David Cannadine: A Certain Kind of Greatness (January 22, 2003)
David Cannadine, the author of In Churchill's Shadow, talks about Britain's reaction to its own decline.
Ted Halstead: A More Perfect Union (January 14, 2003)
Ted Halstead, the founder and CEO of the New America Foundation, argues that the time has come for Americans to devise a new social contract.
Language Makes the Senses One (January 8, 2003)
Peter Davison talks with the poet Stanley Plumly, who believes that "language, at its best, is not easy."
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead:
In Search of Mr. Right (December 18, 2002)
The author of Why There Are No Good Men Left discusses the challenges facing today's single women, and argues that the contemporary courtship system needs to be transformed.
More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
More on books from The Atlantic and Atlantic Unbound.
From the archives:
"The Worst Thing About My Church" (January 2001)
A compelling new history of Catholic anti-Semitism. By Charles R. Morris
"The Holocaust and the Catholic Church" (October 1999)
Some in the Vatican want to make Pius XII a saint. If they succeed, "the Church will have sealed its second millennium with a lie." By James Carroll
From Atlantic Unbound:
Interviews: "The Loyal Catholic" (May 8, 2002)
Garry Wills, the author of Why I Am a Catholic, talks about faith, scandal, and the importance of constructive criticism.
Flashbacks: "A Time to Change" (July 24, 2002)
Atlantic articles from the past forty years have considered the troubles and the institutional weaknesses plaguing the Catholic Church.
Atlantic Unbound | January 31, 2003
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
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.
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?
|Daniel Goldhagen |
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?
It's true that my first book was well received in Germany. But initially it was attacked by German academics, newspapers, magazines, what have you. The concept of the book was thoroughly misrepresented. People talked about me as if I hated Germany—as if I blamed all Germans at all times and thought Germans were genetically evil. That's just nonsense. In the conclusion of A Moral Reckoning I discuss how Germany has, for all its failings, done an enormously good job of repair and self-transformation. In this respect Germany is a model for others.
So there was a powerful reaction against my first book, but once people finally got to hear what was actually in the book, there was an immensely positive reaction there and around the world. With A Moral Reckoning, too, the Catholic Church's representatives have by and large reacted with hostility. I'm hopeful and confident that when passions die down, people in the Church will confront what's in the book: the discussion of wrongdoings and how the harms ought to be repaired. Then the book will take its place alongside the first one and will change the discussion about the issues even within the Church. I think for others it already has.
In order to write A Moral Reckoning, you had to undertake an in-depth study of the Catholic religion. Were there any aspects of it that struck you as particularly admirable or beautiful?
The Catechism has admirable principles about how people should live their lives. It's an 800-page book, a Catholic doctrine from A to Z. It covers everything from the beginning of the world to social questions today. It's quite interesting, and it makes for inspirational reading, even for non-Catholics. It's a moral system that can be applauded. But sadly, of course, the Church has not always let those principles guide it.
Take the moral duty of repair. It's in the Catechism, paragraph 1459. I'll read it to you: "Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much."
If you hadn't read the Catechism, there's no way you would deduce from the Church's conduct that this moral imperative of repair is in there. Where has the Church acted upon this doctrinal imperative, repairing the harm that it and its clergy have inflicted? With regard to Jews it certainly hasn't. Who has been more slandered by the Church than the Jews? It's not enough to say "we're sorry"—the Catechism says you have to restore the reputation of the slandered. That means actually teaching Catholics the falseness of anti-Semitism both historically and today, having systematic education at elementary and secondary levels and for adults on these themes. Does the Church do this? No. I saw the discrepancies between those principles and how they are applied, and I had to write about it.
When Geoffrey Wheatcroft reviewed A Moral Reckoning for The New York Times, he commented that you did not take on the dispassionate tone of a historian. What do you make of this observation?
