Wednesday, November 26, 2003

The Catholic Church and the Nazis

Courtesy of the Ratzinger Fan Club, we learn of an essay in First Things by Fr. Martin Rohnheimer entitled The Holocaust: What Was Not Said. The essay raises a number of thought-provoking and (for a Catholic who loves the Church) painful historical memories, written apparently as a rebuke of what Fr. Rohnheimer calls "popular Catholic apologists, most of them nonhistorians," who have defended the Catholic Church "by trying to demonstrate that the Church's record during these years is beyond reproach." Since I'm a non-historian who has defended the Church's record in print, I was immediately intrigued, but ultimately disappointed, by what Fr. Rohnheimer had to say. I think the essay has a great deal of value, and that it's well worth reading especially if one's familiarity with the criticisms of the Church during this period is limited to execrable pieces of drivel like John Cornwell's Hitler's Pope. Cornwell's work is so flawed, sloppy, and disingenuous that it's virtually an insult to anyone who thinks the Holocaust, Catholicism, and anti-Semitism are serious subjects. I don't pretend to be an expert (I am, after all, a "non-historian"), but Gunter Lewy's classic The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany remains unsurpassed as a tough and unsympathetic examination of the Church during this period. But there are a number of things which have come to irritate me greatly during my (limited) reading about Catholicism and the Nazis. Chief among them are what I see as some disordered perspectives on the intersection of moral judgment and historical research as well as a kind of self-abasing triumphalism that often causes Catholics to downplay the significance of the Church's actions during the same period. That's a prologue to what follows, namely the first of several reflections on Fr. Rohnheimer's essay, most of which will be critical, but which aren't meant to entirely dismiss his thoughts on the matter.

The Church: One, Holy, Catholic and Prophetically-Omniscient?

After detailing what he views as deficiencies in the Church's policies and public statements about Jews generally and Nazism particularly, Fr. Rohnheimer writes: "Had the Church really wanted to mount effective opposition to the fate that awaited the Jews, it would have had to condemn — from the very start — not only racism but anti-Semitism in any form, including the social anti-Semitism espoused by not a few churchmen. This the Church never did: not in 1933, not in 1937, nor in 1938 or 1939." Toward the end of his essay, Fr. Rohnheimer repeats this sad judgment, arguing that the Church cannot "boast that it was among those who, from the start, tried to avert Auschwitz by standing up publicly for its future victims." The significant thing about these statements, which can be fairly taken to encompass the entire arena of popular (and scholarly) debate about the subject, doesn't lie in their acerbity but in the gargantuan task which, it is assumed, the Church should have accomplished. Is it really appropriate to expect that the Church be able to "boast" that it "tried to avert Auschwitz from the start" before she can be exhonerated against charges found in Hochhuth, Cornwell, or even Lewy?

Fr. Rohnheimer honestly concedes that "there was no direct road from Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism to Auschwitz." This is true, and it is why the moral framework he has assumed doesn't fit the inquiry he's trying to conduct. If there is "no direct road" from one to the other, it is because the criminal policies to which "Auschwitz" refers aren't inevitably-foreseeable consequences of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. His judgments, however, rest on the opposite premise, that we're permitted to evaluate the Church's actions and omissions in light of a "fate" that was "awaiting" the Jews. Only in that frame can we speak meaningfully about a Church that did not try to "avert" the Holocaust "from the start." From the start of what? The world? The end of WWI? Hitler's taking an interest in politics?

It should be obvious to anyone that, God's sovereign providence being what it is, we can indeed write about a "fate" that was "awaiting" the Jews in 1933, 1937, 1938, and 1939. We can with equal justification describe the American Civil War as a "fate" that was "awaiting" North Americans in 1859, 1492, and 700 A.D. With the passing of time, the unfolding of a future which is always decreed but seldom revealed, we may perceive links and effects which might not have been obvious to those who acted at the moment. Discerning those connections is an historian's duty. But however much it is part of an historian's duty, this "God's-eye view" of history is impermissible to a moralist, who has the duty to judge justly. Gavrilo Princip is morally guilty of murdering the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but he cannot be judged guilty of murdering every British soldier who fell in the First or Second Somme offensives.

