Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Tuesday, November 04, 2003
The latest issue of First Things has a long piece about the Catholic Church and the Holocaust. This is a little bit of a surprise to me, given FT's position on the front lines of advocacy for the canonization of Pius XII. (Yes, I know, you don't campaign for or against canonization. But it's manifest that both Catholics and non-Catholics have been engaged in exactly that kind of active campaigning for a number of years now, so why pretend?) The article doesn't focus on Pius XII, but rather calls the Church generally to task for being too easy on itself with respect to the Holocaust.

The article is quite lengthy (and a bit repetitive), but its point can be succinctly summarized. No, the Vatican was not an advocate or conscious abettor of Hitler's genocide. Yes, the Church clearly and strongly condemned Nazi racialism as idolatry. Yes, many Church officials, high and low, took personal risks to protect individual Jews, sometimes in significant numbers. But: this does not absolve the Church, for two reasons. First, because the Church did not ever clearly and explicitly come to the Jews' defense. Second, because the Church was, in its own teaching, "objectively anti-Semitic" (to use Leon Wieseltier's now-famous phrase).

I want to make each part of the argument clear before I go further.

To take the second first: the Catholic Church held not only supercessionist views that necessarily negate Judaism as a religion, but many in the Church endorsed an ideological anti-Semitism. That is to say: they went beyond saying that Judaism is false, and that Jews can only be saved by embracing Jesus Christ. They also said that the Jews produced other, more dangerous falsehoods - liberalism, capitalism, Bolshevism, etc. - that were, by virtue of their genealogy, essentially Jewish. And many in the Church - and, you could argue, the Church itself - taught that social restrictions on Jews and their freedom to participate in national culture, politics and in the economy, were a reasonable response to the threat posed by these essentially Jewish ideas.

Further, while the Catholic Church did not endorse persecution of the Jews, much less call for their murder, and while organizationally and individually many officers of the Church saved many Jews, the Church did not articulate in any meaningful sense that the fate of the Jews was a concern of Christians. That is to say: the Church was concerned that Christians not perpetrate crimes against the Jews, but it was not concerned with the fate of the Jews per se, even if it did extend help to individual Jews in many circumstances.

I think it's fair to describe the views expressed in the first of those two paragraphs as "objectively anti-Semitic." Political advocates of that ideological program called themselves anti-Semites, and proudly. And I think they fairly characterize quite mainstream notions in Catholic circles, including at the Vatican, before WWII and even for a while after. They are also, objectively, wrong. "The Jews" didn't invent liberalism, capitalism or even Soviet Communism, first because they didn't (for all that there were many Jews who embraced liberalism and Bolshevism, both were largely gentile projects, not to mention being mutually opposed, and capitalism has no author; moreover, there were prominent Jewish Tories and even prominent Jewish fascists in Italy; Jews have been prominent in pretty much every political movement since Emancipation). And second because "the Jews" don't exist as an entity. There is not, and never was, nor ever could be, any kind of organized Jewish conspiracy to do anything. (There are and have always been Jewish mutual aid organizations, but these have always been entirely above-board and public, and modern Zionist organizations have similarly been so.) So even if all these phenomena are objectionable - and I'll certainly go to bat for capitalism and liberalism - to attribute them to the Jews, and to suggest that an anti-Semitic ideology is in some sense a solution was and remains simply and objectively wrong.

But is the problem that these views were objectively wrong or that they were categorically wrong. That is to say: is the problem that Catholics believed false things about the Jews or that believed evil things about the Jews?

I'm not sure what the answer is to that question. To say that the problem was that they believed false things is, in a real sense, to absolve the Church of any sin in anti-Semitism and any complicity in its attendant atrocities. After all, it is not the Church's job to know whether "the Jews" really are plotting, say, to undermine Christian morals. That's an empirical matter, and the Church can be as wrong about a matter of empirical fact as anyone else; moreover, officers of the Church are as subject ito human failings such as bias as anyone else. The Church raised no protest against the political inequality of women either; condemning them for that is pure moral hindsight. It might be within the Church's competancy to say that, say, liberalism is a Bad Thing, and it might seem perfectly reasonable for the Church to look to others (or to itself, but wearing its prudential "hat") for how to deal with this Bad Thing, and, hearing the response, "restrain the Jews!" think to itself, "that sounds reasonable." But this conclusion is not terribly satisfying. These false beliefs had manifestly evil outcomes, and one would like to think that a great Church would have done better than to embrace these beliefs, and thereby contribute to that outcome.

But to say that the problem was that they believed evil things raises problems of its own, all the problems of political correctness with which we are familiar in our day. How, for example, is one to confront the problems of our current war if we are forbidden from debating the social or political structure of the Arab world, or the various religious ideologies of Islam? If thinking ill of categories of "others" is categorically out of bounds, how are we ever to understand these "others?" No one wants to give free license to bigotry, but by the same token ruling certain lines of inquiry presumptively out of bounds (because to think some thoughts is categorically evil) is in a real way to limit knowledge and therefore to retard progress in solving problems. Moreover, it is very likely to exacerbate the very bigotry it is intended to suppress.