As my letter that The New York Times printed demonstrates, the criticisms contained in his polemical review are based on inaccurate accounts of what I had actually written in my book. It is also worth noting that he casts me and my book in a false role. I am not a historian, and the book, as its title and its first page announce, is primarily about morality and not history—which does not mean that it does not adhere to the methods of social scientific and philosophical inquiry, because it does.
When I was in debate with Church representatives in Europe, they asked why I left out this or that historical detail, as if I were supposed to have written some thousand-page historical work—when in fact the principal substance of the book is the discussion of moral issues. At some point I would say, "Look, if you want to claim that my historical account is not right in its every detail—no one can rightly deny its central contours—then tell me what yours is. Give me your account of the history and the clergy's crimes and other transgressions, which no one can deny were extensive and enormous. If you don't like the principles of repair that I put forward, tell me what principles you think are better. Once you do all that, we can see where we agree and disagree, and we can have a productive discussion." Not one Church defender has ever answered my questions and taken the challenge to have such a productive discussion. They obviously wish to avoid the central issues because the moment they address them fairly they would have to concede a great deal.
Many reviewers of your book have worried that even if your arguments are well founded, your tone might be too aggressive to win over your readers. Paul Drolet wrote in The Montreal Gazette that after all the thawing that's taken place between Catholics and Jews, your book might harden hearts.
The book is not "aggressive." The content is hard for many to hear because the Church and its clergy's crimes and other transgressions have been enormous and their moral failings regarding repair are glaring and egregious. My job is to convey the truth as best I can, to uncover the data that are relevant and draw the necessary conclusions. Of course one should be understanding that these are very difficult issues. There's no doubt they are. The truth alone, when unfolded in all its starkness, is harsh. The idea that you should soft-pedal the truth because the Church that had historically committed so many crimes doesn't want to hear it—it's untenable. And yet this is the position that the Church has been adopting for years, that if you want to have any progress then you must skirt around the hard truths. It attacks people who speak the plain truth, with all of its vast power and enormous resources behind it.
There's another point I would add: the notion that Catholics shouldn't be told the truth is so patronizing. It's worse than patronizing. Are we supposed to pretend that Catholics don't want to know what happened—that they're not worthy of the truth?
You make a lot of references to books written by Catholic scholars, especially John Cornwell's Hitler's Pope and James Carroll's Constantine's Sword. As a Jewish scholar, do you think your task in writing about this subject was easier or more difficult than the one that those Catholic authors faced?
I'm not writing as a Jewish scholar, although I'm certainly not a Catholic scholar. I'm a social scientist. I lay everything out in a transparent way so you, the reader, can understand how the analysis is proceeding and can take issue with anything you think is faulty. I tell you how I got from A to B, or C to D, and I lay out general principles, which I then apply to the Church. I'm as exacting on my own arguments as I am on other people's. That's my manner of proceeding.
At one point in my book, I undertake a kind of conversation with James Carroll, a very respectful one. I think it's clear that I think he wrote a great book. The one difference between how he and I may approach the subject because of our personal allegiances is that those who are Catholic can make demands upon their religion regarding their sacred texts in a way that I can't. But apart from that, when it comes to logic and arguments, I don't talk about people's backgrounds to evaluate their work. That's an intellectually dishonest way of dealing with scholarship.
It does seem, though, that Catholics can write about this subject in a way that might be more palatable to many people. When John Cornwell wrote Hitler's Pope he could say, "I'm a Catholic. I went into this research wanting to exonerate Pope Pius XII, and I was dismayed to find that he was guilty."
Well, then, I went into this research wanting to facilitate repair. The book is really a very hopeful book. I wrote it because I think repair is possible. And the book is not just about the Church. I wrote in the book and say to people all the time, "Apply the components and principles of moral reckonings that my book develops to other instances. Apply it to the United States and its unfulfilled debt of repair to African-Americans." I went into this project thinking, "I want good to emerge from this."
Give us an example of how we could apply your model of moral reckoning here in the U.S. to help make amends for slavery.
