Read Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews Online

Authors: James Carroll

Tags: #Religion, #Christianity, #Catholic, #History

Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews (6 page)

BOOK: Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews
3.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub



The material consequences of
—the gold, the apartments, the clocks—are only emblems of the spiritual consequences. Why should Europe—the Nazis with their active and passive collaborators—have turned so violently on the Jews? Despite an apparently broad cultural preoccupation with the Holocaust over the last generation, this is a question non-Jews have barely begun to ask. The prosecutor's question must be put not materially but spiritually. Who benefits when certain ancient observances, certain ways of asking questions, certain ways of thinking about God, and certain ways of asserting peoplehood disappear from Western consciousness?

As a Catholic, I have been summoned by the pope himself to ask such questions. John Paul II warned Catholics not to cross the threshold of the new millennium without having fully reckoned with our particular failure in relation to Jews. "How can we not lament the lack of discernment," he asked in 1994, "which at times became even acquiescence?"
John Paul II, perhaps more eloquently than any non-Jew, pointed to the Holocaust as a challenge to the Christian conscience.

Yet much of what one hears lately from the Vatican about the role of the Catholic Church during the Hitler years, including the long awaited 1998 statement "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah" and the 2000 statement "Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past,"
is defensive and self-exonerating. The behavior of a relatively few heroes is highlighted, and the hierarchy's choice of pragmatic, behind-the-scenes diplomacy over moral confrontation is presented in the most favorable way. For example, in both documents "many" Christians are credited with assisting persecuted Jews, while some "others" are faulted for not doing so. The truth requires a reversal of that construction: "many" did nothing, while "others," a few, gave assistance.
In "We Remember," the pagan quality of Nazi ideology—its hatred of all things religious, including Christian, and perhaps especially Catholic—is emphasized rather than the way Protestant and Catholic attitudes toward Jews were so well exploited by the Nazis. Pius XII is praised as a hero of resistance.

I will take another view in this book, aware that the final verdict on these questions will be rendered by future generations.
But I should acknowledge that I am considered by some of my fellow Catholics as an unreliable witness. In the
New York Times
, I have been identified as a papal critic whose complaints against the pope "enraged Catholics less liberal" than I.
Despite my criticism, I was invited in 1999 to participate, as one of fifteen Catholic scholars, together with fifteen Jewish scholars, in a consultation with Cardinal Edward Cassidy, the head of the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews and the chief author of "We Remember." The subject of that consultation was the document's shortcomings and the Vatican's remaining responsibility for resolving them. We will return to those shortcomings and that responsibility later in the book.

The questions remain. Who benefits? What does history teach about the Church's relationship to anti-Judaism, about anti-Judaism's relationship to antisemitism, about antisemitism's relationship to the near elimination of European Jews? Can the Roman Catholic memory, in the words of John Paul II, "play its necessary part in the process of shaping a future in which the unspeakable iniquity of the Shoah will never again be possible"?
But memory is less a neutral accident of the mind than a conscious work of interpretation, marked as much by deletion as by selection. How a community remembers its past is the single most important element in determining its future. But a community as large and complex as the Roman Catholic Church can accomplish such reckoning only in fits and starts.

Yes, a work of memory, but far more is at stake than assessments of the behavior of Pius XII. It is not sufficient to emphasize that Hitler, though technically and officially a Catholic until the day he died, was in spirit a pagan. Hitler's genocidal assault on the Jews became the work of an entire people, and an entire civilization was prepared to let it happen. How, a civilization Christian to its core? How, the German citizens, 95 percent of whom in 1940, seven years after Nazism took hold, were still affiliated with a church?
If pagan ideology accounts for the brutality of Nazism, why did the "religiousness" of German Christians grow throughout the period of the Third Reich? Attendance at Catholic services, for example, increased as the war progressed. It is true that the Reich's leaders encouraged Germans to observe their rites of passage with pagan-style Nazi ceremonies instead of church baptisms, marriages, and funerals, but statistics were kept: In the first half of 1943, in Thuringia, a region in central Germany, 1,427 of the concocted rituals were conducted by the Nazi Party, while 35,853 were conducted traditionally, in churches. According to the Third Reich's own survey, a mere 3.5 percent of the German population described themselves as
(neo-pagan) as late as 1944.
When the Nazis tried to remove crucifixes from the schools of Bavaria, Catholics protested, and the Nazis backed down. In other words, the German people, whatever else they did, maintained their ostensible Christian identity—which is why the question about, at the very least, acquiescence in genocidal crimes is a question about the content ofthat identity.

