The Guilt of the Church

Daniel Goldhagen, the author of A Moral Reckoning, calls upon the Catholic Church to face its legacy of anti-Semitism and its role in the Holocaust
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A few years ago, after the international success of his book Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, Daniel Goldhagen jotted down some possible topics for future work. Nothing about the Catholic Church appeared anywhere on that list.

It was a call from his friend Martin Peretz, the editor-in-chief of The New Republic, that piqued Goldhagen's interest in the topic of his new book, A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair. At the time of Peretz's call, several books about Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust had recently been published, and Peretz wanted Goldhagen to review them. After Goldhagen finished the New Republic article ("What Would Jesus Have Done?" January 21, 2002), he remained so wholly absorbed in the issue that he put aside another project he was working on and devoted himself to a book-length treatment of a single question: "What must a religion of love and goodness do to confront its history of hatred and harm, and to perform restitution?"

A Moral Reckoning, published this fall, immediately sparked debate across the United States and Europe. The book does not seek to unearth new information about the past—Goldhagen draws most of his historical material from the works of the authors he reviewed. What he undertakes, rather, is exactly what the title suggests: a consideration of culpability and repair. He lays out a set of moral principles and applies them to the Catholic Church, judging its past actions, examining its present shortcomings, and suggesting reforms for its future. He does not cushion his criticisms of the Church in diplomatic language. Even philosophy professor John K. Roth, who gave A Moral Reckoning one of its most positive reviews in the Los Angeles Times, wryly conceded that "'unpretentious,' 'indecisive,' 'moderate' and 'patient' are not words that come to mind when reading Goldhagen."

If Goldhagen has a knack for stirring controversy, he also has a remarkable ability to home in on long overlooked questions. Why, he asks in A Moral Reckoning, did the Catholic Church excommunicate all Communists in the world and yet hold a special memorial service for Adolf Hitler? Why did many clergy bravely speak out against the Nazis' murder of the mentally ill and yet remain silent about the killing of Jews? Why does the Good Friday service contain, to this day, a long list of "reproaches" that accuse the whole Jewish people of killing Jesus? None of these questions can be answered without opening a long, soul-searching discussion.

All of Goldhagen's concerns about the Church can essentially be boiled down to this statement: by blaming the whole Jewish people for the death of Jesus, Catholicism, the most organized and powerful form of Christianity, laid fertile ground for the Holocaust. Goldhagen not only reviews past events but meticulously surveys the official Catholic Bible, listing hundreds of passages that he says overtly slander the Jewish people: 40 in Mark, 60 in Luke, 80 in Matthew, 140 in the Acts of the Apostles. While the degree of anti-Semitism in some verses may be open to debate, Goldhagen puts forward several compelling examples, as when Luke calls the Jews a "brood of vipers" or Paul proclaims that followers of Judaism will never gain forgiveness from God. Goldhagen does not go so far as to revise the Bible—he leaves theological decisions up to the Church—but he recommends that a detailed commentary be added to the text, telling readers that "even though these passages were once presented as fact, they are actually false or dubious and have been the source of much unjust injury."

The Catholic Church is unlikely to deem portions of its Bible "false or dubious," but the Vatican has acknowledged that aspects of Church doctrine inspired centuries of anti-Semitism. In 1965, the Vatican Council officially lifted the charge of deicide from the Jewish people with its proclamation Nostra Aetate ("In Our Time"). Goldhagen commends this move but criticizes the Vatican's 1998 statement "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah" for insisting that the Nazis' anti-Semitism "had its roots outside of Christianity." Goldhagen calls this claim "an absurdity" and illustrates what he sees as the Church's culpability by drawing a vivid analogy:

You place the straw around the houses of one town, teach the people of the next town to hate and fear the inhabitants in the first town. An incendiary comes along to give your followers a match.... You do not urge all those who work for you to save as many as they can. You do not tell all those who support the incendiary or even help him light his fires that they are committing crimes and consigning themselves to hell.... After the flames die down and the incendiary is dead, you say that you never told him or your followers explicitly to kill.... Would you believe that, under such a scenario, others would hold you innocent of all blame?

Goldhagen maintains a stern tone throughout A Moral Reckoning; he places the Church on trial and simultaneously plays the roles of prosecutor, judge, and jury. His emphasis, though, is always on repair, and he is quick to point out successful cases of moral reckoning within and outside the Church. The most unexpected example he puts forward is Germany, the nation whose citizens he blasted in Hitler's Willing Executioners. Modern Germany, in Goldhagen's view, is the perfect role model for the Catholic Church, a powerful institution that has undergone genuine soul searching and purged itself of negative tendencies. "Germans," he writes, "have replaced core doctrines of racism, anti-Semitism, and hatred with the Enlightenment doctrines of universalism, tolerance, and the desire for peace.... Except among fringe elements, Nazism is dead. It will not be resurrected."

Goldhagen recently left a teaching position at Harvard University to pursue his writing full time. He is currently working on a book about genocide in the twentieth century and is on the U.S. advisory board for the international human rights organization Humanity in Action. I spoke to him in his Boston-area home.

Jennie Rothenberg



Daniel Goldhagen
Daniel Goldhagen

I understand your father was a Holocaust survivor. Did you know, even as a child, that this subject was something you wanted to explore in a deep way?

I did grow up with Holocaust-related material around my house, not so much because my father was a survivor but because he was a professor. He did some research in Germany when I was a child, and we lived there for a year. But when I went to graduate school, I had no intention of writing my dissertation on this topic. I decided to do so only after I attended a seminar about what was then the burning question in the field—the intentionalist-functionalist debate about how the mass murders in Germany began. It dawned on me that no one was asking the very important question of why, when Hitler gave the orders, so many people actually carried them out. It seemed too important a topic to pass up.

Hitler's Willing Executioners was surprisingly well received in Germany, even though it was controversial. You won the prestigious Democracy Prize in Bonn, and when I visited Germany last summer, everyone still seemed to be talking about "the Goldhagen thesis." Did you expect that same kind of response from the Catholic Church when you wrote A Moral Reckoning?

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is The Atlantic's digital features editor. More

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor at Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel.

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