People often talk about the horrors of slavery. But they ignore the hundred-plus years of history between the end of slavery and today, including the whole Jim Crow era. Segregation is not that far in the past, and its crimes were vast. Political institutions and the people supporting them were engaged in a system of violent oppression that went on for a hundred years after slavery. Who talks about it in this way?
I'll give you an example. I was lecturing a few years ago at Furman University in South Carolina. The next morning, I was at a breakfast with the honors students. Most of the students were southerners. They were all very interested in what Germans today think of the past, what they've done and not done. I said, "These questions are good ones, but you might look closer to home. How many of you have ever asked your parents what they were thinking and doing during the civil-rights period?" Not a single one of them had. Here were these kids so focused on Germany, which is fine—the Holocaust obviously looms large in the public's imagination. But none of them had ever spoken with their own parents about what their parents' or grandparents' stances were during this period.
The first principle in my book is to tell the full truth, not just the macro-sociological truth, but to lay out in detail what people were doing. What was going on in communities? How many people from the South today know what was being done to their African-American neighbors, to the parents and grandparents of their friends? The truth hasn't been told in front of people's faces. In South Carolina, they still have statues of the architects of segregation in front of the statehouse. This is just an appalling situation.
Then take my second principle: fight the continuing effects of the harm. What is the ongoing tangible harm done to African-Americans? It's enormous. The economic disparities between whites and blacks have a lot to do with that harm. A lot of things need to be transformed so that no further harm is done. The way whites treat blacks is still far from perfect, but those who govern this country have by and large declared everything finished. We need to start at square one and think about all these issues.
It seems that some of your questions haven't been asked before because they're so basic. Before you wrote Hitler's Willing Executioners, everyone already knew that many Germans did horrible things; there were hundreds of books and movies about it. What made you probe into an issue that might have seemed almost too obvious to other people?
There is something to what you're saying. I'm a social scientist working in a field where historians have typically worked. This is, in my view, every bit to my advantage. Often you find that people who haven't spent their whole lives in a certain field come at it from different angles. They have a certain analytical leverage on the material that other people don't, because they can look at it afresh and because they draw on different intellectual resources.
There was a paradigm about the Holocaust, and we know what paradigms do. They lead you to ask certain questions and shut out other ones. The paradigm of external coercion was an axiom in the field: it falsely held that the Germans acted as they did towards Jews because they were coerced by the Nazi leaders, and all the peoples of the occupied countries acted as they did because they were coerced in turn by the Germans. There was no freedom of choice. People needed to step outside this false paradigm, and I did.
From Atlantic Unbound:
Interviews: "Never Again Again" (March 14, 2002)
Samantha Power, the author of A Problem From Hell, explores why America—the home of Holocaust awareness—did all but nothing to stop the genocides of the twentieth century.
I maintained, against enormous resistance, that we should no longer make assumptions that preclude foundational questions; we actually have to ask the questions, and then do the research to answer them. Scholars had been asking, How were people who disapproved of what was asked of them brought to kill Jews? That question assumes that people disapproved of the deed and were coerced or induced to do it in one way or another. But there was no evidence to support this general assumption, and there was much that was being systematically ignored that made it clear that that assumption is wrong. Why didn't we ask instead what the German perpetrators actually thought about what they were doing, and what the evidence tells us?
It's the same with the Church. Instead of assuming, as others have, that the Church leaders disapproved of the persecution of the Jews, I asked in A Moral Reckoning, What did the Church leaders think about the Jews? Did they think the Jews were guilty or innocent? It's a very basic question. But look in the literature and try to find a book or article that demonstrates that the Catholic clergy generally believed the Jews were completely innocent, persecuted unjustly from the beginning. Look for it. You're not going to find it anywhere.
When you write about Catholics who did resist the Nazis during World War II, you don't seem overly impressed by the ones whose efforts didn't include the Jews, like Cardinal Faulhaber, who campaigned against killing the mentally ill. Do you see any value in these acts for breaking down the Nazis' power, even if they didn't address what was happening to the Jews?