At least, Princip cannot be so judged by men. God may judge him guilty of the whole of the First World War, as He may judge Pius XI to be responsible for every death in every Nazi concentration camp. Only God may judge thusly, because only He is competent to judge: "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!" Romans 11:33 (KJV). Men are incompetent when it comes to such matters, and for Fr. Rohnheimer to write about dead men as though their future lay as plainly before them as our past lies behind us, is as crude and unsophisticated an approach to history as the one used by the "non-historians" and "apologists" he chides so strongly.

The Nazis didn't commit themselves to what has become known as the "final solution" until 1942; their years of institutionalized dithering and bureaucratic indecision about whether to commit genocide was one of the signal reasons Arendt coined her famous phrase about the banality of evil. What could plausibly induce us to accept Fr. Rohnheimer's invitation to judge Pius XI or Pius XII harshly for failing to "avert" Auschwitz "from the start" in 1933, when Himmler himself didn't decide to build Auschwitz until 1940? I think there is only one plausible motive for this error, namely the palsied thought of Karl Marx, which has marked modern historiography like a lash across the back.
[W]e do not start from what men say, imagine, conceive. . . in order thence and thereby to reach corporeal men; we start from . . . their life-process [and] show the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. Morals, religion, metaphysics and all other ideology and the corresponding forms of consciousness thus no longer maintain the appearance of independence. They have no history, they have no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, change, along with this their real existence, also their thinking and the products of their thoughts. It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness.

Karl Marx, German Ideology
I do not mean to excoriate Fr. Rohnheimer particularly here; his error is no greater than the errors of any educated Western man, who has been trained to accept Marx's philosophy as the dominant method for evaluating human action. Marx's influence can be found lurking almost everywhere in Western thought, from the libertarian's insistence that material forces (albeit different from those described in Das Kapital) produce near-utopian societies to lunatic theories about the Bible being a "patriarchal" construction built to serve a dominant class. Chief among Marxism's errors is an ignorance of mystery, an insistence that we live only in a world of empirical connections and transparent motives which create neat sequences that are as traceable and predictable as a row of dominoes. Within the context of something like the Holocaust, this thinking provides a false sense of comfort because it purports to subject what John Paul II has called the "mystery of iniquity" -- which is itself an aspect of the mystery of human freedom -- to a simulacrum of comprehensibility and controllability.

In that imaginary world we can easily attribute the Holocaust to the moral foreknowledge of men. We can conveniently limit ourselves to Marx's self-answering questions about whether the clergy and laity were, in fact, enmeshed in the circumstances which lined up the deadly dominoes from the cobblestones of the Odensplatz to the gates of Treblinka. "[W]e do not start from what men say, imagine, conceive. . . in order thence and thereby to reach corporeal men; we start from . . . their life-process [and] show the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process . . ." In that world it is enough to ask whether anyone had, or should have, read Mein Kampf to know whether they can be blamed for failing to avert the "awaiting" Holocaust. But that is not how God created the world; knowing about the "ideological reflexes and echoes" of Pharisaism's "life-process" cannot tell us whether Paul would always spend his life persecuting the Church.[1] Reading Mein Kampf cannot have told anyone living in the 1930s what would become of Germany for the same reason. Men are free, the Church tells us, because we are made in likeness of God. Human freedom dominates human history because it prescinds from the divine freedom manifested in God's creation, incarnation and redemption. We pay a high price for the simulated understanding offered by a Marxist view of history; thinking about men as though they were characters in a Greek play, surrounded by a chorus extolling the inevitable powers of external forces, abandons the moral necessity of freedom even as it attempts to vindicate man's place in a moral world. I am sure Fr. Rohnheimer, like all of us, knows that this imaginary world doesn't exist, that there is room for grace and freedom. But if that world doesn't exist, we have no right to expect Pius XI or Pius XII to have lived in it.

