|I. THE TRAGEDY OF THE SHOAH AND THE DUTY OF REMEMBRANCE
The 20th century is fast coming to a close and a new Millennium of the
Christian era is about to dawn. The 2,000th anniversary of the Birth of
Jesus Christ calls all Christians, and indeed invites all men and women,
to seek to discern in the passage of history the signs of divine
Providence at work, as well as the ways in which the image of the
Creator in man has been offended and disfigured.
This reflection concerns one of the main areas in which Catholics can
seriously take to heart the summons which Pope John Paul II has
addressed to them in his apostolic letter "Tertio Millennio Adveniente":
"It is appropriate that, as the Second Millennium of Christianity draws
to a close, the Church should become more fully conscious of the
sinfulness of her children, recalling all those times in history when
they departed from the spirit of Christ and his Gospel and, instead of
offering to the world the witness of a life inspired by the values of
faith, indulged in ways of thinking and acting which were truly forms of
counter-witness and scandal."
This century has witnessed an unspeakable tragedy, which can never be
forgotten: the attempt by the Nazi regime to exterminate the Jewish
people, with the consequent killing of millions of Jews. Women and men,
old and young, children and infants, for the sole reason of their Jewish
origin, were persecuted and deported. Some were killed immediately,
while others were degraded, ill-treated, tortured and utterly robbed of
their human dignity, and then murdered. Very few of those who entered
the Camps survived, and those who did remained scarred for life. This
was the Shoah. It is a major fact of the history of this century, a fact
which still concerns us today.
Before this horrible genocide, which the leaders of nations and Jewish
communities themselves found hard to believe at the very moment when it
was mercilessly being put into effect, no one can remain indifferent,
least of all the Church, by reason of her very close bonds of spiritual
kinship with the Jewish people and her remembrance of the injustices of
the past. The Church's relationship to the Jewish people is unlike the
one she shares with any other religion. However, it is not only a
question of recalling the past. The common future of Jews and Christians
demands that we remember, for "there is no future without memory."
History itself is memoria futuri.
In addressing this reflection to our brothers and sisters of the
Catholic Church throughout the world, we ask all Christians to join us
in meditating on the catastrophe which befell the Jewish people, and on
the moral imperative to insure that never again will selfishness and
hatred grow to the point of sowing such suffering and death. Most
especially, we ask our Jewish friends, "whose terrible fate has become a
symbol of the aberrations of which man is capable when he turns against
God," to hear us with open hearts.
II. WHAT WE MUST REMEMBER
While bearing their unique witness to the Holy One of Israel and to the
Torah, the Jewish people have suffered much at different times and in
many places. But the Shoah was certainly the worst suffering of all. The
inhumanity with which the Jews were persecuted and massacred during this
century is beyond the capacity of words to convey. All this was done to
them for the sole reason that they were Jews.
The very magnitude of the crime raises many questions. Historians,
sociologists, political philosophers, psychologists and theologians are
all trying to learn more about the reality of the Shoah and its causes.
Much scholarly study still remains to be done. But such an event cannot
be fully measured by the ordinary criteria of historical research alone.
It calls more a "moral and religious memory" and, particularly among
Christians, a very serious reflection on what gave rise to it.
The fact that the Shoah took place in Europe, that is, in countries of
long-standing Christian civilization, raises the question of the
relation between the Nazi persecution and the attitudes down the
centuries of Christians toward the Jews.
III. RELATIONS BETWEEN JEWS AND CHRISTIANS
The history of relations between Jews and Christians is a tormented one.
His Holiness Pope John Paul II has recognized this fact in his repeated
appeals to Catholics to see where we stand with regard to our relations
with the Jewish people. In effect, the balance of these relations over
2,000 years has been quite negative.
At the dawn of Christianity, after the crucifixion of Jesus, there arose
disputes between the early Church and the Jewish leaders and people who,
in their devotion to the Law, on occasion violently opposed the
preachers of the Gospel and the first Christians. In the pagan Roman
Empire, Jews were legally protected by the privileges granted by the
Emperor and the authorities at first made no distinction between Jewish
and Christian communities. Soon, however, Christians incurred the
persecution of the state. Later, when the Emperors themselves converted
to Christianity, they at first continued to guarantee Jewish privileges.
But Christian mobs who attacked pagan temples sometimes did the same to
synagogues, not without being influenced by certain interpretations of
the New Testament regarding the Jewish people as a whole. "In the
Christian world -- I do not say on the part of the Church as such --
erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the
Jewish people and their alleged culpability have circulated for too
long, engendering feelings of hostility toward this people." Such
interpretations of the New Testament have been totally and definitively
rejected by the Second Vatican Council.
