"What are the roots that clutch,
By Roberto Rivera - February 27, 2002 - "What Would Jesus Have Done?" is the question posed by the cover story of the January 21, 2002, issue of the New Republic. In it, Daniel Goldhagen continues the argument he first made in his book "Hitler's Willing Executioners": That for at least two centuries prior to Hitler, the German people were in the thrall of what Goldhagen calls "exterminationist anti-Semitism." Thus, Hitler's contribution to the Holocaust did not consist so much in creating a murderous ideology, but in providing the means for the German people to do what they had always wanted to do. And at the heart of this "exterminationist anti-Semitism" was Christianity. As Goldhagen writes, "[It is important] for us to focus on the Christian churches when trying to understand the nature of anti-Semitism in Germany during the Nazi period."
To put it mildly, Goldhagen's thesis is controversial, even among Holocaust scholars. Many of them point out that Goldhagen has not uncovered any new facts, just given old ones a contentious new spin. The best riposte to Goldhagen came from Clive James in the New Yorker who said that Goldhagen gets it wrong because he, like many of us, doesn't believe in original sin. This makes it impossible for him to fathom that "in the form of Hitler, Satan visited the Earth, recruited an army of sinners, and fought and won a battle against God."
Five years later, Goldhagen has, to paraphrase Father Neuhaus, committed another book. This one is called "A Moral Reckoning: The Catholic Church During The Holocaust and Today." Goldhagen's 27,000-word article previews the argument of the upcoming book. If anything, Goldhagen is going to create an even bigger controversy this time around. Using books such as "Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews" by James Carroll and "Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII" by John Cornwell as a springboard, Goldhagen goes beyond indicting the Pope and the Church for failing to act in a way that was commensurate to the evil of the Holocaust. He doesn't even stop at blaming the Church for contributing to the anti-Semitism that was a prerequisite to the slaughter of six million Jews. No, according to Goldhagen, the Church "prepared the social soil eventually tilled by others for Nazism to flourish." He writes that the Church was "greatly sympathetic to the Germans' eliminationist impulses . . ." Readers are told that "there is no difference in kind between the Church's 'anti-Judaism' and its off-shoot European 'anti-Semitism.'" And what about those statements that indicated sympathy for European Jews? Charades! When a Catholic newspaper urges its readers to "show Christian charity to the Jews," it's being insincere. And the 1939 Encyclical that condemns Nazism and doctrines of racial purity was actually a form of "soft Nazism."* In the end, as Andrew Sullivan concludes, Goldhagen doesn't stop until one is left with the conclusion that "there was no relevant moral difference between Nazism and Catholicism in the 1930s and 1940s," and that "for Goldhagen, the cross and the swastika are interchangeable."
It's worth noting that this time, as last time, Goldhagen's critics include Jewish writers and scholars. Sam Schulman, writing in the Jewish World Review, compared Goldhagen to a "badly educated prosecuting attorney" who ignores crucial evidence such as the Nazis deriding Pius XII, back when he was Vatican Secretary of State, as a "Jew-loving cardinal" for his fifty-five protests of the treatment of Jews. Similarly, Michael Novak writes that "even those scholars who minimize what the Pope did have had to admit that his personal efforts saved scores of thousands of Jews (in Hungary, Goldhagen admits)." If, as the Pope's critics say, his efforts were "too little, too late," Novak asks, "was not what Schindler and Raul Wallenberg did also too little, too late, and yet altogether noble?"
It's tempting for non-Catholics to think of all of this as a purely Catholic problem. That would be a mistake. For starters, the German state was, as Schulman puts it, traditionally more Protestant. What's more, the so-called "German Christians" were much more of a Protestant one than a Catholic one. Yeah, Hitler was baptized a Catholic, but using that against Rome is like blaming Baptists for the Enron debacle because Kenneth Lay's dad was a Baptist preacher. The real reason for why all Christians should consider smears like Goldhagen an attack against all of Christianity lies in Goldhagen's account of Christian anti-Semitism. Goldhagen tells readers that the Catholic church has "harbored anti-Semitism at its core; as an integral part of its doctrine, its theology, and its liturgy. It did so with the divine justification of the Christian Bible that Jews were 'Christ-killers,' minions of the Devil" [emphasis mine]. In other words, the problem lies in what Catholics believe. And guess what? He's not talking about the Immaculate Conception or the Real Presence. And it goes beyond the Scripture's specifically, the Gospel of John assignment of blame for Christ's death.
As Michael Novak writes, "The great sin of which Goldhagen accuses the Church is its 'supersessionist creed,' namely, its clear teaching that the New Covenant supersedes the Old Covenant. Even to speak of 'New' and 'Old' . . . 'is inherently supersessionist.'" Or as Schulman put it, Goldhagen is offended because "the Catholic Church is . . . inherently committed to the belief that in religious terms, the Jews are in error." Of course, all of this is just as true of orthodox Protestant and Orthodox Christians as Catholics. If you believe that it was in Christ that God fulfilled the promises made to Israel, you are a supersessionist. If you believe that the Old Testament should be read in light of the New Testament, you are a supersessionist. And if you believe that, as St. Paul says, the Church is the new Israel, well, you might as well beat the rush and enroll your kids in Hitlerjugend now. In Goldhagen's world, the only way any Christian escapes the taint of presumed anti-Semitism is to distance himself from historic Christian teaching.
So why single out Rome? Partly because of the dominant role that the Catholic Church has played in Western history. But it's also true that if you discredit the Bishop of Rome, if you cast doubt on the Vatican's standing to provide moral instruction, then you have gone a significant part of the way towards ridding this so-called global village of any Christian influence in its public square. This isn't Catholic triumphalism. It's just a statement of fact. As is this: The campaign to discredit Christianity won't stop in Rome. So, if Evangelicals and Catholics can't bring themselves to stand together now, when will they?