The second paragraph is equally problematic, though equally true. The Church condemned Nazi racism quite clearly. Equally clearly, the Church accepted elements of an anti-Semitic program as entirely legitimate, and equally clearly too, the Church failed to stand up and defend the Jews, to say not merely that it is wrong to persecute Jews but that there is a Christian duty to protect the Jews from unjust persecution.

But is there such a duty? Surely there is a duty to help any individual in distress, but that's not what we're talking about here. What was special about the Jews that made them deserving of this special duty? The Church, in an earlier era, objected to the Atlantic slave trade and to slavery per se. But the Church never articulated a duty to refuse to cooperate with slave powers, a duty to suppress the slave trade, a duty to free slaves from captivity and hide runaways from the authorities, etc. etc. Indeed, the Church accepted slavery as legitimate, if unjust, and structured its response accordingly.

With hindsight, it is obvious why the Church had a special obligation to speak out on behalf of the Jews. The sheer scope of the destruction to come was horrifyingly unprecedented, and the ideological anti-Semitism that the Church accepted and even endorsed clearly did make it easier for the Nazis to go about their evil work. Could the Vatican, say, with better foresight, have known that this would be the case? Could they have known that Hitlerian racial anti-Semitism was the moral challenge of their day, that it was not enough to identify evil and reject it, that evil had to be resisted? Could they have seen the connections Rhonheimer sees now between Christian anti-Semitism and the disarming of that impulse to resistance? Could they have seen that this connection imposed on the Church a special duty with regard to the Jews, above and beyond the charitable obligations to all people in distress?

I think about the history of Catholic anti-Judaism as well in the context of Andrew Sullivan's increasingly hysterical reaction to anti-homosexual agitations within the Church. The notion that we are poised on the brink of some kind of catastrophe for gay people strikes me as quite implausible; gays, unlike, say Jews, are quite literally our brothers and sisters, our parents and our children. Come what may, I have a hard time picturing the rise of a persecuting society in America that targets members of our own families. But maybe I'm wrong. The Church, it seems to me, is moving from a position of simple sexual ethics (homosexual acts are sinful) to an anti-gay ideology (in the words of John Derbyshire, "frank and open homosexuality is a subversive force") that seeks to combat what is understood as an ideological homosexualist opponent. Contra Sullivan, this does not mean the Church is becoming committed to a policy of persecution. But it does mean that it is becoming committed to ideological opposition to his preferred program, a program which Sullivan sees as coextensive with his very identity, and, given that understanding on his part, I see why he interprets the Church's stance as persecuting. Sullivan, surely, is convinced that the Church is objectively wrong in this (or, those elements moving in this direction are wrong). Is that all he thinks? No. Quite clearly, he thinks that this ideological turn is categorically wrong, and that one can easily explain how it is categorically wrong by comparing it with anti-Semitism. (I don't know that he achieves anything by the comparison. Rather, I think he makes anti-Semitism seem more reasonable by his analogy.)

For the sake of argument, let me take his position seriously. Assume that it matters whether the anti-gay ideologues are correct or incorrect, but that proving one or the other will be difficult, a matter of judgement on which you cannot expect perfect concord. In other words: if the anti-gay ideologues have a point, that has moral and policy consequences, and that you are unlikely to convince them that they don't have a point. What is the duty of those who propound such an ideology towards their targets? Is it enough to say, "of course don't persecute people, don't harm them physically or deny them a livelihood, etc. etc."? Rhonheimer's piece would seem to imply that the answer is no, it is not enough, because the proponents of this ideology must be wary of giving aid and comfort to those who would ignore the moral restraints that are articulated, and, further and more important, that the articulation of such an ideology will weaken the moral resistance to such evil on the part of those who are inclined to abide by these moral restraints, even if they are sympathetic to the ideology in question. And this presumably has bearing on the proper way to debate, for example, the notion of gay marriage.

Oscar Wilde wrote that "each man kills the thing he loves." I don't think that's true, but it may be true that each man loves the thing he kills - or is obliged to do so. That is to say: the very existence of enmity creates a species of obligation. Sullivan has challenged those opposed to his program to provide an alternative that is responsive to the needs he identifies. That challenge should be taken up, not only because it would be a good in itself but because the very facts of enmity and opposition between Sullivan and the Church creates an obligation. That, in any event, is the moral I derive from Rhonheimer's piece.

I'm not sure where I've wound up after all that. It's a difficult topic. We say "never again" all the time, but we don't know what we mean by it. In any event, I applaud First Things for publishing the piece, which I sure was not an easy thing for them to do.