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

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

By Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
Alfred A. Knopf, 2002
352 pp. $25.00
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Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners was a work of political interpretation. But this study of the Catholic Church and the Holocaust is a work of moral evaluation. Goldhagen reviews trenchantly the attitudes of the pope and the Church, the roots and manifestations of antisemitism, and the arguments of the Church's defenders. Here again, Goldhagen is more concerned with getting to the essence of a phenomenon than in dealing with qualifications and nuance. Whereas the Vatican has tried to separate Nazi "pagan" antisemitism from the traditional Catholic version, Goldhagen asserts that there was a "symbiosis" between the two. As he writes, the Church and the pope "failed during the Holocaust ... because they believed the Jews to be evil and harmful, and because they did not object in principle to punishing the Jews substantially."

The third part of his book is the most original. It treats the Church as a rigidly authoritarian institution that has betrayed not only Jews but also Catholics. It therefore has, in Goldhagen's eyes, a duty to confront its own offenses and sins of omission, make amends with the victims, and reform itself. In examining the last two tasks, he distinguishes among material, political, and moral restitution, discusses what these should entail, and assesses how far the different Church leaderships have gone in telling the truth and breaking with the past. He concludes that the Church must stop being a political institution and become a moral one, and that this step requires eliminating from the New Testament the "ferocious" antisemitism "spread throughout the text." Goldhagen's insistence on writing a moral history may make readers uncomfortable. But his polemical style and moral intransigence are in the service of values that need to be defended. Goldhagen's voice is a salutary one.

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