Catholic Bishops of France
Read on September 30, 1997 on the fifty-seventh anniversary of the passage of anti-Semitic laws by the collaborationist Vichy government during the Nazi occupation of France.
As one of the major events of the 20th century, the planned extermination of the Jewish people by the Nazis raises particularly challenging questions of conscience which no human being can ignore. The Catholic Church, far from wanting it to be forgotten, knows full well that conscience is formed in remembering, and that, just as no individual person can live in peace with himself, neither can society live in peace with a repressed or untruthful memory.
The Church of France questions itself. It, like the other churches, has been called to do so by Pope John Paul II as the third millennium draws near: "It is good that the church should cross this threshold fully conscious of what she has lived through . . . . Recognizing the failings of yesteryear is an act of loyalty and courage which helps us strengthen our faith, which makes us face up to the temptations and difficulties of today and prepares us to confront them."1
Following this years celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Seelisburg (that tiny village in Switzerland where, immediately after the war, on Aug. 5, 1947, Jews and Christians drew up guidelines proposing a new understanding of Judaism), the undersigned bishops of France, because of the presence of internment camps in their dioceses, on the occasion of the forthcoming anniversary of the first statutes concerning the Jews drawn up by the Marechal Petain government (Oct. 3, 1940), wish to take a further step. They do so in response to what their conscience, illuminated by Christ, demands.
The time has come for the church to submit her own history, especially that of this period, to critical examination and to recognize without hesitation the sins committed by members of the church, and to beg forgiveness of God and humankind.
In France, the violent persecution did not begin immediately. But very soon, in the months that followed the 1940 defeat, anti-Semitism was sown at the state level, depriving French Jews of their rights and foreign Jews of their freedom; all of our national institutions were drawn into the applications of these legal measures. By February 1941, some 40,000 Jews were in French internment camps. At this point, in a country which had been beaten, lay prostrate and was partially occupied, the hierarchy saw the protection of its own faithful as its first priority, assuring as much as possible its own institutions. The absolute priority which was given to these objectives, in themselves legitimate, had the unhappy effect of casting a shadow over the biblical demand of respect for every human being created in the image of God.
This retreat into a narrow vision of the churchs mission was compounded by a lack of appreciation on the part of the hierarchy of the immense global tragedy which was being played out and which was a threat to Christianitys future. Yet many members of the church and many non-Catholics yearned for the church to speak out at a time of such spiritual confusion and to recall the message of Jesus Christ.
For the most part, those in authority in the church, caught up in a loyalism and docility which went far beyond the obedience traditionally accorded to civil authorities, remained stuck in conformity, prudence and abstention. This was dictated in part by their fear of reprisals against the churchs activities and youth movements. They failed to realize that the church, called at that moment to play the role of defender within a social body that was falling apart, did in fact have considerable power and influence, and that in the face of the silence of other institutions, its voice could have echoes loudly by taking a definitive stand against the irreparable.
It must be borne in mind: During the occupation no one knew the full extend of the Hitlerian genocide. While it is true that mention could be made of a great number of gestures of solidarity, we have to ask ourselves whether acts of charity and help are enough to fulfill the demands of justice and respect for the rights of human persons.
So it is that, given the anti-Semitic legislation enacted by the French government - beginning with the October 1940 law on Jews and that of June 1941, which deprived a whole section of the French people of their rights as citizens, which hounded them out and treated them as inferior beings within the nation - and given the decision to put into internment camps foreign Jews who had thought they could rely on the right of asylum and hospitality in France, we are obliged to admit that the bishops of France made no public statements, thereby acquiescing by their silence in the flagrant violation of human rights and leaving the way open to a death-bearing chain of events.
We can pass no judgment either on the consciences of the people of that era; we are not ourselves guilty of what took place in the past; but we must be fully aware of the cost of such behavior and actions. It is our church, and we are obliged to acknowledge objectively today that ecclesiastical interests, understood in an overly restrictive sense, took priority over the demands of conscience - and we must ask ourselves why.
Over and above the historical circumstances which we have already recalled, we need to pay special attention to the religious reasons for this blindness. To what extent did secular anti-Semitism have an influence? Why is it, in the debates which we know took place, that the church did not listen to the better claims of its members voices? Before the war, Jacques Maritain, both in articles and in lectures, tried to open Christians up to a different perspective on the Jewish people. He also forcefully warned against the perversity of the anti-Semitism that was developing. Just before the war broke out, Cardinal Saliege advised Catholics of the 20th century to seek light in the teaching of Pius XI rather than in that of the 13th-century edicts of Innocent III. During the war, theologians and exegetes in Paris and in Lyons spoke out prophetically about the Jewish roots of Christianity, underlining how the shoot of Jesse flowered in Israel, that the two testaments were indissolubly linked, that the Virgin, Christ and the apostles were all Jews and that Christianity is linked to Judaism like a branch to the trunk that has borne it. Why was so little attention paid to such words?
Certainly, as the doctrinal level, the church was fundamentally opposed to racism for the reasons, both theological and spiritual, which Pius XI expressed so strongly in his encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge, which condemned the basic principles of national-socialism and warned Christians against the myth of race and of the all-powerful state. As far back as 1928, the Holy Office had condemned anti-Semitism. In 1938, Pius XI boldly declared, "Spiritually, we are Semites." But in the face of the constantly repeated anti-Jewish stereotypes, what weight could such condemnations carry? What weight could the thinking of theologians already referred to carry - thinking which can be found even after 1942 in statements which were not lacking in courage?