How, the clergy? One hears quite a lot about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Protestant theologian, and Bernhard Lichtenberg, dean of the Catholic Cathedral in Berlin, both martyred. They were true heroes for all. More than three thousand Catholic priests and nuns perished in the camps, although most of those were Poles put to death more for being Slavic than Catholic. German clergy were killed at the front as chaplains in the German army at a rate greater than priests and ministers were ever sent to the camps. As the historian William Sheridan Allen wrote about the German clergy, "From an actuarial point of view it was safer to oppose Hitler than to support him."

Nevertheless, it is a slander to say that the Catholic Church did not resist Hitler. It fails "moral memory" not to emphasize that an expressly Catholic resistance, boldly led by the hierarchy, did in fact succeed in deterring the Führer from one of his most evil plans. Seventy thousand "undesirable" people under German authority were put to death in a Nazi euthanasia program. It was slated to kill hundreds of thousands, if not millions, more. But the open pursuit of this policy was stopped by the protests of churches, with a key role played by Bishop Clement August von Galen of Münster. He applied the word "murder" to the program. In a sermon preached on August 3, 1941, he said, "If they start out by killing the insane, it can well be extended to the old, the infirm, sick, seriously crippled soldiers. What do you do to a machine which no longer runs, to an old horse which is incurably lame, a cow which does not give milk? They now want to treat humans the same way."
As von Galen's resistance drew support from other bishops and the Vatican, the Nazis wanted to retaliate against him. But they were afraid to because, as Joseph Goebbels himself said, "The population of Münster could be regarded as lost during the war if anything were done against the Bishop ... [indeed] the whole of Westphalia" would be lost to the cause.
Exactly three weeks after von Galen's sermon, Hitler ordered a halt to the euthanasia program.

Why was the fate of the Jews so different from the fate of the planned victims of the euthanasia program? Why did one rouse Church leaders to an effective and courageous open protest, while the other—with few exceptions—roused nothing? Was it because the seventy thousand euthanasia victims and their likely successors had Christian brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers who could conscript pastors and bishops into the struggle? Was it because euthanasia, then as now, is an issue close to the center of Roman Catholic moral preoccupation? Explicitly and uneuphemistically, Church protests against Hitler, including Pius XI's 1937 encyclical
Mit Brennender Sorge
("With Burning Sadness"), always concerned matters of Church prerogatives, power, and doctrine. Euthanasia, like crucifixes on schoolroom walls, qualified. Jews did not. The contrast speaks for itself. "Had the Nazi hierarchy encountered unambiguous and sustained revulsion by non-Jewish Germans at their antisemitic policies," the historian Deborah E. Lipstadt concluded, "there probably would have been no Final Solution."

The monstrous question to Europe, to Western Christianity, and to Catholicism is not How could you have murdered the Jews? Because again, it was the Nazis, not "Europe," who murdered the Jews. Even discounting the Church-affiliated Germans who were among the perpetrators of the crime, the monstrous question is How could you have not cared that the Nazis prepared to murder, and then did murder, the Jews in front of you? How could that murder not have been experienced as directly involving you? And finally, when the roundups and deportations and transports began to be conducted openly in 1942 and 1943, when the killing of Jews replaced the war effort as Hitler's main purpose, why did you not see that your passivity had effectively become collaboration? "How is it," Cynthia Ozick asks, "that indifference, which on its own does no apparent or immediate positive harm, ends by washing itself in the very horrors it means to have nothing to do with? Hoping to confer no hurt, indifference finally grows lethal; why is that?"

