We Remember

Following is the full text of Rabbi Jack Bemporad’s talk given at the Pontifical North American College in Vatican City, Rome for Yom Ha Shoah April 13, 1999 regarding the Vatican’s document “We Remember.”

We Remember: The Holocaust And Forgiveness

In March of 1998, the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews released a document entitled ‘We Remember’. This document was the result of a number of convergent factors.

First, the subject matter of the Shoah to which this document is a reflection, has been the continual concern of Pope John Paul II., and many of his statements are quoted in this document. Indeed the document begins with a letter from the Pope. Thus ,We Remember must be read in the context of the Popes repeated references to the Shoah.

Second, being the work of the Pontifical Commission, We remember is the third document that the commission has issued and it must be seen in the context of these other documents. The other documents were the Guidelines and Notes to the declaration Nostra Aetate and sought to elaborate and implement for Catholics its revolutionary teaching towards Jews and Judaism.

Third, the issuing of this document was announced in 1987, following a special meeting between members of the Pontifical Commission and Jewish leaders at Castel Gondolfo, the papal residence outside of Rome. This special meeting was due to Jewish concerns that the Pope’s granting an audience to the then President of Austria, Kurt Waldheim, might imply a change in the Church’s understanding and approach to the Shoah.

Finally, the document unlike any prior Pontifical Commission document speaks of Teshuvah, ( turn or return or more commonly repentance )a Hebrew word that has a specific connotation in Hebrew which does not correspond to its usual translation by repentance in English. This word was the foundation for Cardinal Cassidy’s opening remarks in Prague in 1990 and was also used by various Bishop’s statements. The context for using this word must be understood.

We Remember opens with a letter from Pope John Paul II to Cardinal Cassidy, President of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. In this letter, the Pope places the Pontifical Commissions document in its proper historical and theological context. The Pope begins by recalling the numerous occasions in which he has made mention of the special suffering of the Jewish people indicated by the term Shoah. He states, “The crime which has become known as the Shoah remains an indelible stain on the history of the century that is coming to a close.”

Anyone familiar with the many statements of the Pope throughout his pontificate will be impressed by the continuing and profound reflections he has expressed on the plight of the Jewish people and their extreme suffering. Indeed, the Pope is quoted repeatedly in this document. If one simply reads the numerous statements Pope John Paul has made not just to Jewish groups, but to Catholic and other groups, one can see the anguish this polish Pope who himself, as a young man, witnessed the horror of Nazism first hand has felt about the unspeakable suffering of the Jewish people.

This suffering must be acknowledged and remembered but also given a theological significance. The significance of the suffering of the Jewish people must be seen as a warning cry to all of humanity that such atrocities should never happen again.

The Pope expresses this great witness of the Jewish people in many of his talks but most significantly in his remarks to the Jewish Community in Warsaw. His remarks need to be quoted at length. He states,

“Be sure dear brothers that the Poles, this Polish Church, is in a spirit of profound solidarity with you when she looks closely at the terrible reality of the extermination – the unconditional extermination – of your nation, an extermination carried out with premeditation…it was you who suffered this terrible sacrifice of extermination…Above all because of this terrible experience, through which you have become a loud warning voice for all humanity, for all nations, all the powers of this world, all systems and every person. More than anyone else, it is precisely you who have become this saving warning. I think that in this sense you continue your particular vocation, showing yourselves to be still the heirs of that election to which God is faithful. This is your mission in the contemporary world before the peoples, the nations, all of humanity, the Church. And in this Church all peoples and nations feel united to you in this mission. Certainly they give great prominence to your nation and its suffering, its Holocaust, when they wish to speak a warning to individuals and to nations; in your name, the pope, too lifts up his voice in this warning. The Polish pope has a particular relationship with all this, because, along with you, he has in a certain sense lived all this here, in this land.”(SP p.98-99 my italics)

The suffering of the Jewish people during the Holocaust, the pope believes, must become a warning cry to all humanity so that such devastation will never happen again. He sees the suffering of the Jews within the context of the suffering servant passages of second Isaiah and the mission of Israel. Pope John Paul also connects this document to the examination of conscience and call to repentance, which the Pope stressed in his Tertio Millennio Adveniente (On the Coming of the Third Millennium) in preparation for the beginning of the Third Millennium. This preparation “is based on the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God and neighbor. Therefore she (the Church) encourages her sons and daughters to purify their hearts through repentance of past errors and infidelities. She calls them, to place themselves humbly before the Lord and examine themselves on the responsibility which they too have for the evils of our time.”

This repentance for past errors cannot but also address itself to the role of Christian Europe and the role of Catholics in contributing to the Shoah. The Pope hopes that this document “will indeed help to heal the wounds of past misunderstandings and injustices. May it enable memory to play its necessary part in the process of shaping a future in which the unspeakable iniquity of the Shoah will never again be possible.”

Cardinal Cassidy for his part in presenting the document, We Remember, to the Catholic world, connects it to past statements of the Pontifical Commission.

Nostra Aetate, the Guidelines and the Notes

In the past, the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews organized in 1974 under Pope Paul VI, issued guidelines and notes in clarifying and explaining the implementation of the conciliar document Nostra Aetate.