Despite the Christian preaching of love for all, even for one's enemies,
the prevailing mentality down the centuries penalized minorities and
those who were in any way "different." Sentiments of anti-Judaism in
some Christian quarters, and the gap which existed between the Church
and the Jewish people, led to a generalized discrimination, which ended
at times in expulsions or attempts at forced conversions. In a large
part of the "Christian" world, at the end of the 18th century, those who
were not Christian did not always enjoy a fully guaranteed juridical
status. Despite that fact, Jews throughout Christendom held on to their
religious traditions and communal customs. They were therefore looked
upon with a certain suspicion and mistrust. In times of crisis such as
famine, war, pestilence or social tensions, the Jewish minority was
sometimes taken as a scapegoat and became the victim of violence,
looting, even massacres.
By the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century,
Jews generally had achieved an equal standing with other citizens in
most states and a certain number of them held influential positions in
society. But in that same historical context, notably in the 19th
century, a false and exacerbated nationalism took hold. In a climate of
eventful social change, Jews were often accused of exercising an
influence disproportionate to their numbers. Thus there began to spread
in varying degrees throughout most of Europe an anti-Judaism that was
essentially more sociological and political than religious.
At the same time, theories began to appear which denied the unity of the
human race, affirming an original diversity of races. In the 20th
century, National Socialism in Germany used these ideas as a
pseudo-scientific basis for a distinction between so-called Nordic-Aryan
races and supposedly inferior races. Furthermore, an extremist form of
nationalism was heightened in Germany by the defeat of 1918 and the
demanding conditions imposed by the victors, with the consequence that
many saw in National Socialism a solution to their country's problems
and cooperated politically with this movement.
The Church in Germany replied by condemning racism. The condemnation
first appeared in the preaching of some of the clergy, in the public
teaching of the Catholic Bishops, and in the writings of lay Catholic
journalists. Already in February and March 1931, Cardinal Bertram of
Breslau, Cardinal Faulhaber and the Bishops of Bavaria, the Bishops of
the Province of Cologne and those of the Province of Freiburg published
pastoral letters condemning National Socialism, with its idolatry of
race and of the state. The well-known Advent sermons of Cardinal
Faulhaber in 1933, the very year in which National Socialism came to
power, at which not just Catholics but also Protestants and Jews were
present, clearly expressed rejection of the Nazi anti-Semitic
propaganda. In the wake of the Kristallnacht, Bernard Lichtenberg,
provost of Berlin Cathedral, offered public prayers for the Jews. He was
later to die at Dachau and has been declared Blessed.
Pope Pius XI too condemned Nazi racism in a solemn way in his encyclical
letter "Mit brennender Sorge," which was read in German churches on
Passion Sunday 1937, a step which resulted in attacks and sanctions
against members of the clergy. Addressing a group of Belgian pilgrims on
6 September 1938, Pius XI asserted: "Anti-Semitism is unacceptable.
Spiritually, we are all Semites." Pius XII, in his very first
Encyclical, "Summi Pontificatus," of 20 October 1939, warned against
theories which denied the unity of the human race and against the
deification of the state, all of which he saw as leading to a real "hour
IV. NAZI ANTI-SEMITISM AND THE SHOAH
Thus we cannot ignore the difference which exists between anti-Semitism
based on theories contrary to the constant teaching of the Church on the
unity of the human race and on the equal dignity of all races and
peoples, and the long-standing sentiments of mistrust and hostility that
we call anti-Judaism, of which unfortunately, Christians also have been
The National Socialist ideology went even further, in the sense that it
refused to acknowledge any transcendent reality as the source of life
and the criterion of moral good. Consequently, a human group, and the
state with which it was identified, arrogated to itself an absolute
status and determined to remove the very existence of the Jewish people,
a people called to witness to the one God and the Law of the Covenant.
At the level of theological reflection we cannot ignore the fact that
not a few in the Nazi party not only showed aversion to the idea of
divine Providence at work in human affairs, but gave proof of a definite
hatred directed at God himself. Logically, such an attitude also led to
a rejection of Christianity, and a desire to see the Church destroyed or
at least subjected to the interests of the Nazi state.
It was this extreme ideology which became the basis of the measures
taken, first to drive the Jews from their homes and then to exterminate
them. The Shoah was the work of a thoroughly modern neo-pagan regime.
Its anti-Semitism had its roots outside of Christianity and, in pursuing
its aims, it did not hesitate to oppose the Church and persecute her
But it may be asked whether the Nazi persecution of the Jews was not
made easier by the anti-Jewish prejudices imbedded in some Christian
minds and hearts. Did anti-Jewish sentiment among Christians make them
less sensitive, or even indifferent, to the persecution launched against
the Jews by National Socialism when it reached power?
Any response to this question must take into account that we are dealing
with the history of people's attitudes and ways of thinking, subject to
multiple influences. Moreover, many people were altogether unaware of
the "final solution" that was being put into effect against a whole
people; others were afraid for themselves and those near to them; some
took advantage of the situation; and still others were moved by envy. A
response would need to be given case by case. To do this, however, it is
necessary to know what precisely motivated people in a particular
At first the leaders of the Third Reich sought to expel the Jews.
