All the Sons of Abraham: Jewish-Christian Relations at the Close of the Century

The steadfast piety of the Jews, who have been oppressed and persecuted in every age, remains the greatest force of conscience in world history. In our own time the Holocaust presents the most disturbing portrait of the state of that conscience. How such a thing is even possible in the heart of man needs to be understood.

On September 1, 1987, at a papal meeting in Castel Gandolfo, the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews announced its plan to release a document on the Shoah. Now that Edward Cardinal Cassidy and his commission have completed their work, it only makes sense to ask—what’s the Church supposed to do with it?

More than ten years in the making, We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah is clearly the product of much committee discussion and debate. A lot was compromised. Jewish leaders in the United States in particular are concerned that the document lacks the forthrightness expressed on several occasions by Cardinal Cassidy and the pope himself. At their most critical, such Jewish leaders assert that the hierarchy failed to declare the degree to which Christianity, in its history, teaching, and liturgical practice, made the rise of Nazism possible. The disastrous consequences of Christian belief and practice, they maintain, must be acknowledged. With talk like this in the air, one wonders how the document will not be forged into an instrument of further division.

Regardless of race or creed, all men are created in the image and likeness of God. It is for this reason that genocide of any kind and the persecution of any human group is wholly condemned by the Catholic Church as an offense against the unity of the human family. But for Christians, whose faith has its historical origins in Abraham’s covenant with God, the attempted destruction of the Jewish people is a further crime that strikes at our moral heart.

To cite a phrase that occurs four times in the four page document, the Shoah is also a fact of this century. There is something important in this detail: As we prepare ourselves for the coming millennium, it is the religious obligation of every Christian to purify himself of the influences and tendencies that have made this century the bloodiest in human history.

Revelation has taught all faithful Christians to discern in the passage of history the signs of divine providence at work. Through the tragedy of the Shoah, what else are we called to witness and condemn, but the deformity of man that follows from his turning against God? It is our religious duty, therefore, in the spirit of purification, to reflect on the history of the last century, and the fact of the Holocaust in particular, and learn what we can from it in our effort to draw closer to God. It is important to take this in the right way.

We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah is a document deeply concerned with history. It traces the history of Jewish persecution down through the centuries, the historical rise of the Nazi Party, the history of anti-Semitism as a modern ideology, and the path of salvation history as containing the purpose of all human history from creation to the end of time. It is in the context of this concern for the religious meaning of human history that the document quotes John Paul II within its first few sentences:

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 counterwitness and scandal.

This reference to the Holy Father’s apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente is crucial. In the course of that letter, the pope explains how totalitarianism remains the single greatest challenge to Christianity in this century. The connection is simple: Apart from whatever the Holocaust might mean for the history of Jewish-Christian relations, the Shoah is a singular example of totalitarianism’s power and possibility. The horror of the Shoah thus demands that Jews and Christians work and pray together to resist the power in man that works to refute the power of God. In the same way Israel’s flight from Egypt recounted in sacred Scripture provides a continuing reminder of God’s saving hand in the lives of the chosen people, so now the Church recalls the awesome evil of the Shoah in order to remind us that with God’s help evil can be overcome in history.

The deepest problem with this reading is that to many it dismisses Jewish suffering at the hands of the Nazis in return for a theological hope available principally to Christians. But what if Christianity made Nazism possible in the first place? Aren’t some Christians to blame for the Shoah? And isn’t some public repentance now required for a shameful history of persecution that simply came to its natural conclusion in the Holocaust?

Here the Vatican document makes a distinction. Anti-Judaism is a dislike for the teachings of a particular religion. The Jewish rejection of Christian revelation, for example, is understandably troubling to Christians, whose faith in Christ requires no apology. Anti-Semitism, however, is a thoroughly modern doctrine of racial superiority that locates neither its roots nor the pseudoscientific basis for its claims inside Christian tradition. In this regard the document is unequivocal. Following the constant teaching of the Church on the unity of the human race, anti-Semitism, like racism of any kind, is wholly without justification and absolutely condemnable. Racism is simply to be deplored as a negation of the deepest identity of the human being—a person created in the image and likeness of God. Quoting at some length the Second Vatican Council’s declaration Nostra Aetate, the document even more solemnly pronounces:

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.

These condemnations of anti-Semitism and the clear teaching of the Church since the Second Vatican Council aside, We Remember still asks “whether the Nazi persecution of the Jews was not made easier by the anti-Jewish prejudices imbedded in some Christian minds and hearts.” Again, motivated by a recent declaration of Pope John Paul II, these words contain the core theological reflection of the document.

On October 31, 1997, before a Vatican symposium studying the history of anti-Jewish sentiment in the Christian world, the pope called for a correction. Theological interpretations in our tradition, he noted, “contributed to a lulling of many consciences” when much of Europe was swept away by the anti-Semitism of the National Socialist Party. This is regretful. The Church needs to recognize this tendency and purge it from her way of life. But this is not the whole story.

Nazi ideology refused to acknowledge any transcendent reality as the source of life. The regime acknowledged no criterion of moral good. With its idolatry of race and of the state, Nazi doctrine—on a theological level—was equally inimical to Christian belief and practice as it was to that of the Jews, for it “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.” In this way, We Remember concludes, the “Shoah was the work of a thoroughly modern neopagan regime.” And yet, despite wide Christian persecution at the hands of the Nazi state, former Christians were not the object, but the orchestrators of the final solution. The human possibility of this action alone lays a heavy burden of conscience upon the whole Christian world. It is the religious memory of this action that the Church now hopes to purify. But it is a memory that the Church calls all men, Jew and Christian alike, to search for its deepest meaning.

Rabbi Marc Saperstein, professor of history and director of the Judaic Studies program at George Washington University, recently has denied the claim that the teachings of Christianity were responsible for the Shoah: “The Holocaust is the policy of a people’s annihilation. Nowhere does such a thing ever appear as a possibility in the teaching of the hierarchy.” Nonetheless, there is a concern that a people were demonized for centuries and genocide was the result. “The Germans did not become Nazis because they were anti-Semites. They became Jew-killers because the Nazi Party addressed other concerns that were important to them.” For Saperstein, the call to repentance required by the Vatican document is an internal affair of the Church that he believes no Jew has a right to demand. “I only hope that we could muster a similar courage of those who protected Jews, if faced with a similar challenge.” Obviously, no Christian could ever rightly demand of a Jew Saperstein’s magnanimity. What then does We Remember hope to achieve if so little can be required in justice?

Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose from the dead, the Incarnate Son of God born a Jew in Bethlehem of Judea. The whole path of salvation history is utterly devoid of meaning once it is separated from the people of Israel whom the Lord God chose as his own. Our century, however, has called for the annihilation of the Jewish people. Because their destruction is a direct attack on all men of conscience, all men of good will must reflect on the conditions that allowed it to pass. But still more is here.

The Jews remain the moral heart of man. If we are to share a single messianic hope as the sons of Abraham, we must share a common history and witness a single truth. Christians have to purge from their past all that threatens that truth. At the close of this century the Church is calling the Jews to Christ. If they are to hear us, our hearts must be pure.


  • Samuel Casey Carter

    Samuel Casey Carter, formerly the associate editor of Crisis, is the president of Carter Research.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...