I think it is important to review briefly the revolution in self-understanding with respect to Jews and Judaism that the declaration Nostra Aetate brought about. To understand the crucial importance of Vatican II and its statement about Jews and Judaism, one must remember that for many Christians, the Jews were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus, and that Christianity was seen as completely distinct from and alien to Judaism.

Past Catholic teaching minimized if not totally ignored that Jesus was a Jew, that Mary and the Apostles were Jewish, that many of the ideas that Jesus taught were Jewish ideas and much of the terminology Jesus used was terminology current in the Rabbinical Judaism of his time.

The New Testament clearly identifies Jesus as a Jew. When asked, “what is the chief one of all the commandments?” Jesus replied, “The chief one is: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord, and you must love the Lord our God with your whole heart, with your whole soul and with your whole mind, and with your whole strength. The second is this, you must love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:32FF)

In affirming the central teachings of religion, Jesus responded much as Hillel or Rabbi Akiba responded when asked similar questions. When a pagan challenged Hillel to summarize the whole of the Torah , Hillel answered “What is hateful to you do not unto your fellow human being, this is the whole of the Torah, the rest is commentary go and learn.” (Shabbat 31A) Akiba affirmed that the central principle of the Torah is “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Bereshit Rabbah24) It was the Rabbi’s that made the affirmation of one God and the love of God the central teaching of Judaism.

For centuries Christians viewed Judaism as a fossil or dead religion superseded by Christianity, and that while during biblical times the Jews were in fact the chosen people. now with the coming of Christ and the advent of Christianity, the Jews were relegated to being a people rejected by God.

Nostra Aetate doctrinally changed all that. This change was indeed revolutionary and in commenting on Nostra Aetate, Cardinal O’Connor calls the councilar declaration “shocking.” He states, “to call Nostra Aetate less than “shocking”…would be to betray significant naivete, or even denial, about how bad relations between Jews and Christians in general have been for so many centuries.” (p.8 Our Age)

What the declaration Nostra Aetate did can be summarized in ten points:

1. It connected Christianity to its Jewish roots “Abrahams Stock” and recognizes that she continues to draw sustenance from the “root of that good olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild olive branches of the gentiles.”

2. Jesus as well as Mary and the early Apostles were all Jews.

3. Situates the Jews as (quoting Paul) having the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenant and the legislation and the worship and the promise.

4. Indeed the Jewish covenant with God is irrevocable since “he does not repent of the gifts he makes nor of the call he issues.”

5. Because of all of the above, the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great that mutual understanding and respect, which is the fruit above all of the biblical and theological studies and of brotherly dialogues must replace any prior types of relationships.

6. Rejection of collective Jewish responsibilities for the crucifixion.

7. Rejection of any representation of the Jews as repudiated or cursed by God as if such views followed from scriptures.

8. The Church repudiates all persecution against anyone.

9. The Church deplores the hatred, persecutions and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and from any source.

10. Christ freely underwent his passion and death because of the sins of all men.

These points are reducible to two central issues: First, the reexamination of the relationship between the church and Judaism and the Jewish people, i.e. the movement from a theology of a dead and outdated and superceded Judaism to a theology of a living Judaism. Second, a rejection of all forms of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism as in any way founded on Christian or scriptural teaching.

That the Vatican Council’s Declaration Nostra Aetate was of decisive importance can be seen from the evaluation of Cardinal Willerbrands, first President of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. He states, “Never, I repeat never before had a systematic, positive, comprehensive, careful and daring presentation of the Jews and Judaism been made in the church by a pope or a council. This should never be lost sight of.”

Cardinal Willerbrands also states, “the last and decisive one (vote) on October 28, was positive beyond all expectations: only 250 negative votes against 1763 votes in favor and 10 abstentions…it is important to note that the church through her bishops, was united on the question of how to relate to the Jews and Judaism, not torn apart by it. And this has been and remains the solid guarantee (my italics) of the change renewed attitude towards the Jews and Judaism in the Catholic church.” (p.39-40)

Pope John Paul, in referring to the Declaration Nostra Aetate, gives it the highest level of authority in the church. In a statement to the Jewish representatives of the Jewish Community of Venezuela, the Pope stated, “I wish to confirm with utmost conviction (con toda mi profunda conviccion) that the teaching of the Church proclaimed during the Second Vatican Council in the Declaration Nostra Aetate… remains always for us, for the Catholic Church for the Episcopate… and for the Pope, a teaching which must be followed – a teaching which it is necessary to accept not merely as something fitting, but much more as an expression of the faith as an inspiration of the holy spirit, as a word of the divine wisdom.” (see Osservatore Romano January 29, 1985)

In 1974, the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews issued Guidelines to the implementation of Nostra Aetate, and Notes for Preaching and Catechesis in 1985. In restating the teaching of Nostra Aetate, the guidelines “condemn” – not just deplore the all forms of anti-Semitism. The Guidelines also encourage dialogues guided by the resolve to try to acquire an understanding of Judaism and the Jewish people, i.e. “they must strive to learn by what essential traits the Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experience.” Thus dialogue as opposed to monologue “demands respect for the other as he is, above all respect for his faith and his religious convictions.” Dialogue must entail respect for the other and be tactful. It also must be engaged with a recognition “that a widespread air of suspicion, inspired by an unfortunate past, is still dominant…Christians for their part will be able to see to what extent the responsibility is theirs and deduce practical conclusions for the future.”