Any reasonable attempt to place historical actions into a moral framework must proceed with a healthy regard for individual human freedom and the uncertainties it causes in every life. This obligation will inevitably disappoint both champions and accusers of the papacy. The champions can't trumpet the publication of Mit Brennender Sorge or Summi Pontificatus as parts of the Church's master plan to avert a known future, and accusers can't complain about the encyclicals' failure to achieve the goals of such a hypothetical plan. What can actually be discussed is a far more limited question -- whether and to what extent, for example, Mit Brennender Sorge was an appropriate or morally-acceptable response to the conditions in Germany in March, 1937. Those conditions do not include an obvious "fate" that was "awaiting" the Jews, an inevitable second world war, or even the continued vehemence of Nazism's persecution of the Church herself. If we really are obliged to live in a world where such things should have been thought of as inevitable by the men involved, then we're obliged to live in a world that has no use for encyclicals and preaching at all. The whole of Catholic belief is tied to the proposition that men change and miracles happen; her prelates should not be judged as though this belief were false.

Perhaps because he senses the rashness of his perspective, Fr. Rohnheimer concludes his essay by veering toward the opposite error, eschewing the idea of moral judgment because "[w]hat is at issue . . . is not the question of guilt or innocence . . . but recognition that the Catholic Church contributed in some measure to the developments that made the Holocaust possible." I disagree with him. It is a non-issue whether the Church contributed "in some measure" to "developments" that made the Holocaust "possible." Of course the Catholic Church did that. When Fr. Rohnheimer phrases things so pallidly, we may as well say that Abraham contributed "in some measure" to the developments which "made the Holocaust possible" -- if Abraham had not listened to God there could not have been Jews in Germany. No one is interested, no one should be interested, merely in whether the Catholic church did something that somehow affected the possibility of something else. Whether or not the Catholic Church is viewed within a divine or secular framework, the only significant question is whether and how she is good for man. The important question really is the one which Fr. Rohnheimer asked at the beginning of his essay, "Was the Church . . . a bulwark against anti-Semitism?" In other words, did the Church serve as the pillar and bulwark of truth?

That question cannot be usefully answered by debating whether or how well the Church followed a master plan to avert the Holocaust "from the start." The Church did not have such a plan -- not in 1933, 1937, 1938, 1939 or in any other year, and no reasonable person ought to expect her to have had one. Nor should we try and locate the particular domino which the Church ought to have plucked out of some imaginary fated chain of consequences -- not unless we're willing to set a moral standard for our own consciences that would cause any sane man to conclude that "silence" and "complicity" is morally safer than risking posterity's condemnation of his actions. A useful answer can only begin by expecting no more from Pius XI, or Pius XII, and their curia than we can justly expect of ourselves. Which of us really wants to mount an effective opposition to the Nigerian genocide of 2008? Is our plan specific enough? How guilty are we for preaching only about "human rights" while omitting the express condemnations of President Obesanjo and his officials which, if uttered, will avert that genocide "from the start?" A good test for evaluations of the Church's role during the period 1920 - 1945 would be to examine their utility for guiding the Church's actions in the present. When such evaluations would require the Vatican to predict Nigeria's future history, as Fr. Rohnheimer has required Pius XI to know Germany's future history, then we're not judging truly.

Approaching the question correctly will disappoint the age's passion for worldly certainty and ultimate judgments. It will disappoint Catholics who want to believe that the Church attends every significant moment in history with a detailed master plan to achieve the common good. It will disappoint others (Catholic or not) who want to believe that the Church's role in the mystery of freedom was another victim of the concentration camps. And it will disappoint professional scholars who, like Fr. Rohnheimer, seem to have unfortunately confused the perspicacity of their researches with the consciences of their historical subjects.

[1] See, e.g., Acts Chapter 7: "Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Acts 17:57-59 (KJV).

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