Those who resisted the so-called "Euthanasia program," the killing of the mentally ill, are to be praised. Those who defended Catholics who had converted from Judaism are to be praised. But it shows that they could have done the same thing for Jews. Speaking out for Jews was just not something most Church leaders wanted to do.
The discussion of what the Church did in defense of various persecuted people is just one of the many ways in the book that I show how hollow the apologists' claims are that the Church couldn't act on behalf of the Jews. I often point to the resistance that the Church put up for this group or that group, which shows that the clergy were perfectly capable of resisting.
This in no way diminishes the importance of what they did for the people they did help. As you mentioned earlier, part of any moral reckoning is to praise people who acted well. It's important to speak forthrightly and with praise about the positive things the Church did. The sad fact is that not only did it not do enough to help, but it did so much to harm Jews. This is usually swept under the rug. Only a small percentage of clergy acted well during the persecution of the Jews. They have been praised frequently, and I praise them as well.
The most difficult conundrum you present to the Church is what you call the "Bible problem": all the verses in the Christian Bible that denounce Jews. A number of early Christian scriptures have recently been rediscovered, such as the Gospel of Thomas, and many of these tell the same stories as Matthew or John without portraying Jews in a negative light. Could the Church gain any insight by looking back into its own history?
Well, it's not for me to say what the Church must do with its sacred books, but my general view is if the Church wants to refashion its understanding of its Bible, there are various things it can do. If it wants to include once-excluded texts, that's fine. The Church has to deal with its own problems. We can discuss various options, but for non-Christians it's only an intellectual exercise.
The trouble is, the Church's official position is that the gospels are not anti-Semitic. It says that people just need to understand the context in which the Gospels were written. I say, if this is your belief, then why don't you provide the appropriate commentary in the text? Look at the American Church's official New American Bible—or the Catholic Bible of any country—and look for guidance on how these passages should be read in a way that provokes no ill feeling, prejudice, or enmity towards Jews, and especially that makes it clear that none of these passages should be applied to Jews today. It's not there. I say to the Church, be true to your word and explain to people how to interpret these things. Because we know that these passages do excite enmity, and that many readers do come away with prejudices from them. And they're the most damning prejudices one can imagine.
You made some interesting comments about the Vatican's recent statement "We Remember." This speech did express a heartfelt regret for the Holocaust, but it also added that the Church and Pope Pius XII tried to help the Jewish people. You point out that there is no evidence to suggest that the Vatican made any major effort to protect the Jews. If this is so, how does the Church justify making such statements?
This is a complicated issue. Catholic leaders typically point to some statements made by Jewish leaders after the war, Golda Meir and others, saying the Pope and the Church acted well. First of all, it's been shown that the Pope did not act well. The many claims made about the Pope having helped Jews during the war have been investigated in great detail and shown not to be true. Jewish leaders of the time who praised the Pope made these statements because they were currying the favor of a powerful Church, trying to get the Vatican to recognize the State of Israel, which, because of its anti-Semitism, it refused to do until 1993.
The Church points to these statements as if just because Golda Meir said something it had to be true. And it points to some aspects of the Church's own disinformation campaign, which made it possible to deny liability during the war. It steadfastly refuses to address in a forthright and full manner anything of its own enormous transgressions during the Nazi period.
Could you say something on the subject of collective guilt? When you wrote Hitler's Willing Executioners, a lot of people assumed that you thought all Germans were inherently evil. In A Moral Reckoning, you say that the opposite is true. You don't believe that a group carries some mystical burden of guilt among all its members, generation after generation. How, then, do you distinguish between collective guilt and the Church's collective responsibility?
The notion of collective guilt means that you're guilty because of your identity—because you're a German, or because you're a Jew. In fact, it's the Church that is the originator of what is perhaps the most damaging collective guilt charge of all time. Even though the Church formally repudiated the charge with Vatican II, its sacred text today still makes the collective guilt charge against Jews for their alleged role in the death of Jesus. This was the age-old Christian canard—just because you're a Jew, you're guilty, and you're guilty for all time.
