The Holocaust and the Search for Forgiveness

The Holocaust and the Search for Forgiveness

The following are excerpts from "The Holocaust and the Catholic Church's Search for Forgiveness," a paper presented at the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, Boston College, October 30, 2002. The complete text, with footnotes, is available through the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning Web site, at

The purpose of my paper is to pay attention to an unprecedented event in the long life of Catholicism, the Church's recent confession of fault regarding Christian conduct during the period of the Shoah and its search for forgiveness. Man of theatre and seismographer of symbols that he is, John Paul II has created a religious drama in which Catholics are performing against a backdrop of overwhelming evil, a stage we would gladly exit.

But the Pope's pleas for forgiveness have scripted us who are Catholics into his liturgical play before we are very clear about what it is exactly for which we should feel collective responsibility. Still very early into the performance, we may be already aching for catharsis. But why has it taken so long to seek forgiveness? The Catholic Church did not sleep walk through the last century. It knew a great deal about what was happening to the Jews of Europe during the actual genocide and, in the decades since, the historical record has cast light into many of the darkest recesses. With Hannah Arendt, I believe forgiveness is intimately connected to the need for a new beginning. But it was precisely that need which was absent in Catholicism for so long, the desire to begin a new relationship with the Jewish people after the Holocaust.

Without such a desire, why plead for forgiveness? The relationship between Christians and Jews seemed theologically frozen, out of time, stranger to those domains where tragedy and sorrow could transform hearts and minds. There were a few who did prepare for the charismatic role seized by John Paul II: the elderly Jewish scholar Jules Isaac, who pressed to meet with Pope John XXIII to talk about the Church's historical contempt for the Jews; John's determination to end that disdain; the bishops 1965 adoption of the "Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions" at the Second Vatican Council. Still it is John Paul II who has effected a new relationship with the Jewish people. How it will develop is for the future to disclose but, if we have an appreciation for how the earlier relationship shaped and malformed Christianity, we can sense the radical reinvention that a loving relationship might entail. I would claim, however, that Catholicism's desire for a new beginning with Judaism is also the desire for a new relationship with itself, the desire to get beyond Christendom. What I mean by Christendom is not an historical epoch but rather a set of attitudes which generated a fortress Christianity. I shall mention but two of them. The first is that Christianity best interpreted itself through a particular form of European culture that asserted its spiritual surpassing of Judaism. The second maintains that the modern world is a definitive repudiation of Christianity and that the Church is responsible for neither its achievements nor its crimes. These distinctions stand behind the continual argument of Church authorities that there is an absolute border between medieval anti-Judaism and modern anti-Semitism.

Taking a cue from the philosopher Charles Taylor, I wish to claim that modernity is frequently an embrace rather than an abandonment of Christianity. Taylor gives the example of modern liberal political culture's proclamation of universal human rights as a "great advance in the practical penetration of the gospel in human life." It was a progress that rested upon exit from an earlier version of Christian practice. While Taylor has stressed the positive side of Christianity's survival in modern culture, the murder of European Jews forces us to regard the sometimes toxic effects of that endurance. Although I am not able to justify the argument here, I would claim that anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism interpenetrate in ways that, to my knowledge, have not yet been adequately mapped. Christendom's contempt of the Jews is not a place from which some mere new set of ideas allows us egress. Like the Holy Roman Empire, Christendom formed an intoxicating, imaginative piece of theatre. Only another drama of more than equal appeal will displace it. We are currently experiencing the opening scenes of that new play.

* * *

The power of Pope John Paul II's seeking of forgiveness is that he brings Catholics with him. As a Jesuit, I feel that his acts and pleas challenge me personally and the Society of Jesus collectively, that we are forced to deal with our history in a new way. Among the requests of the Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission is one of access to various archives of the Society of Jesus. It is understandable inasmuch as Pius XII relied frequently on the Jesuits and their role in his papacy should be better understood. But the request is also an opportunity. The Jesuits too must purify their memory and to do so we need greater understanding of our dealings with the Jewish people.

* * *

The Catholic search for forgiveness which I have spoken of today is a summons to responsibility and to awareness of how dangerous religious faith and spiritual commitment is. This search is creating for Catholicism a new more critical relationship with its historical reality. But it is also the forging of a new relationship between Christians and Jews. The recent "Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity,' which was signed by many Jewish leaders and thinkers is a sign that the penitential voice of Christianity is being heard. Catholics should be grateful.

Rev. James Bernauer, SJ, is a professor of philosophy.


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