The NOTES stress the need to understand the “permanence of Israel” within the context of God’s design…accompanied by a continuous spiritual fecundity, in the rabbinic period, in the Middle Ages and in modern times. The notes also speak of the importance of Israel to the Jewish people. Jews are to be presented as “the people of God of the Old Covenant which has never been revoked by God.” Indeed, the Jewish people have been a witness – “often heroic of its fidelity to the one God and to exalt him in the presence of all the living.”

Both the Guidelines and the Notes delineate ways in which Nostra Aetate can be implemented, especially through joint activities between Christians and Jews.

No one in the world expected that Pope John Paul II himself would implement these Church documents by going to the Great Synagogue in Rome in 1986 and in his remarks summarize all that had been achieved up to that point. In his person, the Pope witnessed to the fact that these documents were not just pronouncements to be placed in libraries, but real tasks that the Church had set for itself and that he was one of the very first to fulfill.

A year after his visit to the Synagogue in Rome, the Jewish community was still uncertain of the church’s intent. In spite of positive statements, all the Church documents, the Papal speeches and the Popes meetings with Jewish leaders in every country he visited where there were Jewish communities, they were bewildered by an audience the Pope granted to Kurt Waldheim, then president of Austria.

Jewish concerns resulted in a meeting which took place at Castel Gandolfo between Cardinal Willerbrands, then President of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, and Jewish leaders.

I do not think that the Jewish leadership understood that when the Pope visited Austria in 1983, he invited the then President of Austria to visit him at the Vatican. He had no way of knowing that Waldheim would become the President of Austria. (for background material on the meeting with Waldheim, see authors article Forgiveness: Pope John Paul II and the Jews in America magazine, May 18, 1991, page 537) A Joint Press Communique was issued stating that at the meeting “Cardinal Willerbrands, President of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, announced the intention of the commission to prepare an official Catholic document on the Shoah, the historical background of anti-Semitism, and its contemporary manifestations. The Jewish delegation “warmly welcomed this initiative and expressed the conviction that such a document will contribute significantly to combating attempts to revise and to deny the reality of the Shoah and to trivialize its religious significance for Christians, Jews and humanity.”

It was also noted that “Nazi ideology was not only anti-Semitic but also profoundly demonic and anti-Christian.”

The delegation received reports on the current state of anti-Semitism in various countries and expressed concern over recent manifestations of anti-Semitism and also of anti-Catholicism. The group called for an intensification of existing efforts to counter religious and cultural prejudice.

The Jewish delegation expressed the concern of world Jewry at the absence of full diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel. Representatives of the Holy See declared that there exist no theological reasons in Catholic doctrine that would inhibit such relations, but noted that there do exist some serious and unresolved problems in the area.” (SP p.103)

In his meeting with Jewish leaders in September 1987 , in Miami, the Pope referred to the meeting at Castel Gandolfo and announced that “a Catholic document on the Shoah and anti-Semitism will be forthcoming.” (SP p.108) He reaffirmed the significance of the Shoah “that ruthless and inhuman attempt to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe, an attempt that resulted in millions of victims – including women and children, the elderly and the sick – exterminated only because they were Jews.” After detailing the rich spiritual treasures that united and still unite Christians and Jews, the Pope then inaugurates a theme that is then expanded in the We Remember statement. The Pope continues, “it is also fitting to recall the strong, unequivocal efforts of the popes against anti-Semitism and Nazism at the height of the persecution against the Jews. Back in 1938, Pius XI declared that “anti-Semitism cannot be admitted”(September 6, 1938), and he declared the total opposition between Christianity and Nazism by stating that the Nazi cross is an “enemy of the cross of Christ” (Christmas Allocution, 1938). And I am convinced that history will reveal ever more clearly and convincingly how deeply Pius XII felt the tragedy of the Jewish people, and how hard and effectively he worked to assist them during the Second World War.” (SP p.107)

In his remarks, Rabbi Waxman, speaking for the Jewish community stressed that the Jewish community “remains concerned with anti-Semitism – the hatred of Jews and Judaism which is on the rise in some parts of the world.” He also praised the Pope’s “vigorous leadership in denouncing all forms of anti-Semitism, and by the church’s recent teachings.” Rabbi Waxman then focused on the issue of the Shoah. He said “the teaching of contempt reaped a demonic harvest during the Shoah in which one-third of the Jewish people were murdered as a central component of a nation’s policy. The Nazi Holocaust (Shoah) brought together two very different forms of evil: on the one hand it represented the triumph of an ideology of nationalism and racism, the suppression of human conscience, and the deification of the state – concepts that are profoundly anti-Christian as well as anti-Jewish. On the other hand, the Shoah was the culmination of centuries of anti-Semitism in European culture for which Christian teachings bear a heavy responsibility.

While your sensitive concerns and your noteworthy pronouncements about the Shoah have been heartening, we have observed recent tendencies to obscure the fact that Jews were the major target of Nazi genocidal policies. It is possible to visit Nazi death camps today and not be informed that the majority of its victims were Jews. Your letter about the Shoah, sent last month to Archbishop John May, the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, represented a deep level of understanding of that terrible period.

