Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

 A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair

(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002)

ISBN 0375414347  hdbk   352 pp.  $25.00

by Donald Dietrich

Donald Dietrich is Professor of Theology at Boston College, specializing in Holocaust Studies and the Catholic Human Rights conversation. He is the author of God and Humanity in Auschwitz: Jewish-Christian Relations and Sanctioned Murder. New Brunswick, NJ, Transaction Books, Rutgers University, 1994.


Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s 1996 book , Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, elicited a great deal of contentious debate, and it is likely that this most recent book will continue that tradition. In this polemical study, Goldhagen asks the Catholic Church a question: "What must a religion of love and goodness do to confront its history of hatred and harm, to make amends with its victims, and to right itself so that it is no longer the source of hatred and harm that, whatever its past, it would no longer endorse?" (p. 3) He has attempted to analyze the moral culpability of Catholics and their leaders, to judge the actors, and to discern how today’s Catholics can make material, political and moral restitution.

Goldhagen does not utilize primary source materials to any great extent, but rather has provided readers with a comprehensive review of the literature that has surfaced around the issue of the Catholic Church’s pre-Vatican II culture of antisemitism and the role that this played in the Holocaust. His review of the literature and his selective use of data provide the underpinnings for his critical, moral treatise. The careful reader must closely read the footnotes since in many cases he contextually and theologically nuances his book’s claims only there.

Additionally, on p. 297, Goldhagen tells his readers that while he uses the evidence that other scholars have painstakingly uncovered, he does not always agree with their interpretations. He does not give, of course, the authors that he cites a chance to respond to his alternative interpretations of their data. He uses this "proof-text" methodology selectively to support the thematic issues that he wishes to develop and not necessarily to illuminate the historical realities, e.g., the ambivalent role that Pius XII plays in the drama – a significant concern to scholars in the field.

Goldhagen divides his book into three parts, each corresponding to what he labels "moral reckoning": moral investigation, moral judgement and moral repair. Part One reiterates the scholarship already published on the Popes’ and the Church’s actions during the Nazi period and reminds us of the Scriptural roots of Christian antisemitism. Part Two deals with moral culpability, not from an existential or universal perspective, but rather as it is tied to a person’s or institution’s stance toward a specific act(p. 28). Here Goldhagen contrasts the perspectives as well as the actions of the leaders of the Catholic Church with similar stances prominent in the Protestant churches in Denmark and Norway. Not surprisingly, the Catholic Church fails the comparative test. Part Three, rooted in the factual bases and moral culpability model of Parts One and Two questions how the Church is to make amends.

Following an introduction that sets the tone of the book, Goldhagen launches Part One by explicating a fairly standard theme. Christian churches helped develop an antisemitic bias that was dedicated to the conversion of the Jews, while simultaneously trying to "eliminate" Jews from their so-called influential roles in civic society and culture. The churches did not support the extermination of the Jewish people. Goldhagen and other scholars generally have pointed, however, to the fact that religious, cultural and political antisemitism softened the consciences of Christians and so allowed the virulent, exterminationist antisemitism of Hitler and his minions to spiral out of control into the brutalizing death camps. Like a growing list of other scholars, e.g., David Kertzer, Goldhagen understands Pius XII to be a key actor, but, as Goldhagen reminds us, he is not the whole story.

Throughout his book, Goldhagen peppers his analysis with the moral precepts articulated by the Catholic Catechism to judge the activities of Catholics and their Church during this dark period, and he is right to do so, except that this complex story, about which volumes of commentaries have been written, cannot be tied merely to non-nuanced moral axioms. Morality is more complicated than simple axioms might suggest. To comprehend their meaning properly, one must understand these stark moral axioms within their evolving contexts in secular and theological history

Throughout this book, Goldhagen’s analysis tends to be reductionistic because his "proof-texting" methodology ignores the complexities of real life. What particularly seems to disturb him is the fact that the Catholic Church during this period was acting as a political institution as well as a moral institution and not exclusively as one or the other (p. 96). Since the inception of Christianity, and especially after Constantine, however, the Church has had to function as an institution that lives in the world and yet has a spiritual mission. What this has meant in practice is that Church Councils, Popes, and documents have articulated theological and moral principles, but have done so only while engaging the culture. Hence, moral principles have tried to exert guidance in the real world of marching soldiers and have at times failed. Such failures as the Church’s antisemitism and its compromising responses to the Third Reich certainly sapped institutional vitality and constricted the possibilities of vital moral leadership, and that is a lesson that has been painfully learned. Goldhagen seems to find it difficult to accept that human activity by its very nature is political and moral, which means that each of us has to live in a dynamic tension of balancing "real world" survival and the ethical principles that we use as guiding principles. The fact that bishops, theologians, and lay Catholics were antisemitic should not be as surprising as Goldhagen suggests, since the bias has been carefully learned over the centuries and this systematic evil (sin) is part of our learned culture. Adolf Cardinal Bertram and Karl Adam, a leading Catholic theologian, for example, feared the influence that Jews had within German culture. Their statements appall Goldhagen and, indeed, most of us. But, on the other hand, he fails to give praiseworthy statements their due. Without listing the sources and understanding the circumstances, for example, Goldhagen doubts whether Pius XI’s statement (p. 110) that "Spiritually, we are all Semites" can be believed, since it was announced through Belgian sources and not through the Vatican media. He engages in this type of selective scholarship too frequently.

