thriller, but is abysmal historical methodology.

None of this would have anything to do with Catholic-Jewish relations as such, save for the fact that the WJC chose to incorporate this sloppy scholarship in its own campaign to pressure the Holy See into releasing whatever documents have not yet been made public in 11 published volumes (over 5,000 pertinent documents) from the archives of the Secretariat of State.

In fact, New York's John Cardinal O'Connor and the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago have suggested that opening the archives to serious scholars, Catholic and Jewish alike, would indeed help to clear the air. The small portion of the 11 volumes which I have in my office, with the serious work of scholars such as Father John Morley of Seton Hall and Prof. Michael Marrus of the University of Toronto, strongly suggest that whatever further evidence is uncovered — will only round out the picture we already possess.


That picture is a highly complex one. Pope Pius XII, like the rest of the world totally unprepared for the unprecedented Nazi onslaught on the Jews, responded day by day to the maelstrom of World War II, to the full extent of extremely limited resources. The 11 volumes, along with other sources and scholarship, have already revealed numerous attempts by the Pope to save Jews — not only in Rome, where he stopped the deportations after a single night and hid survivors in convents and monasteries, but also through his nuncios in the various nations under Nazi occupation. (The Nazis would not allow a nuncio in occupied Poland.)

Tragically, the majority of these attempts failed, and certainly more could have been done. But the persistence of the Holy See in trying plan after plan to save Jews, is hardly the image of “silence” and “indifference” increasingly presumed by the media. Should the Pope have spoken out publicly, risking the lives of thousands of Jews hidden in Catholic convents and monasteries throughout Italy? Would it have done any good?

To my mind, by the time the Holy See had any clear understanding of the scope of the Holocaust — mid to late 1942, by way of the famous Reigner memorandum, also sent to Roosevelt and Churchill — a papal statement would hardly have slowed the process of total elimination to which the Nazis were committed. Other scholars may disagree with me, and it is important that discussions over these issues be based on as much actual evidence as possible. We have already seen where “scholarship by supposition” leads. For these reasons, I would be among those supporting Cardinals Bernardin and O'Connor in their suggestion. I can only pray that this process be worked out with sensitivity and moderation of language, among both Jews and Catholics, without resorting to pressure politics.

Dr. Eugene Fisher is associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and a consultor to the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.