We look forward to the forthcoming Vatican document on the Shoah, the historical background of anti-Semitism, and its contemporary manifestations.” (SP p.112) Rabbi Waxman also pointed out the need for the establishment of full diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See.

Repeatedly in meetings between Jewish leaders and the Pontifical Commission, the question of full diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See was brought up and the Agreement agreed to on December 30, 1993, fulfilled one of the long sought goals for Jewish Christian dialogue. It states, “The Holy See and the State of Israel are committed to appropriate cooperation in combating all forms of anti-Semitism and all kinds of racism and of religious intolerance, and in promoting mutual understanding among nations, tolerance among communities, and respect for human life and dignity.

The Holy See takes this occasion to reiterate its condemnation of hatred, persecution, and all other manifestations of anti-Semitism directed against the Jewish people and individual Jews anywhere, at any time and by anyone. In particular, the Holy See deplores attacks on Jews and desecration of Jewish synagogues and cemeteries, acts which offend the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, especially when they occur in the same places which witnessed it.” (SP p.204)

The often postponed meeting dealing with anti-Semitism, its history and contemporary manifestations, took place in Prague in September of 1990. In initiating the meeting, Cardinal Cassidy (then Archbishop and recently appointed Head of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, taking over that position from Cardinal Willerbrands) amazed the delegates with his forthright proclamation: “That anti-Semitism has found a place in Christian thought and practice calls for an act of Teshuva and of reconciliation on our part, as we gather here in this city, which is a witness to our failure to be authentic witnesses to our faith at times in the past.” (Our Age p.65)

The following January, the Polish Bishops in keeping with Cardinal Cassidy’s call for Teshuva, issued their own statement which was a foundation for Bishops statements that came afterward. “In spite of so many heroic examples on the part of Polish Christians, there were also people who remained indifferent to this incomprehensible tragedy. We are especially disheartened by those among the Catholics who in some way were the cause of the death of the Jews. They will forever gnaw at our conscience on the social plane. If only one Christian could have helped and did not stretch out a helping hand to a Jew during the time of danger or caused his death, we must ask for forgiveness of our Jewish brothers and sisters…We express our sincere regret for all the incidents of anti-Semitism which were committed at any time or by anyone on Polish Soil.” (Our Age p.71)

A number of Bishops statements also echoed the call for Teshuvah. A number of strands thus have led to the document We Remember: 1. Nostra Aetate and the Documents

2. Pope John Paul II leadership and his many statements

3. Cardinal Cassidy’s call for an act of Teshuvah

4. Bishops statements especially Polish and French, and program set by the Hungarian Bishops 7-8

The Hungarian Bishops statement, which was issued in November of 1994, briefly but forcefully sets forth the four steps that have been the leitmotif of Catholic responses to the Shoah and the task of Catholic-Jewish relations.

First there is the acknowledgement of responsibility. It states, “not only the perpetrators of this insane crime are responsible for it, but all those who, although they declared themselves members of our churches, through fear, cowardice, or opportunism, failed to raise their voices against the mass humiliation, deportation, and murder of their Jewish neighbors. Before God we now ask forgiveness for this failure committed in the time of disaster fifty years ago.” (p.7-8)

Second, recognition of those who acted heroically. Third, the seeking reconciliation in “mutual recognition and love.” Fourth, “aim[ing] at the development of true humaneness…so that the crimes of the past will never happen again.

In one form or another these elements are in most of the Bishops statements and also in a more elaborate expression embodied in We Remember.

We Remember

We Remember is divided into five sections: The first section serves as a preamble and orients the document in the context of Pope John Paul’s Apostolic Letter, Tertio Millenio Adveniente, which calls upon the Church to investigate all those areas in which Catholics have fallen short of the highest standards embodied in her teachings.

“One of the main areas” concerns “the tragedy of the Shoah.”

Thus it states, “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.” (CR p.48)

In asking the Jewish community to “hear us with open hearts,” the document speaks of the “unspeakable tragedy which can never be forgotten.”

This document is addressed to “our brothers and sisters of the Catholic Church throughout the world.” It asks all Catholics to meditate on “the catastrophe which befell the Jewish people and on the moral imperative to ensure that never again will selfishness and hatred grow to the point of sowing such suffering and death.”

In addressing this document to the whole Church including those Catholics who live in countries that did not witness nor participate in the Shoah, the document wants to indicate that the Shoah is not simply a European concern but concerns all Catholics throughout the world. Concern with anti-Semitism is not limited to Christian Europe where the Shoah was enacted but all Catholics should meditate on these events and make sure that they never happen again elsewhere by anyone. These words are the words that Pope John Paul has ingrained on our conscience.

The second section clearly asserts that although the Jewish people have suffered “at many times and at many places” the “Shoah was the worst suffering of all” Forthrightly it affirms. “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 Shoah must be remembered and understood not simply with the categories of “historical research alone” but must be remembered with the categories of a “moral and religious memory.”

This is especially so since the Shoah took place in Europe in “countries of long standing Christian civilization.” Therefore, it cannot help but raise the question of “the relation between the Nazi persecution and the attitudes down the centuries of Christian towards Jews.”

The third and fourth Section were the sections that have caused the most comment especially of a negative sort, therefore in my summarizing what they say I will try to deal with the disputed issues.

