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Vatican Apology for Holocaust


April 8, 1998

The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Transcript

Last month, the Vatican issued a 14-page report that apologized for the Catholic Church's silence during the Holocaust. Following a background report, Margaret Warner and guests discuss the apology and its historic significance.

A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
April 8, 1998
A background report on the Vatican's report.

February 28, 1997
The Swiss government established a $71 million compensation fund for Holocaust survivors.

December 17, 1996
Remembering Holocaust victims through food.

May 24, 1996
Prof. Daniel Goldhagen talks with David Gergen about his book, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.

Browse the NewsHour's coverage of Europe and religion.
The text of We Remember: Reflection On The Shoah.
The Web site of The Holy See.

MARGARET WARNER: Joining us now are two men involved in trying to improve Catholic-Jewish relations. Eugene Fisher is a lay consultant to the Vatican committee that drafted the document. He's also associate director of the Inter-Religious Affairs Committee at the National Conference of U.S. Catholic Bishops. And Rabbi James Rudin, he joined Eugene Fisher and others in Rome to receive and comment on the Vatican paper. He is the national inter-religious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee. In addition, we turn to two figures from academia: Father Richard McBrien teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame and recently authored a book called The Lives of the Popes, and Deborah Lipstadt is a professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University. She also works with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Gene Fisher, what is the most important message of this document? What is it you were trying to say?

The document's message.

Eugene Fisher EUGENE FISHER: I think the document, the most important message is the mandate it gives to Holocaust studies to Catholic institutions, schools, colleges, universities, to engage in Holocaust studies, hopefully with Jewish colleagues, to probe the history and to set up a frame work in which education that can take place in the next generation, in which we can achieve a mature understanding of the Holocaust and how to fit that into our understanding of humanity and our teaching of the Catholic religions.

MARGARET WARNER: So you see it as a beginning?

EUGENE FISHER: Oh, yes. And that's exactly how Cardinal Cassidy saw it, and he's the author of what I tend to think that's what he wrote.

MARGARET WARNER: Rabbi Rudin, do you consider this document an achievement?

Rabbi James Rudin RABBI JAMES RUDIN: I consider it part of a continuum that's been going on since 1965. I think there's very strong, passionate material in there, particularly about remembering the Holocaust, the uniqueness, the Jewish victims. They were killed because they were Jews. There's a call to repentance, and there's a call to resolve. I don't think there's enough in there about responsibility of the Church for the period, particularly 1933 to 1945. I see it as a continuum. I'm disappointed, though, and it doesn't speak with as much vigor and strength and power as it could have, but there is much in it that can be used. My fear is--Dr. Fisher is quite right, he talks about education--which part of the document will be emphasized at Catholic universities, Catholic colleges, and seminaries. I wish it had spoken with a stronger single voice of real power.

MARGARET WARNER: Father McBrien, what's your assessment of the document?

Problems with the document.

Rev. Richard McBrien REV. RICHARD McBRIEN: Well, it's a good document in many respects, but the problem is the bar has already been set higher at the time this document came out. It had been the first official effort on the part of Catholic leadership to address the very sensitive issue of the Holocaust. I think Jews and Catholics alike would have generally applauded it. But the fact is the bar has been raised in recent years. The German bishops in commemorating the liberation of the prisoners at Auschwitz in 1995 issued a statement in which they acknowledge the guilt of the Church as an institution of pastoral leaders of the Church, and also then last year the French bishops on an anniversary of another, one of the unfortunate moments in French history, the deportation of French Jews to Auschwitz, they too acknowledged the guilt of the Church as such and asked for the forgiveness of the Jews. This document does not do that. It makes a very clear distinction between members of the Church who may have been guilty of crimes or at least silence, and the Church as such, which was not involved. It also talks about the fact that the sources of anti-Semitism don't come from within Christianity, itself, but from outside of Christianity. The German and French bishops acknowledge that it's also been within our tradition and our liturgy and our catechesis and our preaching, and so it's not a question of saying this is not a good document, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves as Catholic, but, rather, in the light of the fact that the bar has been raised quite considerably in 1995 and then against last year by the German and French bishops, this document doesn't make it. The bar--they crash into the bar, and they fall. They have to try again. They have to go higher. And I think the next person to do the pole vaulting is Pope John Paul II, himself, and I think he's manifestly capable of achieving that higher range that will be satisfying to Catholics and Jews alike.

MARGARET WARNER: Gene Fisher, why doesn't the report go further in talking about the responsibility of the Church as an institution?