Just so there's no confusion on the subject, I wrote in Hitler's Willing Executioners that collective guilt is conceptually and morally indefensible. The reason some people still believe otherwise about the book is that those who were and remain desperate to prevent its real conclusions from becoming known—including many scholars whose work it was showing to be wrong—have insistently fabricated the notion that the book charges Germans with collective guilt. The fact is that both of my books are a plea against the notion of collective guilt and for the restoration of individual responsibility, which for decades had been denied by other scholars writing about the Holocaust. Both books are grounded upon the notion of individual human agency, what religious traditions have called free will. It means that individuals have the capacity to know what they're doing, to evaluate the rightness of an action, and to choose to say no. It doesn't mean there might not be sanctions involved for making certain choices. But individuals can come to judgments about whether things are right or wrong. That means individuals may be judged only for their own individual deeds and stances—and not for the deeds or stances of others or of some collectivity.
Still, at the same time, institutions have ongoing responsibility. The United States government is responsible for carrying out treaties and obligations that previous governments have made. The Catholic Church today is the same Catholic Church, legally and institutionally, that existed in 1940. It continues to have responsibilities for previous debts incurred, and the officers of these institutions have the responsibility to discharge those obligations. These are the duties of repair.
If you choose to remain a member of the Catholic Church or choose to remain an American citizen, you cannot simply say you do not accept the legal or moral debts those institutions have. You take on that burden by being a member. The burden for lay Catholics may not be very great; it's really the officers of the Church who need to carry out this repair. All lay Catholics need to do is act well themselves and encourage and support their clergy in undertaking that repair.
What about Lutheranism, the other major Christian religion in Germany? Your book refers to passages from Martin Luther's pamphlet "On the Jews and their Lies," and you describe how Julius Streicher, the Nazi newspaper publisher, stood on the stand at Nuremberg and said that Martin Luther should be standing there shoulder to shoulder with him. Why have so many books about the Holocaust focused on the Catholic Church rather than the Lutherans?
There are reasons why there's been more written lately on the Catholic Church and the Holocaust. The Church has almost provoked it through its insistence on beginning the process of beatifying Pius XII. This has provoked a lot of people, inside the Church and out. A man who supervised a Church that committed so many crimes, and who himself was implicated in so many crimes—making him a saint would be a bit much. So that's one thing that's been focusing attention on the Catholic Church of late.
The second reason is that the Catholic Church was everywhere in Europe, and it dirtied its hands so badly in so many places that there ought to be an awful lot written about it. The Protestant Church is a bit more complicated because there is no supranational institution. Even within a given country, there are often many different Protestant Churches. We can't forget that the Pope was the single remaining independent moral voice at the time in Europe. He was important historically in a way that no Protestant leader was. That's why it would be natural if there were more attention paid to the Catholic Church.
There is actually much more known about what the Protestant Church did during the Holocaust, certainly within Germany, than about what the Catholic Church did. The research is much better, and the scholarship is much stronger. You see a lot of people within the Protestant Churches who are digging much deeper and harder. And as for Martin Luther, many Lutheran Churches have fully acknowledged that his anti-Semitism poisoned Lutheranism for ages. They rightly wanted to divest their tradition of it.
The reality of the Catholic Church is that its archives are closed. We know the general outlines of the horrors, but as for the details of what happened within the Vatican and in this national Church or that one, there's not a lot known. We need the Church to allow people to use its archives, not just at the Vatican but around Europe. One of the things I do in my book is say, Let's not just focus on Pius XII. Let's also think about the Church more broadly as an institution and not use the Pope as an alibi, because what different national churches and their clergy were doing in the different countries was horrific. We need to focus on that. Let's hope people do.
