The Shoah: Remembering Is Not Enough
When we dare to speak of it, we call the Nazi-led genocide of 1938-1945 the Holocaust. Shoah, or whirlwind, is its Hebrew name.
"We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah" is the Catholic Church's most recent effort to wrestle with the "anti-Jewish prejudices embedded in some Christian minds and hearts," attitudes which allowed Nazi ideology to express itself in Auschwitz. Not all who suffered were Jews, but all European Jews were in danger. Shoah is a Hebrew word—and this document clearly intends us to consider the horror in Hebrew terms.
Why is the Church holding our consciences to the fire? The document asserts our "spiritual kinship" with the Hebrew people. We share the wisdom of the Old Testament: the Pentateuch, the psalmists and the prophets. Hosea, among those prophets, warned, "When they sow the wind, they shall reap the whirlwind" (8:7). Now it's time not only to resist the sowing but also to call down cleansing rain.
Anti-Semitism Is Unacceptable
Surely, the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews didn't need 11 years to draft this document. Eleven years, however, wasn't long enough to erase a history of discrimination and prejudice among Christians and within the Church as an institution. The Vatican document urges us to "a new future in which there will be no more anti-Judaism among Christians or anti-Christian sentiment among Jews." How does the document direct us toward this hopeful conclusion?
First, it asks us to meditate on the Shoah so that we are committed to blocking its repetition.
Second, it traces the "tormented" and "quite negative" history Christians have had with the Jews. A distinction is made between anti-Semitism, which is seen as racial, and anti-Judaism, which is seen as religious. The Nazi state was a "thoroughly modern neopagan regime. Nazi anti-Semitism had its roots outside of Christianity," the document asserts, though it still lays a "heavy burden of conscience" on Christians.
Third, the document recalls Christian assistance to the Jews during the Shoah and reviews the Church's condemnations of racism and genocide.
Lastly, it appeals to Catholics to build a positive, respectful relationship with the Jewish people.
Still Wandering in This Desert
The first flurry of media analysis and critique of the Vatican Commission's work focused on two points: First, where was the anticipated apology on the part of the institutional Church? Second, did Pope Pius XII really merit praise?
What of apology? Chief Rabbi of Rome Jonathan Sacks says the document speaks the language of "regret rather than apology." The Tablet, an international Catholic weekly, conjectures that the pope may "have something further in mind" as millennial preparations continue. The New York Times strikes the same note of optimistic expectation.
What of Pius XII? The world jury may never have the evidence to assess him fairly. He was elected in 1939 to a position of singular moral influence situated in an emerging Fascist nation. Six months into Pius XII's pontificate, World War II erupted.
In historical hindsight, it seems possible that Pius XII could have rallied Catholic, even global, opinion against Hitler's genocidal insanity, that he could have blocked the deportation of Rome's Jews, that he could have appointed a more forceful representative in Berlin.
Yet it seems equally possible that Pius XII's choices were as good as his diplomatic background, political information and moral insight allowed. He was not silent then but he is dead now. We, the living, are here not only to learn from his choices, but also to write a new chapter.
Remember and Repent
The Second Vatican Council, by repudiating the notion of Jewish guilt for the death of Christ and asserting that "the Jews are most dear to God," set a standard not honored by all Catholics today.
On the eve of this new millennium, the pope has asked us all to examine our consciences and to improve on our record. He has specifically requested interreligious dialogue, which could be as informal as his own get-togethers with his longtime Jewish friend, Jerzy Kluger of Wadowice, Poland.
Can we count a Jerzy Kluger among our own friends? If not, we need to take steps to end our spiritual isolation from our elder brothers and sisters in the faith.
• We can honor the cycle of the Jewish feasts, which are based on the Old Testament. We would benefit by education and preaching on these texts and traditions for ourselves and our children.
• We can attend a Remembrance Day observance. The dates vary according to the Jewish lunar calendar, but correspond to the liberation of Buchenwald on April 10.
• We can participate in an interfaith dialogue. Where none exists, we can request help to begin one.
• We can recognize and repent our own prejudices against the Jewish people.
Analyzing and debating the actions of the Church in the past is futile if it does not create a change of heart in the present. The pope may well be delaying an apology in our name until we are truly ready to pronounce our own repentance. —C.A.M.