Margaret Warner and Guests EUGENE FISHER: I think it's important ultimately to note that John Paul II raised the bar for all Catholics in that sense, so that one of the things that I think they were grappling with when they drafted the document was that the majority of the world's billion Catholics are not even in the arena to jump at the bar. For most Catholics around the world this is their first exposure to the issue. And I think they felt they had to be rather nuanced in the language and to lead them to the point of a collective sentence, statement of penitence, which helps at the end, collectively, part of the Church as a whole. So it does speak rather generally--it's trying to bring people into the arena. That's why I call it a mandate and a beginning. I wouldn't see it as ending the discussion of the history, that it summarizes very briefly, the--it's a much richer history, and there are many darker pages. My predecessor, Father Edward Flannery, always used to say that we Christians have torn out of our textbooks just the pages that the Jews remember. And I think there's a lot of truth to that. And I think this document needs some of those other pages that the Jews remember from all those centuries. That's why we need to make this engagement to help move it on, but I would focus on--the success of the document, I think would be in how it's implemented around the world and whether it does mandate and it does result in more Holocaust studies and more Holocaust education. There's nothing in the document that limits where that circle of research goes. It just calls for a study.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me get Professor Lipstadt in here. Professor Lipstadt, how do you judge the document as a piece of religious history?

" So while there are many excellent things...there's much to build on...."

Deborah Lipstadt DEBORAH LIPSTADT: I address it with a great deal of sorrow because it was highly anticipated. We looked forward to this document. And it seems to me while there's much in it that's good and is an acknowledgment of wrongdoing, there's a definition of the Shoah, I think Rabbi Rudin mentioned that. That is an accurate definition saying that men, women, and children were murdered, tortured, et cetera, just because they were Jews. It acknowledges the primacy of the Shoah as a fact and as an issue for today. But, then there are certain points where it seems the authors of the document went--reached the abyss, looked in, and couldn't make--they had a leap of faith, or they lost the leap--they couldn't achieve the leap of faith that was necessary. For instance, when they talk about Christians who stood silent, while Jews cried out for help, they say many helped, others did not. That's a totally backward statement, really. Some helped; most did not. And it almost denigrates the activities of those few who were brave enough, those Christians who were brave enough, many of whom were Catholics, who were brave enough to help Jews at that time. And there are other places--this tends to set this, I think, false dichotomy, speaking as an historian, between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism and to suggests that Nazi anti-Semitism was something that grew up ex-Nihilo, out of nothing. In truth, that without the anti-Judaism--much of it anti-Semitism--of the New Testament, or at least in the way the New Testament has been interpreted and taught, there would have been no Nazism, and there would have been no Holocaust. I'm not saying that it was inevitable, but it is a direct outgrowth. So while there are many excellent things, and many things to be praised, and there's much to build on, I think the nuances sometimes were a little too nuanced.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you, Rabbi Rudin, stay with--because I want to get to the anti-Semitism climate--but first the responsibility at the time. You talked about not enough statement of responsibility. What do you think this report should have said about the responsibility of the Church leadership, the Vatican leadership at that time to have done more to save the Jews?

Rabbi James Rudin RABBI JAMES RUDIN: Ironically, the Pope's very brief introductory letter, which is part of the document, uses the word "responsibility," and I found is letter, brief as it was, much more compelling than the longer document that followed. It's as if he probably wrote that himself, and then a committee, I think it's very clear, wrote the larger document. And when you have a committee, it gets cut and pieced together. I would have preferred, given 11 years, given that people were waiting for it, given that there were high expectations, given, as we've heard, the bar is placed much higher, a forthright, very direct, very powerful commitment not only on the repentance and remembrance and resolve, but the responsibility. Yes, there is a connection between what the teaching of contempt that we carried out--

MARGARET WARNER: The teaching of contempt, if you could explain--

RABBI JAMES RUDIN: Meaning Christian teaching of contempt for Jews and Judaism, which is very much a part of Catholic teaching and Catholic understanding of itself from the Pope on down, that that should have been in there. And instead we have a kind of a statement that looks like it was written by lawyers and historians, trying to cover all kinds of bases so that it couldn't--the Church couldn't be accused of anything. And as a Jew and as a Rabbi, I did find perhaps the most outrageous part was the fact that this was a neo-pagan example of anti-Semitism, as if--and the language came out very strongly--outside of Christianity. And yet, if the same document says the Shoah took place in the heart of what is called Christian civilization. So it's as if there's a tension there. And I would have liked the authors to have broken that tension and after 33 years of really good Catholic/Jewish relations to have broken forth into some new ground.

Margaret Warner and Rev. McBrien MARGARET WARNER: Father McBrien, you are a Catholic and a priest. Why do you think the document didn't do that?

"...too subtle, too restrained, too diplomatic in its language."