Judiciously, the third section reviews the often-sad history of Christian Jewish relations. It points to the “discriminations,” the “expulsions,” the “attempts at forced conversions,” indicating that “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 and even massacres.”

This section conceded that:

1. “Christian mobs…attacked…synagogues, not without being influenced by certain interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people as a whole.”

2. And that “erroneous and unjust interpretations of the new Testament regarding the Jewish people and their alleged culpability have circulated far too long engendering feelings of hostility toward this people.” Whatever may have been in the past, such erroneous teachings have been “totally and definitely rejected by the second Vatican Council.” The document clearly acknowledges the changed attitude toward Jews and Judaism as a result of Vatican II. Whatever attitudes or interpretations of the New Testament may have existed in the past for which this document is an admission of culpability and repentance, and whatever failures may have led to the acquiescing in anti-Judaism; since the declaration Nostra Aetate, these views are categorically rejected. This rejection, taken up later in the last section, is a clear indication that the Church in the future will do all in its power to make sure that such actions will never happen again.

3. These attitudes “of anti-Judaism “let to a “generalized discrimination which ended at times in expulsions or attempts at forced conversions” and at times of crisis the “Jewish minority was sometimes taken as a scapegoat and became the victim of violence, looting even massacres.

4. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, a new form of anti-Judaism arose “that was essentially more sociological and political than religious.”

5. Thus, in the twentieth century, with national socialism racists, doctrines were embraced which proclaimed the doctrine of superior and inferior races.

6. The German Bishops condemned these racist doctrines

7. Cardinal Falhaber clearly expressed rejection of “the Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda”

8. Bernard Lichtenberg Provost of the Berlin Cathedral offered public prayers for the Jews and later died at Dachau

9. Pius XI condemned Nazi racism in his encyclical letter Mit Brennender Sorge

10. Pius XII, in his very first encyclical Summi Pontificatus, “warned against theories which denied the unity of the human race and against the deification of the state.”

The fourth Section seeks to make a sharp distinction 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 anti-Judaism, “the long standing sentiments of mistrust and hostility…of which, unfortunately, Christians also have been guilty.”

Nazism sought to deify the state and thus “determined to remove the very existence of the Jewish people, a people called to witness to the God and the law of the covenant.” This Nazi state “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.” Thus the section concludes that the Shoah must be understood as the “work of a thoroughly modern neo-pagan regime. Its anti-Semitism had its roots outside of Christianity. The Nazi regime “did not hesitate to oppose the Church and persecute her members also.”

I believe that in the main what was said above is correct. I also think what Cardinal Cassidy said in response to later Jewish criticism of this document in upholding this distinction is accurate. While maintaining such a distinction, the question can 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 then less sensitive or even indifferent to the persecutions launched against the Jews by National Socialism when it reached power?”

Here the document does acknowledge responsibility and while praising those who “did help to save Jewish lives,” nevertheless “the spiritual resistance and concrete actions of other Christians was not that which might have been expected from Christ’s followers.”

Thus the document clearly acknowledges responsibility. “We deeply regret the errors and failures of those sons and daughters of the Church.”

The final Section looks toward the future and here the Hebrew word Teshuvah is used. This paragraph deserves to be quoted in full:

“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 (teshuvah), 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 ensure that evil does not prevail over good as it did for millions of the children of the Jewish people…Humanity cannot permit all that to happen again.” (CR p.54)


There is no question that the intent of the document is to further the work and the direction of prior Pontifical commission documents. It is also clear that it goes a step further in not just denouncing anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism in general, but it does so in particular on the part of the sons and daughters of the Church, Catholics who did not do what Catholic teaching would have expected them to do.

It clearly states that not enough was done on the part of Catholics to respond adequately to the horror of the Shoah. It forthrightly puts the full weight of the Catholic Church on the side of condemning anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism so that the Church will henceforth after Nostra Aetate, do all in its power to make sure that “never again” will such horrendous acts be perpetrated not just against the Jews but against any human being.

The document also wants to make it clear that the anti-Semitism of the Nazis was essentially different from the anti-Judaism of Christians throughout history. It stresses that the Church was never racist and in fact resisted racism. In introducing the names of Cardinals and even Popes, it cites examples to show that they condemned racism and indirectly also condemned the racist anti-Semitic doctrines of Hitler’s regime. This particular theme was singled out in Cardinal Cassidy’s discussion of some of the Jewish reactions to the statement. I believe that he is entirely justified in making a basic distinction between the anti-Judaism of past catholic teachings, which now after Nostra Aetate, are seen to be totally contrary to the teaching of the Church and the racist doctrines of the Hitler regime.

