The Holocaust Document: Reading Between the Lines

“Jews and Catholics: Beyond Apologetics,”

by David Novak

(First Things, January 1999)

Scholar David Novak contributes a generally sympathetic Jewish view on the Vatican's recent statement about the Holocaust:

“When a Catholic speaks of ‘the Church,’… he can mean one of two things. On the one hand, the Church is undoubtedly a collection of fallible human beings. … At this level, it is certainly recognized that these fallible members of the Church can do either good or evil, as is their free human choice. On the other hand, when the Pope speaks of the Church ‘as such,’ … he is speaking about what the Church understands as her Magisterium, her teaching authority, which Catholics see as expressing God's will beginning with Scripture and extending into the ongoing development of Church doctrine.

“Let us first take the Church as a group of human beings. … Now just who would apologize [for complicity in the Holocaust] to whom? … How do you apologize to someone in whose murder you were a participant? In order to apologize, you have to make your apology to someone who is capable of accepting your apology. … On the other hand, if an apology is made by people who did not commit any such crimes, directly or indirectly, and who do not even sympathize with the murderers, then what would they be apologizing for?

“The Jewish tradition on this point is quite clear: We do not believe in inherited guilt. … Justice, whether human or divine, must recognize with the prophet Ezekiel that only ‘the person who sins shall die’(Ezekiel 18:20).

“But what about the second notion of the Church, namely, ‘the Church as such’? … [T]he Pope, when he spoke in the synagogue in Rome (by his own unprecedented invitation), condemned anti-Semitism: ‘at any time from any source,’ which means that when antiSemitism has come out of Church teaching, those who so taught it are to be considered in error by the internal criteria of the teaching authority of the Church itself.

“When one sees how moral logic within religious traditions like Judaism and Catholicism operates, then it is possible to understand why it is not an apology that is called for. Apologies are cheap. … [Instead,] the statement says it is ‘an act of repentance.’And then, mirabile dictu, in parenthesis we see the Hebrew word for repentance: teshuvah. Here the Church has quite consciously and deliberately chosen a central term straight out of the Jewish theological tradition. … [T]he statement goes on to say, ‘as members of the Church, we are linked to the sins as well as the merits of all her children.’ … Of course, in a literal moral sense, I am not responsible for somebody else's sins. … However, both Judaism and Catholicism are ‘covenantal’; for each, the relationship with God is primarily a communal affair, not merely a relationship between an individual person and God. … In a covenanted community, even though one is not morally responsible for the sins of fellow members of the community, there is still an existential sense of collective sorrow and shame when other members of the community — even those as estranged from the community as the Nazis were — commit sins.…

“As regards the Holocaust, the Church feels sorrow and shame about those of her faithful who did not respond properly to Nazism, or who did nothing more than sympathize with what was being done to the victims of Nazi persecution. … The Church learns from her mistakes, and she seems to be doing this by an ongoing process of introspection more prolonged and more painful than any mere apology.

“To be a member of a covenanted community means to acknowledge the sins of all one's fellow members. This is an awesome covenantal responsibility, beyond the demands of ordinary morality. Indeed, one can only bear such responsibility when one believes that the community has been elected by God and is the object of God's special, supernatural concern.

“On one point in particular, I think the [Vatican's] statement tries to say too much. … We can hope that in time historians will be able to allow us to decide whether Pius XII was blameworthy, praiseworthy, or somewhere in-between. That cannot be done now.

“This statement of the Catholic Church [We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah] recognizes the chosenness of the Jewish people.… Jews have to see this document as making a positive contribution to the always complex relationship between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church.”

Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidsonville, Maryland.

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