Goldhagen tends to be repetitious and combative, and frequently misunderstands the theological issues involved in such recent declarations as Dominus Jesus, which he cites as an example of the ongoing hostility of the Church toward "the other." He seems not to understand the fact that a document from the Vatican has varying degrees of authority that depend on the ecclesial source, on the intended audience, and on the issues that are being addressed. Read in isolation from its context, Dominus Jesus, for example, is a very distressing document. Only the context allows the declaration to be understood as having a disciplinary intent, with which we may not agree, but at least can accept as the agenda that is being addressed. The fact that so much ink has been spilled over this particular declaration, of course, suggests that the Catholic faithful have found its message difficult to accept, a positive sign for many. Most of those interested in Jewish-Christian relations would agree that the Church has been moving forward ecumenically since Nostra Aetate and is conscious of its horrendous past errors. Johannes Metz sums up the post-Vatican II approach that can best be applied, when he insists that theology has to be done in the light of events. In other words, if an event or historical act embodies evil, then theology and the Church’s articulation of its own life and moral reasoning has to be scrutinized.

By p. 200, Goldhagen tentatively admits that the Church has been making progress dealing with its supportive role in nourishing antisemitism, but also insists that there has been no genuine "mea culpa." Goldhagen acknowledges that the Church views antisemitism as a sin, has a Vatican Commission dealing with Jewish-Christian Relations led by Walter Cardinal Kasper, and has encouraged the laity as well as the clergy to give time, energy, and money to the causes of understanding the theological/historical bases of antisemitism and of finding ways to mend relations. But he sees this reality as insufficient. Naturally, more progress has to be made, since two millennia devoted to the marginalization of the Jewish people lays on Catholics a responsibility that cannot easily be lightened.

Even if theological scholars and church historians do not appreciate Goldhagen’s reductionist assaults on past behavior within the Church and cannot accept his bias when he deals with the complexity embodied in an institution that is rooted in political reality while envisioning a moral leadership role, they can empathize with and support some of Goldhagen’s agenda. In Part Three, Goldhagen’s primary concern revolves around moral restitution. Here, he goes beyond the position of even James Carroll who wants to retain Scriptural antisemitic statements in order to demonstrate how its own beliefs can corrupt an institution. In contrast, Goldhagen urges the Church to call for a public convocation of all the Christian churches to address the antisemitism contained in the Christian Scriptures. He also appropriately envisions Jews having a voice in the conversation, but not having a vote. Goldhagen insists that the result of such a convocation should be the excision of antisemitism from the Christian scriptural texts.

Goldhagen’s conclusion that antisemitic references must be deleted from the texts should not come as a surprise, but may be impossible to accomplish, since the texts grew out of the Christian community’s early identity-formation experiences, enabling Christians to distinguish themselves from Jews and pagans. These sacred texts are part of the living tradition in the Catholic community, but should probably be primarily used to discern the positive as well as the negative dynamics involved in forming a communal identity. After all, even in most of our own personal lives, such dynamics undergird our behavior. A convocation, however, could address the issues that concern scholars and ecclesial leaders, could point to the insidiously dangerous texts, and could utilize the available historical – critical methods so that the churches themselves could help make transparent Christianity’s role in nurturing antisemitism through the ages. Finally, such a convocation could help illuminate the process that enables a religious tradition to corrupt an institution’s decision-making responsibilities. There is, however, a caveat to be kept in mind. Later historical events can not challenge the foundational religious event and texts, but can only call into question the authoritative responses to the events/texts. As we discern the historical conditions, within which the Christian antisemitic tradition grew, we might also discover other "lost" aspects of the Church’s tradition that could now be reappropriated and that could lead to a more resounding "mea culpa" that could satisfy even Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, who at the end of the day does ask many of the proper seminal questions.

Perhaps this book will stimulate Christians to bore more assiduously and critically into Christian history and into the ecclesial as well as into the theological pronouncements that have emerged from that nexus of politics and morality that makes Christianity itself a fascinating, spiritual story. Goldhagen’s book will stir up controversy, but the tensions that arise will help contribute to the dynamic development of the Catholic Church itself. Whether an individual reader will profit from plowing through the book depends on their prior knowledge. This will determine how well the reader will discern where Goldhagen engages in polemicizing, proof-texting, selectivity and reductionism, and where he raises good questions.