Cardinal Cassidy states, “There can be no denial of the fact that from the time of Emperor Constantine on, Jews were isolated and discriminated against in the Christian world. There were expulsions and forced conversions. Literature propagated stereotypes; preaching accused the Jews of every age of deicide; the ghetto, which came into being in 1555 with a papal bull, became in Nazi Germany the antechamber of the extermination. It is also true that the Nazis made use of this sad history in their attacks on the Jewish people, adopting symbols and recalling events of the past to justify their deadly campaign. It is also true, I believe, that a part of the indifference shown toward the mass deportations and brutality which accompanied these forced movements of helpless and innocent people was a result of the age-old attitudes of Christian society and preaching toward those considered responsible for the death of Jesus. But to make a jump from the anti-Judaism of the Church to the anti-Semitism of the Nazis is to misread the nature of the Nazi persecution. To quote from the Vatican document: “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 members also.” The Church can justly be accused of not showing to the Jewish people, down through the centuries that love which its founder, Jesus Christ, made the fundamental principle of his teaching. Rather, an anti-Jewish tradition stamped its mark in different ways on Christian doctrine and teaching. “To the extent that the pastors and those in authority in the Church let such teaching of disdain develop so long, and that they maintained among Christian communities an underlying basic religious culture which shaped and deformed peoples’ attitudes, they bear a heavy responsibility…This is not to say (however) that a direct cause-and-effect link can be drawn between these commonly held anti-Jewish feelings and the Shoah, because the Nazi plan to annihilate the Jewish people had its sources elsewhere” (Drancy statement). At no time did the church authorities seek to exterminate the Jewish people!” (CR p.71)

Similar statements were made by the Bishops statements and in Prague by Saul Friedlander and Jacob Katz.

Professor Saul Friedlander’s remarks in Prague set the correct tone for this whole matter. There he judiciously expressed what I believe is the correct way to look at this. He states, “it is clear that traditional Christian anti-Semitism is not responsible directly for the Holocaust. But it certainly prepared an over all ground of prejudice, mostly turning into relative indifference during the events….it is not a direct link but a ground which leads people accustomed to normal patterns of thought and normal procedures to shy back (from facing) a too new and difficult an issue in a situation of extraordinary crisis.”

This view was echoed in the French bishop’s statement, “To the extent that the pastors and those in authority in the Church let such a teaching of disdain develop for so long, along with an underlying basic religious culture among Christian communities which shaped and deformed people’s attitudes, they bear a grave responsibility. Even if they condemned anti-Semitic theories as being pagan in origin, they did not enlighten people’s minds as they ought because they failed to call into question these centuries-old ideas and attitudes. This has a soporific effect on people’s consciences, reducing their capacity to resist when the full violence of National Socialist anti-Semitism rose up, the diabolical and ultimate expression of hatred of the Jews, based on the categories of race and blood, and which was explicitly directed to the physical annihilation of the Jewish people. As Pope John Paul II put it, “an unconditional extermination…undertaken with premeditation.” (CR p.35)

However, granting all of the above when the document asks explicitly “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 persecutions launched against the Jews by National Socialism when it reached its power?

A document that wants to concentrate not so much on historical but on moral and religious memory calls for a forthright answer such as was given by the Bishops statements and by Professor Friedlander.

Rather what is presented is a contextualization, which in itself is not inaccurate but which does not directly respond to the question asked. However, it does respond to it indirectly and one can clearly see that the thrust of the whole document is an answer to this question.

Undoubtedly “any response to this question must take into account that we are dealing with the history of people’s attitudes and ways of thinking…a response would need to be given case by case. [and] To do this, however, it is necessary to know what precisely motivated people in a particular situation.”

It is also true that many countries “of Christian tradition” hesitated to open borders to persecuted Jews, and such action “whether due to anti-Jewish hostility or suspicion, political cowardice, or shortsightedness, or national selfishness, lays a heavy burden of conscience on the authorities in question in question.”

But the question is whether there is any relation, even indirect, between historical anti-Judaism on the part of sons and daughters of the Church and the anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime. This question is answered, but answered, as I said, indirectly. Quite properly concentrating on the many Christians who did much to help the Jews, many risking their lives, the document clearly states the “concrete actions 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.” (CR p.53)

Another question is asked. “Did Christians give every possible assistance to those being persecuted and in particular to the persecuted Jews?’ and the answer is surprising at best. “Many did, but others did not.” In reality, not just in a totalitarian system such as Hitler’s which demanded complete acquiescence and obedience at the price of severe punishment, but even in less absolutist and cruel regimes, it is the rare person who is heroic and acts righteously. The sad fact is that the vast majority of those who were exposed to the horror of Nazism could not and did not do much without clearly jeopardizing their life or their welfare.

In concentrating on Pope Pius XII and in quoting the numerous contemporary positive comments on the part of Jews with respect to the Pope, the document seeks to counteract the mainly negative attitude toward the Pope that was engendered by Hochuth’s play, The Deputy.

Unfortunately, to deal with the role of Pius XII in such a brief manner and in quoting Jews who praise him, the document gives the appearance of being overly defensive and apologetic. This does scant justice to the defenders of the Pope and does not really effectively deal with his detractors.

Also, to only quote Jewish voices in the entire document on their attitude to Pope Pius XII, is to give the impression that there is nothing really of significance that the Jewish community had to say in the most brutal and destructive period of its entire history except to praise Pope Pius XII. Let us not forget that in his remarks to the Jewish leaders in Miami, Pope John Paul II clearly mentioned the role of Pius XII and any quick castigation requires careful study. It is to the credit of Cardinal Cassidy that he indicated that there would be opportunities for Jewish and Christian scholars to study the massive work. Father Graham and his associates assembled in eleven volumes of documentation relating to Pius XII. It is regretible that this offer was not accepted by the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious consultation

The documentation wants to maintain in its mention of the German Cardinals, that they as well as Popes Pius XI and XII, that the Catholic teaching was not racist and that these individuals condemned the racism of the Nazi’s. In doing so was a clear attack on the Hitler regime. This is true. Yet especially, those families and the millions of victims, I believed hoped for more. They hoped that a people of God would indeed strive to do as their own Christian teaching enjoined. Bernard Lichtenberg Provost of the Berlin cathedral did as did countless thousands of others. Faithful Christians who took to heart the Biblical injunction in the book of Matthew “25:45 “What you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.”” (American Bible)

Clearly, the document was intended for the entire Church, for Catholics everywhere, not just for Europeans and one should not minimize the role of the allies, the majority of whose inhabitants are Christian in defeating Hitler.

