Dialogika

"Zero-Tolerance for Holocaust Denial in the Catholic Church"



On 27 January 2009 people worldwide marked an annual Holocaust commemoration. This date was chosen because it falls on the anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Approximately two-thirds of Europe’s nine million Jews died in Nazi concentration camps, along with hundreds of thousands of others, such as the Roma, the disabled, and homosexuals. This is a historical fact which cannot be denied. To deny the Holocaust is to deny history. It is a moral affront. Holocaust denial is moreover recognized as a crime in countries such as Germany and here in Belgium. More than half a century after the Holocaust took place in Europe we are still witnessing acts of anti-Semitism, at an alarming rate. Silence and complacency in the face of such racism is not an option.

Since the Second Vatican Council and the ground-breaking document Nostra Aetate (1965), the Catholic Church has fundamentally changed in its attitude towards Jews and Judaism. The collective theological charge against the Jews as Christ-killers and an eternally cursed people was condemned along with all forms of anti-Semitism. This reforming and ecumenical spirit was embodied in Pope John Paul II’s statement (17 November 1980, Mainz, Germany) that the Jews remain “the people of God of the Old Covenant, which has never been revoked”. Jews are our covenantal partners, and in their election remain beloved of God (Rom 11,28). The Church’s 1998 document, We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah denounces any misguided acts that have been committed on behalf of the Church’s “sons and daughters” and definitively puts to rest any spectre of Catholic Holocaust denial. It refers to the Shoah as the “killing of millions of Jews” and remarks that it “is a major fact of the history of this century, a fact which still concerns us today.” Any act of the Church in our day that goes against this, by any of its sons and daughters, undermines the Church’s own moral authority as well as doing untold damage to Catholic-Jewish relations. As a matter of integrity, the Church needs to uphold its own teaching and discipline in its own household. As such, it ought to practise zero-tolerance against any form of Holocaust denial or negationism within its own ranks.

We are deeply concerned by the recent events in our Church not only because they have caused distress to our Jewish brothers and sisters but also because they have disturbed Catholics faithful to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. The Church’s internal gestures towards potential reconciliation with the Priestly Society of Saint Pius X have done much to both alienate our Jewish partners in interfaith dialogue and also numerous faithful within the Church. The easing of restrictions on the extraordinary use of the Tridentine liturgy, generally seen as a concession to the Priestly Society, also includes the papal revision of the old Latin Good Friday Prayer. This rite includes prayers for the conversion of Jews, which the ordinary Roman Missal of 1970 consciously removed. There was much opposition from both Jewish and Catholic circles to the revised Good Friday Prayer. The more recent lifting of the excommunication of four bishops of the Priestly Society has led to further disengagement by Jewish interfaith groups, particularly in light of the interview by Richard Williamson in which he explicitly denied that the Nazis used gas chambers. For many Catholics, the issue has now moved beyond theological categories into the moral realm. At what price do the potential gains in internal reconciliation outweigh the already hard-won achievements in Catholic-Jewish dialogue that took decades to attain? We find it significant that Cardinal Walter Kasper (President of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews and honorary Doctor of the K.U.Leuven) has pointed out that there is still a long way to go from the lifting of the excommunication of the four Priestly Society bishops towards their full reunion with the Catholic Church. This is hopeful because it leaves no doubt that for this to happen an unambiguous and public distancing from any form of negationism is the absolute minimum precondition.

We Remember ended on a burning note: “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 warning it entails: the spoiled seeds of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism must never again be allowed to take root in any human heart.” As a moral voice that speaks out against oppression wherever and whenever it arises in the world, the Catholic Church cannot be silent.

Reimund Bieringer and Didier Pollefeyt are both professors at the Faculty of Theology, K.U. Leuven.