Unfortunately, the governments of some Western countries of Christian
tradition, including some in North and South America, were more than
hesitant to open their borders to the persecuted Jews. Although they
could not foresee how far the Nazi hierarchs would go in their criminal
intentions, the leaders of those nations were aware of the hardships and
dangers to which Jews living in the territories of the Third Reich were
exposed. The closing of borders to Jewish emigration in those
circumstances, whether due to any anti-Jewish hostility or suspicion,
political cowardice or shortsightedness, or national selfishness, lays a
heavy burden of conscience on the authorities in question.
In the lands where the Nazis undertook mass deportations, the brutality
which surrounded these forced movements of helpless people should have
led to suspect the worst. Did Christians give every possible assistance
to those being persecuted, and in particular to the persecuted Jews?
Many did, but others did not. Those who did help to save Jewish lives as
much as was in their power, even to the point of placing their own lives
in danger, must not be forgotten. During and after the war, Jewish
communities and Jewish leaders expressed their thanks for all that had
been done for them, including what Pope Pius XII did personally or
through his representatives to save hundreds of thousands of Jewish
lives. Many Catholic bishops, priests, religious and laity have been
honored for this reason by the State of Israel.
Nevertheless, as Pope John Paul II has recognized, alongside such
courageous men and women, the spiritual resistance and concrete action
of other Christians was not that which might have been expected from
Christ's followers. We cannot know how many Christians in countries
occupied or ruled by the Nazi powers or their allies were horrified at
the disappearance of their Jewish neighbors and yet were not strong
enough to raise their voices in protest. For Christians, this heavy
burden of conscience of their brothers and sisters during the Second
World War must be a call to penitence.
We deeply regret the errors and failures of those sons and daughters of
the Church. We make our own what is said in the Second Vatican Council's
declaration "Nostra Aetate," which unequivocally affirms: "The Church
... mindful of her common patrimony with the Jews, and motivated by the
Gospel's spiritual love and by no political considerations, deplores the
hatred, persecutions and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the
Jews at any time and from any source."
We recall and abide by what Pope John Paul II, addressing the leaders of
the Jewish community in Strasbourg in 1988, stated: "I repeat again with
you the strongest condemnation of anti-Semitism and racism, which are
opposed to the principles of Christianity." The Catholic Church
therefore repudiates every persecution against a people or human group
anywhere, at any time. She absolutely condemns all forms of genocide, as
well as the racist ideologies that give rise to them. Looking back over
this century, we are deeply saddened by the violence that has enveloped
whole groups of peoples and nations. We recall in particular the
massacre of the Armenians, the countless victims in Ukraine in the
1930s, the genocide of the Gypsies, which was also the result of racist
ideas, and similar tragedies which have occurred in America, Africa and
the Balkans. Nor do we forget the millions of victims of totalitarian
ideology in the Soviet Union, in China, Cambodia and elsewhere. Nor can
we forget the drama of the Middle East, the elements of which are well
known. Even as we make this reflection, "many human beings are still
their brothers' victims."
V. LOOKING TOGETHER TO A COMMON FUTURE
Looking to the future of relations between Christians and Jews, in the
first place we appeal to our Catholic brothers and sisters to renew the
awareness of the Hebrew roots of their faith. We ask them to keep in
mind that Jesus was a descendant of David; that the Virgin Mary and the
Apostles belonged to the Jewish people; that the Church draws sustenance
from the root of that good olive tree onto which have been grafted the
wild olive branches of the gentiles (cf. Romans 11:17-24); that the Jews
are our dearly beloved brothers, indeed in a certain sense they are "our
At the end of this Millennium the Catholic Church desires to express her
deep sorrow for the failures of her sons and daughters in every age.
This is an act of repentance (teshuva), since, as members of the Church,
we are linked to the sins as well as the merits of all her children. The
Church approaches with deep respect and great compassion the experience
of extermination, the Shoah, suffered by the Jewish people during World
War II. It is not a matter of mere words, but indeed of binding
commitment. "We would risk causing the victims of the most atrocious
deaths to die again if we do not have an ardent desire for justice, if
we do not commit ourselves to insure that evil does not prevail over
good as it did for millions of children of the Jewish people. ...
Humanity cannot permit all that to happen again."
We pray that our sorrow for the tragedy which the Jewish people has
suffered in our century will lead to a new relationship with the Jewish
people. We wish to turn awareness of past sins into a firm resolve to
build a new future in which there will be no more anti-Judaism among
Christians or anti-Christian sentiment among Jews, but rather a shared
mutual respect, as befits those who adore the one Creator and Lord and
have a common father in faith, Abraham.
Finally, we invite all men and women of good will to reflect deeply on
the significance of the Shoah. The victims from their graves, and the
survivors through the vivid testimony of what they have suffered, have
become a loud voice calling the attention of all of humanity. To
remember this terrible experience is to become fully conscious of the
salutary waning it entails: the spoiled seeds of anti-Judaism and
anti-Semitism must never again be allowed to take root in any human
16 March 1998
Edward Idris Cardinal Cassidy
The Most Reverend Pierre Duprey
The Reverend Remi Hoeckman, O.P.