REV. RICHARD McBRIEN: Well, I'm also an ecclesiologist, which sounds like a specialist of some organ of the body, but that means I specialized in the life of the Church. And that also takes into account how the Church teaches and analysis of Church pronouncements and documents. The Catholic Church almost never acknowledges mistakes institutionally. It's more--as I pointed out in an article in the Boston Globe over this--it's like American politicians when they're caught doing something, they say mistakes were made. But they don't say, I made a mistake, I did something wrong, or we did something wrong. The former mayor of New York said, Fiorella LaGuardia, when I make a mistake, it's a beaut. They don't do that normally. There's a much more greater reluctance. I found the document for that reason too subtle, too restrained, too diplomatic in its language. I think it should have been forthright. And I think it would have had an enormously positive effect not only in the Jewish community but in the Catholic community as well. I do agree with Gene Fisher wholeheartedly. For a lot of Catholics this is going to be new stuff. I mean, there are some people who wonder what the Holocaust is. But, on the other hand, we have to bring those--bring the members of our Church up to the point where we already are. And we're already where the French and bishops--French and German bishops brought us in '95 and '98.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Lipstadt, do you, as an historian, do you think that a different kind of leadership of the Catholic Church could have actually made a difference for many Jews in Europe, and what's your reading of history tell you about why they didn't?

Deborah Lipstadt DEBORAH LIPSTADT: Well, I think historians tend to veer away from--or, I as a historian tend to veer away from what if, could have, should have questions, but let me attempt this one. I think it could have made a difference. And I'll tell you when I think it could have made a difference, possibly not in '42, '43, '44, but it could have made a difference in 1933, 1934, and 1935, at the very beginning. And let's not forget that one of the first international agreements, if not the first one, that the Nazi regime signed is a Concord--with the Vatican signed in, I believe, it's July 1933. So those kind of early attempts to work with the Nazis, to overlook their overt anti-Semitism, was expressed right at the beginning, I think leads to the Nazi regime feeling--the German regime feeling that it could do what it wanted. The Vatican wasn't alone in its failure to criticize early on, but signing that agreement, I think, is something that can't be ignored. So that's a very disturbing event. I think one also must acknowledge the bravery of individual nuns, individual priests, convents, seminaries, bishops throughout the Catholic Church, who took great risks, at great risks to their own lives attempted to save Jews, hide Jews. In Vilna, there were was a small convent of nine nuns where they hid thirteen Jews. There were more Jews hiding there than there were nuns. So I think there were those who acted with great bravery, and they deserve to be celebrated, but let's not translate their actions into the actions of the masses, because that wasn't what happened.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Gene Fisher, address the points that you just heard and particularly also what Father McBrien said about his view that the Church is reluctant to acknowledge institutional failure.

Margaret Warner and Guests EUGENE FISHER: I think that it's true. I think part of the reason on this level for this document had to do with any sentence that comes from the universal church to the universal church triggers something a bit more than either the French or the German bishops did, which is there the notion of the Church as the mystical body of Christ is the sacrament of Christ in the encounter between God and humanity, so to say in that sense the Church sinned becomes a statement that would be very confusing to a lot of Catholics. I wanted to go back to that distinction between--

MARGARET WARNER: Go right ahead.

EUGENE FISHER: --anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, which the document makes but doesn't really define. I would define it in this way. Anti-Judaism is what it sounds like. Judaism is the religion--this is--anti-Judaism is a theological polemic against Judaism, developed by Christianity in the early centuries, misinterpreting the New Testament, and it came to be called in our age by Jewells E. Zachary the teaching of contempt. That ended up pinpointing the Jews as, in a sense, a pariah people in Europe. Modern racial anti-Semitism is a little different thing. That defines humanity as composed of various--there's the real humanity and there are sub-groups who are not fully human. And that way you can rationalize the slave trade, which we Americans did. We rationalized it by saying that the African-Americans were not fully human. Therefore, we could do anything we wanted to these chattel.

MARGARET WARNER: Can I--let me let--

Eugene Fisher EUGENE FISHER: Let me finish. Let me finish. So there is a connection between the two. Anti-Judaism in a sense over the centuries prepared the soil, but the modern neo-pagan racial theory was distinct from that, and it really is contrary to the ancient teaching of the Church. So what one comes out with, the way I would phrase it is the way Professor Josef Juro Shami did some years ago, that the Christian teaching of contempt was a necessary cause but it wasn't a sufficient cause. Let simply on its own you don't get to Auschwitz from the New Testament. A lot of other things have to happen, so a simple, mono-causal type of view that goes from the New Testament to Auschwitz is not helpful for understanding.

MARGARET WARNER: We're about out of time but Rabbi Rudin, on that point.

The historical significance.

RABBI JAMES RUDIN: Well, to Deborah and to me, who are the victim people, this has made very interesting academics, but there's no doubt that the anti-Judaism created a seed bed which made the anti-Semitism possible. One last quick point that's been overlooked in a lot of this--this document fifty or a hundred years from now will be a refutation of all those people who want to deny that the Holocaust ever took place. This is very clear, from the Pope on down, the Holocaust did happen. This is what it was, this is how it happened, and these are the people against whom it was directed. And that's often missed and extremely important.

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