5. Passion Play

beginning when I was fifteen or so, in addition to the treasure hunts on which I had watched my mother buy, among other things, that clock, I had made Holy Week pilgrimages with her. We went to Rhineland shrines not far downriver from our home in Wiesbaden. My father had been named chief of staff of the Air Force in Europe in 1957, and I lived there until 1960, the year of my enrollment in Georgetown. Our time in Germany coincided with the end of the occupation era, when American virtue was defined by the utter absence of the evil enemy whom we had vanquished. The Germany we knew, our stalwart ally in the cosmic struggle against Communism, had nothing to do with Hitler's Germany. And nothing demonstrated that more than the outpourings of fervent piety we witnessed whenever German Catholics gathered in market squares for church festivals.

Germany is famously Lutheran, but most of the area historically dominated by Protestants had fallen behind the Iron Curtain, and the Federal Republic, with its capital in traditionally Catholic Bonn, seemed a mainly Catholic nation to us. In its flamboyant, if not altogether authentic, program of denazification, it had served West Germany's purposes to elevate Catholic leaders like Konrad Adenauer, who was born near Bonn. As we shall see, his record as an anti-Hitler resister served as an exonerating blanket not only for the German nation but for much of German Catholicism. In the Rhineland, where we lived, Catholicism was strong, and in the postwar years its public assertion was a way not only to forget Hitler but, implicitly, to deny that he had ever had much of a following there. At times, in the religious pageants that often spilled into the streets of river towns and cities, I might have thought otherwise—except that the venomous portrayals of Jews that informed New Testament dramatizations must have seemed normal to me, too.

My mother's piety always came into its own on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, and in those years the Passion of Jesus stirred us as never before. Passion plays in Germany dated to the late Middle Ages, when they were offered in thanksgiving for deliverance from the Black Death. The Passion play tradition, which took root in Germany as nowhere else, was already a signal of the explosive power that would be unleashed when certain strains of Teutonic culture meshed with the "normal" anti-Judaism of European Christianity. For, even more than the Gospels from which it derives, the Passion play enacts a drama that is as much about the Jews as it is about Jesus. It is the perfect distillation of the stark polarity by which the Church defines itself entirely by its enemy. For a long time I carried vivid images of Passion plays I associated with Germany, and I took them for renditions of a sacred truth. They were not the full-blown productions of, say, an Oberammergau, but the story of the death of Jesus, enacted as a pageant, with tableaux, choruses, and costumed actors, had stamped my adolescent imagination. I remembered the action spilling into the crowd of pilgrims as we thronged enclosures between the ancient walls of towering churches and monastic arcades. I thought of my mother and me standing together on planks, her clutching the rosary. When the white-robed figure of Jesus appeared—the wreath of thorns was more striking than the cross, which seemed small for what it had to do—she blessed herself. I remembered wanting to tell her once that it was only a play.

Other characters appeared before us like figures from a Bavarian woodcut. I remembered Pontius Pilate with his toga, laurel crown, and white enamel pan of water. I remembered Simon of Cyrene, leather bracelets on his naked biceps, sandal thongs laced above his ankles, the ease with which he handled the cross. Jesus trailed behind, his hands bound, his hair matted with blood from thorns that seemed real. I remembered the weeping Veronica, how she clutched her towel, with its imprint of the face of Our Lord. And I remembered the mother of Jesus, on whom, alone of all the figures, my eyes found it possible to rest. She was a pretty girl whose stoic passivity—her head unmoving, held at that famous angle, even as she strode through the press of that Via Dolorosa—seemed very sensual to me. Subliminally, as with the Virgin of Michelangelo's
she was less a mother than a figure of thwarted desire, which was why, throughout my youth, her virginity underwrote my own. In the Mary of the sorrowful mysteries, spirituality and sensuality were not at war. In her, the word "passion" could slyly open to its other meaning. And I could turn to her when devotion to my own mother had become taboo.

BOOK: Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews
3.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Subprimes by Karl Taro Greenfeld
Perfectly Star Crossed by Victoria Rose
The Cutting Edge by Linda Howard
Murder on Parade by Melanie Jackson
Lone Rider by B.J. Daniels
Crooked Wreath by Christianna Brand
The Last Tsar by Edvard Radzinsky
La caverna by José Saramago