Bishops councils in other countries especially those countries that actually endured the destruction of the Jews, have issued their own statements on the part of their own Bishops conferences and these documents speak in a strong and poignant manner.

I believe it is a mistake to see the Bishops statements in opposition or in competition with the Pontifical document; and then try to see which statements are more apologetic and to use the statements of the Bishops against the We Remember document of the Pontifical commission. Rather, they are to be joined together as forming an organic whole which testifies to the great realization that anti-Judaism is totally contrary to Catholic teaching; that not enough was done in the past to fight against such false teachings and that an act of teshuvah is needed, a new direction. A direction that was taken by Pope John XXIII in initiating Vatican II, continued by Paul VI and brought to a new and more significant level by John Paul II.

It is in seeing the full sweep of Catholic teachings towards the Jews that these documents reflect that we see the tremendous transformation of the heritage of Nostra Aetate. A proper understanding must be one that sees the full sweep and also that recognizes that a new recognition that is, a “re-cognition” of Jews and Judaism has emerged in Catholic consciousness.

The heart of this “recognition” is in the appropriation of the Hebrew word Teshuvah in the Pontifical text. Section five of the document mentions the Hebrew word Teshuvah. The use of this word is most important since it has a specific meaning in the Jewish religion, which I believe is intended in this text.


In Judaism, repentance – Teshuvah constitutes a new relationship to oneself, to the other and to the divine. Teshuvah, as understood in Jewish teaching, involves not merely the consciousness of having done wrong but also the determination to rectify that wrong.

Simply the consciousness or even the determination to change and not to again indulge that wrong is not sufficient in itself. For example, the Mishna in Yoma specifically admonishes, “if one says; I shall sin and repent, sin and repent, no opportunity will be given him to repent. If one says I shall sin and the Day of Atonement will procure atonement for me, the Day of Atonement procures for him no atonement.” (Bab. Talmud Tractate Yoma 85B) It is taken for granted that apart from “turning” in a full sense, repentance simply is ineffective. Merely acknowledging that one has sinned and asking forgiveness is not enough if one has intention of continuing in the same way of life. Thus to repent with the intention of sinning anew is no genuine or real repentance, neither can the day of atonement, the day set aside in the Jewish religion for repentance, bring about forgiveness for those who intend to go on sinning.

Indeed, the Mishna continues that even the day of atonement, as significant as that is for the forgiveness of sins, is not sufficient. “To atone for sins between man and the omnipresent (God) the day of atonement procures atonement. But for transgressions as between man and his fellow, the Day of Atonement does not procure any atonement until he has pacified his fellow.” (Ibid.) Repentance constitutes an actual transformation of the self and his interrelationships. In fact, it is only through repentance that the possibility of transformation can take place and the individual who did the wrong can become a new self.

The new self disassociates himself from his former self and as it were emerges into a new life and a new relationship is now established with the past, with the other, and with the Divine.

This threefold relationship constitutive of repentance is a deeper and prior condition for Maimonides classic definition of true repentance wherein the individual facing the same situation acts differently. In Chapter Two of Maimonides Tractate on the regulations on teshuvah – repentance, he asks, “what is complete repentance? It is so when an opportunity presents itself for repeating an offense once committed, and the offender, while able to commit the offense, nevertheless refrains from doing so because he has repented and not out of fear or failure of vigor.” (footnote Book of Knowledge translated by Moses Hy Amson p.82B with slight alteration of the translation)

The doer of repentance does not repeat the offense due to the self transformation brought about through teshuvah, having repented the past action, and having recognized the change which being now a new entity has brought about. The individual will not only not repeat the offense and endeavor to rectify to damage done, he will act differently. In the words of Herman Cohen, a turning away takes place. Of course both Maimonides and Cohen are referring to individual repentance. In fact, Maimonides concludes that paragraph with the remark, “if one remembers his creator and repents before death he is forgiven.” Maimonides is building on the classic text for repentance and forgiveness from the prophet Ezekiel. That God does not desire the death of the sinner but that he repent and live.

Maimonides continues by asking, “What is repentance? It consists in this, that the sinner abandon his sin, remove it from his thoughts, and resolve in his heart never to repeat it.” (Ibid.) Repentance is therefore needed to establish not only forgiveness, but for continued vitality and the possibility of the enhancement of life. It is to place the individual on a new level and thereby enabling the choice of life. It is for this reason that forgiveness is so intimately associated with repentance.