You argue that the Catholic Church should not be a political body, and that the Vatican should no longer be a political state with diplomats in different countries. Eugene Fisher, a Church spokesperson for Jewish-Catholic relations, has responded that Vatican City needs to be independent so it can remain "free of the political whirlwind of Europe." How could the Church have this kind of neutrality if it were based in one country or another?
There are religions all around the world that have plenty of freedom without having a state. It's a different thing if a country has a particular religious orientation: Ireland is a political entity with a Catholic character, and Israel is a political entity that has a Jewish character. But an actual moral institution, a religion itself, cannot be a political institution. The unit of politics is power, and the rhythm of politics is extending and maintaining influence. The unit of morality is goodness, and the rhythm of moral institutions is to help people seek goodness and live good lives. Politics and morality are in such tension with one another that, even if they cannot be totally divorced from one another, it seems impossible for a political institution to also be a moral institution at its core.
If the Church wants to maintain a political institution with a head of state, that's fine. It's not for me to decide. But then we should all realize the Church is a political institution, not a moral institution, and deal with it as we deal with any other political entity. We should criticize it in all the ways we criticize other states, respond to its religious pronouncements the way we would respond to the ideologies of other nations.
If you are a political state with a political strategy—which the Catholic Church is—that is what takes precedence over morality. Look at the recent sex abuse crisis. The Church forsook its moral duties to the victims because of political considerations, of prestige and power. By now I think everybody knows this to be true. So let's be honest about the Church and its nature.
Your next book is going to be about genocide in our time. How will this third book expand on the work you've done already, and how will it be different from other books about genocide?
I'd already written half of that book when A Moral Reckoning came along essentially by accident. I started the book on genocide as kind of a natural successor to Hitler's Willing Executioners. I'd done an enormous amount of study about other genocides so that Hitler's Willing Executioners would be illuminated by comparative study. Unlike the Holocaust, which is past history, mass murder is still a part of the political repertoire of the contemporary world. If we could understand the nature of the problem, we'd have a better chance of coming to policy decisions that would prevent future genocides.
This next book will have that component to it. It will be different from A Moral Reckoning in that I'll talk more about how to prevent genocide from happening or lessen the horror, rather than about repairing harm after the fact. All the book projects I have undertaken are very different from one another. I take what I consider to be big intellectual problems that I think need to be reworked and address them in new, I hope more illuminating, ways.
You've asked the Church a lot of very pointed questions. Have you received any answers?
By and large, no. The only person who has addressed anything of what I said in the book was the Bishop of Hamburg, Hans-Jochen Jaschke. During a debate at the Catholic Academy of Hamburg, he said (and I paraphrase): "Your principles of repair are correct. Tell the truth, fight the continuing effects of the harm, and transform the institution so it will never be a source of that harm again. He then went on to say: And we've done all that." Which is demonstrably not true. But at least he affirmed the principles, so that is of crucial importance for furthering discussion within the Church and among Catholics.
Some journalists from Catholic newspapers in Europe have also responded on the issue of why the Church doesn't include commentaries on the anti-Semitic passages in their Bible. They have nodded their heads and said I am right. I was just in a panel discussion in Spain, and there was a Jesuit gentleman there who is apparently a great critic of the Church. He also said I am completely right, that the Church needs to utterly reform itself. But he is atypical. In general, people within the Church don't address the questions.
It's really the Church's leaders that should be interviewed all the time on these points, again and again, chapter and verse. You should call up the archdiocese and do the kind of very pointed interview journalists do. Ask a set of difficult questions: the Church did this, this bishop did this, the Pope did that—why? Do you accept what the Catechism says is the duty of repair? If so, then what are the principles of it? How should they be carried out? As far as I know, this kind of interview hasn't been done.
I'm happy to be interviewed, but after all, it's the Church as an institution and its clergy who should be addressing these issues. The Church has certainly made some important progress since 1945, but it has done only a small percentage of what it needs to do. In the end, it is not I who can provide the answers. I can only ask the questions.
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More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
Jennie Rothenberg was recently a new media intern for The Atlantic.
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