In the process which led to the Shoah, we are obliged to admit the role, indirect if not direct, played by commonly held anti-Jewish prejudices, which Christians were guilty of maintaining. In fact, in spite of (and to some extent because of) the Jewish roots of Christianity, and because of the Jewish peoples fidelity throughout its history to the one God, the "original separation" dating back to the first-century became a divorce, then an animosity and ultimately a centuries-long hostility between Christians and Jews.
There can be no denying the weight of social, political, cultural and economic factors in the long story of misunderstanding and often antagonism between Jews and Christians. However, one of the essential points in the debate was of a religious nature. This is not to say that a direct cause-and-effect link can be drawn between these commonly held anti-Jewish feelings and the Shoah, because Nazi plans to annihilate the Jewish people has its sources elsewhere.
In the judgment of historians, it is a well-proven fact that for centuries, up until Vatican Council II, an anti-Jewish tradition stamped its mark in differing ways on Christian doctrine and teaching, in theology, apologetics, preaching and in the liturgy. It was on such ground that the venomous plant of hatred for the Jews was able to flourish. Hence, the heavy inheritance we still bear in our century, with all its consequences which are so difficult to wipe out. Hence our still open wounds.
To the extent that the pastors and those in authority in the church let such a teaching of disdain develop for so long, along with an underlying basic religious culture among Christian communities which shaped and deformed peoples attitudes, they bear a grave responsibility. Even if they condemned anti-Semitic theologies as being pagan in origin, they did not enlighten peoples minds as they ought because they failed to call into question these centuries-old ideas and attitudes. This had a soporific effect on peoples consciences, reducing their capacity to resist when the full violence of national-socialist anti-Semitism rose up, the diabolical and ultimate expression of hatred of the Jews, based on categories of race and blood, and which was explicitly directed to the physical annihilation of the Jewish people. As Pope John II put it, "an unconditional extermination . . . undertaken with premeditation."
Subsequently, when the persecution became worse and the genocidal policy of the Third Reich was unleashed within France itself, shared by the Vichy government, which put is own force and the disposition of the occupier, some brave bishops2 raised their voices in a clarion call, in the name of human rights, against the rounding up of the Jewish population. These public statements, though few in number, were heard by many Christians.
Neither should the many actions undertaken by ecclesiastical authorities to save men, women, and children in danger of death be forgotten; nor the outpouring of Christian charity by the ordinary faithful, shown in generosity of every kind, often at great risk, in saving thousands and thousands of Jews.
Long before this, priests, religious, and lay people - some not hesitating to join underground movements - saved the honor of the church, even if discreetly and anonymously. This was also done, in particular through the publication of Les Cahiers du Temoignage Chretien (Notebooks of Christian Witness), by denouncing in no uncertain terms the Nazi poison which threatened Christian souls with all its neopagan, racist, and anti-Semitic virulence, and by echoing the word of Pius XI: "Spiritually we are all Semites." It is an established historical fact that the survival of a great number of Jews was assured thanks to such gestures of help from among Catholic and Protestant milieux, and by Jewish organizations.
Nevertheless, while may be true that some Christians - priests, religious and lay people - were not lacking in acts of courage in defense of fellow human beings, we must recognize that indifference won the day over indignation in the face of the persecution of the Jews and that, in particular, silence was the rule in face of the multifarious laws enacted by the Vichy government, whereas speaking out in favor of the victims was the exception.
As François Mauriac wrote, "A crime of such proportions falls for no small part on the shoulders of those witnesses who failed to cry out, and this whatever the reason for their silence."3
The end result is that the attempt to exterminate the Jewish people, instead of being perceived as a central question in human and spiritual terms, remained a secondary consideration. In the face of so great and utter a tragedy, too many of the churchs pastors committed an offense, by their silence, against the church itself and its mission.
Today we confess that such a silence was a sin. In so doing, we recognize that the church of France failed in her mission as teacher of consciences and that therefore she carries along with the Christian people the responsibility for failing to lend their aid, from the very first moments, when protest and protection were still possible, as well as necessary, even if, subsequently, a great many acts of courage were performed.
This is the fact that we acknowledge today. For, this failing of the church of France and of her responsibility toward the Jewish people are part of our history. We confess this sin. We beg Gods pardon, and we call upon the Jewish people to hear our words of repentance.
This act of remembering calls us to an ever keener vigilance on behalf of humankind today and in the future.
1. John Paul II, On the Coming of the Third Millennium (Tertio Millennio Adveniente), no. 33.
2. In 1942 five archbishops and bishops in the southern (unoccupied) part of France protested against the violation of human rights caused by the rounding up of the Jews. They were Archbishop Saliege of Toulouse; Bishop Theas of Montauban; Cardinal Gerlier of Lyons; Archbishop Moussaron of Albi; and Bishop Daly of Marseilles. Within the occupied zone, Bishop Vansteenberghe of Bayonne published a protest on the front page of his diocesan newsletter Sept. 20, 1942.
3. From the Preface to Leon Poliakov's book, Bréviaire de la haine (Breviary of Hate), 1951, p. 3.
- The German bishops and the Polish bishops each published a declaration on the attitude of their churches during the war on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
- The legislation passed by the Vichy government, and particularly the Jewish statutes of 1940 and 1941, can be found in Les Juifs sous l'Occupation. Recueil des textes officiels français et allemands, 1940-1944, published by the FFDIF (1982), as well as in Michael Marrus and Robert O. Paxton, Vichy France and the Jews (New York: Schocken Books, 1983).
- The main stances taken by Protestants can be found in Spiritualité, Théologie et Résistance (Presses Universitaires de Grenoble, 1987), pp. 151-182.