Baeck clearly indicates the role of repentance in Judaism. In his classic work, The Essence of Judaism (p.163), he states, “Man can ‘return’ to this freedom and purity, to God, the reality of his life, if he has sinned. He is always able to turn and to find his way back to the Holy, which is more than the earthly and beyond the limitations of his life: He can hallow and purify himself again; he can atone. He can always decide anew and begin anew. For man there is always the constant possibility of a new ethical beginning. The task of choice and realization, of freedom and deed, is never completed. ‘Return’ – thus does Judaism speak to men as long as they breathe; ‘return’ – but not as misunderstanding has interpreted it, “do penance” this return, this teshuvah, is the atonement of which man is never bereft and in which he is always able to renew his life.”

Further on, Baeck states, (p.230) “All reconciliation involves the way to the future; for in all return there is a progression. Mankind has the capacity of continual self renewal, of continual rebirth, of breaking obstruction, of turning ever again to atonement and reconciliation. For the path of history, the good remains mankind’s task despite all the bypaths of its errors. As an old saying has it: ‘A sin may extinguish a commandment, but it cannot extinguish the Torah’ (Sotah 21A)- The ‘light’ remains and in its radiance mankind finds its future.

As another saying of the Talmud has it, the ‘day of atonement is the day which never ends.’ When history reaches this day of return, a new epoch begins in it. Then history declares a new covenant with God; life proves itself in history and finds its realization…The goal is teshuvah, the return to the origin, the pure and creative within ourselves…No historical incident is here seen as an isolated event or a mere link in the chain of fate; on the contrary, it is accorded a meaning and a value in the whole passage of human history. Thus the mythological conception of fate is…overcome. And also overcome is the historical loneliness of the generations believing themselves doomed to annihilation so soon as they are lowered into their graves. Here on the contrary each generation becomes an integral part of a series of generations, and thereby part of the great significance of history…History offers the answer to the depressing problem of individual existence because it makes possible a fulfillment of the tasks that are beyond the scope of any one generation.”

The teaching that the past can be redeemed if it can be connected to a present that endeavors to redeem it, is at the heart of the Jewish teaching of repentance and has been clearly put by the philosopher Max Scheler, very much in the spirit of prophetic Judaism. He argues (in his essay Repentance and Rebirth from the book on The Eternal in Man), that the past is indeterminate in significance until it has yielded all its potential effects.

He states, “Every event of our past remains indeterminate in significance and incomplete in value until it has yielded all its potential effects.” (p.40) “Historical reality is incomplete and, so to speak redeemable.” (p.41J) Historical reality is incomplete and thereby redeemable. The past takes on new relationships in terms of the decisions we make in the present. As Scheler states the issue is “what ate we going to make of it?” Repentance not only involves a transformation of one’s thinking and doing, but also a transformation of being, it involves a change of heart.

When Cardinal Cassidy made his historic statement inaugurating the Prague conference devoted to the exploration of the history if anti-Semitism both past and present, he wanted to categorically assert that past acts of the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church required an act of Teshuvah. I believe that he used the Hebrew word and the Jewish concept purposely and quite deliberately. He wanted to concentrate on its Jewish significance, otherwise he would never have used the Hebrew word. As we have seen, the word signifies in its etymological sense, a turn and a return. A new direction in Christian-Jewish relationships and history; a different relationship in the Church’s relationship to itself, to the Jews and in so far as Catholics may have acted in ways contrary to God’s word, a new relationship with God. It is one thing to condemn anti-Semitism in general and by anyone, anywhere. It is another thing to condemn it here by us and in the immediate past. But condemning it is not enough. A new way, a new direction is now required of us and what Cardinal Cassidy in his carefully constructed remarks was pointing to was a new way.

The Hebrew word teshuvah used in some of the bishops statements and in the document We Remember, clearly affirms that now and henceforth the Catholic community has learned that a new relationship must exist between the Church and the Jewish people. A new understanding of Judaism on the part of Catholics. A deepening relationship toward one another is necessary. A solidarity is envisioned whereby we could work together toward healing in good faith. A recognition that we needed to work together for mutual goals of redemption of “tikun olam,” the repairing of the world… and we have to do it as brothers.

I have no way of knowing whether Cardinal Cassidy was aware of Baecks statement, that penance is not the heart of teshuvah but a new self; a new path, and a new direction that would never again repeat the way of the past and its cruelty. But I am sure that he was not stressing penance but rather recognition of a past that had begun to change with Nostra Aetate and the Guidelines and Notes. With the Papal statements and the visit to the Synagogue in Rome, and with the continuing efforts on the part of the Vatican and the Church to clarify its relations to the Jewish past and future.

I am sure that Cardinal Cassidy was fully aware of Maimonides’ statement that true repentance meant to face the same situation and act differently. As we have seen, the Pope embodied teshuvah in the Maimonidean sense in his many statements and actions directed toward reconciliation. And teshuvah, was also embodied in the agreement establishing full diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See when it provided for united effort on the part of the Catholic Church everywhere to fight anti-Semitism wherever it may occur.

The highest theological significance has been given by the Pope to the Shoah. It is a warning cry, that the suffering people of Israel has given to the world. That not just Jews or Christians but all human beings shall never again be degraded and dehumanized and treated like non-persons. But that all human beings created in the divine image shall be given a place in the sun to live in peace and the prophetic vision be realized that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation or learn war anymore but each person shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree and none shall make them afraid.”