The Catholic Church and the Holocaust

Auschwitz today is a deceptively peaceful place. Walking down the tree-lined streets between the red brick dormitories, you can easily imagine yourself on the grounds of a small New England college. There are few outward signs that an estimated 1.5 million people were slaughtered here.

One of them was a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Teresia Benedicta of the Cross. On Oct. 11, Sister Teresia Benedicta — who is better known by her given name of Edith Stein — was formally declared a saint and martyr by Pope John Paul II.

The canonization of a saint is not usually an occasion for controversy. The case of Edith Stein, however, is different. Stein was born a Jew, and she converted to Roman Catholicism later in life. While the Vatican claims Stein was martyred because of her Christian faith, many Jews argue that she was murdered because of her Jewish blood. Some of them have gone so far as to accuse the Church of attempting to “Christianize” the Holocaust in order to play down Catholic complicity in Nazi atrocities.

This controversy comes at a time when relations between Jews and Roman Catholics are actually improving. John Paul II has made reconciliation with Jews a priority of his papacy. He is the first pope to have visited one of the chief synagogues of Rome. Under his direction the Vatican has taken steps toward the diplomatic recognition of the state of Israel. And in March of this year he issued a statement of repentance for the Church’s inactivity during the Holocaust.

While these developments are welcome — and long overdue — the controversy over Edith Stein’s canonization indicates that far more needs to be done to improve Catholic-Jewish relations. The Catholic Church as a whole is certainly far less anti-Semitic than it was even a generation ago, but it still occasionally acts in ways that reveal a certain insensitivity toward and lack of understanding of Jewish concerns.

Catholics, myself included, who truly wish for a reconciliation with Jews must go much further than just repenting for the Holocaust. Before going to confession, a Roman Catholic is supposed to undertake an “examination of conscience” — a thorough consideration of one’s past sins. The time has come for the Catholic Church to examine its collective conscience.

Catholic anti-Semitism began long before the twentieth century. For centuries, Catholics persecuted Jews, crowding them into ghettos, forcing them to convert to Christianity, and frequently killing them. For centuries, Catholics accused Jews of ritually murdering Christian children, engaging in sorcery, poisoning wells and desecrating images of Christ. For centuries, Catholics were taught that Jews — all Jews — were cursed because they had killed Christ, a position that was not officially condemned until 1965.

This is not to say that Catholic bigotry was the sole cause of the Holocaust. After all, Nazi anti-Semitism was a matter of racist pseudo-science, scapegoating and simple hatred, as well as bad theology. Still, centuries of Christian anti-Jewish teachings and polemics created a fertile ground for Nazi actions in Germany and apathy toward the plight of the Jews elsewhere. And while Catholic officials condemned violence against the Jews, some — such as Cardinal Augustus Hlond of Poland — openly approved of non-violent anti-Jewish discrimination.

The greatest failings of Roman Catholics, however, came not in action but in inaction. All too often, the Catholic clergy and laity remained silent while Jews were persecuted and killed. The case of Edith Stein is instructive here.

By showing what Catholics could — and should — have done, the events leading up to Stein’s death provide an opportunity to examine Catholic complicity in the Holocaust, rather than obscure it as critics have charged.

In 1942, while Stein was a refugee in Holland, the Nazis made an offer to the Dutch Catholic bishops. If the bishops did not speak up against the deportation of Jews from Holland, the Nazis would spare Jews who had converted to Catholicism. The bishops refused and instead issued a letter denouncing the deportations and other Nazi actions against Jews. The Nazis in turn arrested Stein and other Jewish converts and shipped them off to concentration camps.

Here, then, is an example of Catholic action in the face of anti-Semitism. Unlike Pope Pius XII, who was reluctant to denounce the Nazis for fear they would attack the Church, the Dutch bishops spoke out, even though they had been warned of the consequences. Despite the threat to their fellow Catholics, the Dutch bishops did not turn their backs on the Jews. The question for Catholics today — and for anyone concerned about anti-Semitism — is why so many others did.

Stephen A. Allen is a doctoral candidate in the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame and a writer for the History News Service.

[The Medieval Institute, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556-5692. e-mail:]