Father John Pawlikowski is a Professor of Ethics and Director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at the Catholic Theological Union. Dr. Pawlikowski’s extensive study of the Nazi Holocaust has enabled him to appreciate the ethical challenges facing the human community as it struggles with power and responsibility.
His scholarly interests include the theological and ethical aspects of the Christian-Jewish relationship and public ethics. Dr. Pawlikowski is also president of the International Council of Christians and Jews and author of Christ in the Light of the Christian Jewish Dialogue and co-editor of Ethics in the Shadow of the Holocaust.
For more than forty years, Father John Pawlikowski has urged Catholics and others to confront the long history of Christian anti-Semitism.
He is interviewed by Dan Leshem, program manager of the Holocaust Denial on Trial website.
Can you please give us a brief explanation of how you came to work on the Catholic/Jewish interfaith relationship in general, and on the Holocaust in particular?
Well, sometimes I joke that my start came somewhat through the stomach, because I grew up in the shadow of a very large orthodox synagogue in Chicago, and in a way my first contacts with Judaism were there. But in an interesting way, I’m not sure why I really was motivated to some extent to get as deeply involved in the Christian/Jewish issue. I guess it was because I had met people and these professors were very influential, and convinced me that this was a responsibility that Christians had to take up because of the history of anti-Semitism and also the Holocaust. And of course I see a relationship between the two.
I had met early on Father Edward Flannery, who wrote the first kind of comprehensive volume on Christian anti-Semitism as well as the late sister Rose Thering, with whom I worked with in Chicago, which was her first job, and got to know the textbook studies.
In my work at the University of Chicago I was asked by Rabbi Marc Tannenbaum, of the American Jewish Committee, to do something with the studies on Catholic textbooks relative to the image of Jews and Judaism that had been done at St. Louis University but which never had been organized really for publication. And I did that so my first book was Catechetics and Prejudice, which summarized and critiqued the findings from the St. Louis studies and made suggestions for further development.
I really did become convinced that both confronting anti-Semitism and building a new constructive relationship between Jews and Christians was, I think, a very important responsibility for Christians and Christian scholars. And this became even more important in the light of this declaration of the Second Vatican Council.
There’s an additional side of myself, in a way, that I think came into this. My professional work at the University of Chicago wasn’t social ethics. And so I’ve always seen the issue of anti-Semitism, and particularly the issue of the Holocaust, as very central issues in terms of trying to think about social ethics. I believe that particularly the Holocaust hits a lot of the major issues confronting modern day society. So I’ve had that interest and I’ve done a fair amount of work, even in a more generic way, apart from the specifically Catholic/Jewish issues on contemporary ethical implications of the Holocaust.
Throughout your books and public statements it sounds like you are emphasizing a dual obligation for the Church. On the one hand it’s responsible to itself to maintain its moral relevancy in the present day. At the same time you suggest that it’s responsible to those outside the Church, to other religious groups in general, to Jews in particular, and especially to Holocaust survivors and victims.
Well, I have always argued, in part as a social ethicist, that if the Catholic Church, or the Christian Churches, and for that matter any religious community, is to exercise a positive role in addressing some of the major problems in contemporary society — which I strongly feel religious institutions need to do — that cannot be done with integrity unless they also confront their dark side and how they have encouraged violence. Until they sort of cleanse themselves, engage in a sort of chemotherapy on their religious tradition in terms of the use of violence, they really are in a very bad place to begin to try to address more contemporary issues.
For the Christian Churches certainly one of the very dark sides of its tradition is the treatment of Jews and Judaism over the centuries and how that really engendered considerable violence and even perhaps as some have argued, people like Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, that the development of this anti-Jewish attitude was the first instance of the legitimization of violence, even in the Biblical tradition and in the early Church, that made possible other forms of violence as a legitimate option.
So, I do see a connection. I think that there is a need; part of the process of cleansing the tradition from violence is reconciliation with those who were victimized by it. Now, you know, you can’t go back and reconcile with people who lived seven/eight hundred years ago and who were victims of this violence, but I think you can make amends and reconcile with those who are sort of their heirs today. And so I see the need for reconciliation with the Jewish community. I think Pope John Paul II gave us some excellent examples along those lines. I’m very concerned that that example doesn’t seem to really be part of the current Papacy. There isn’t that same sense of the need for reconciliation and the same kind of willingness to acknowledge failures and darkness on the part of the Catholic/Christian tradition, particularly with respect to Jews and Judaism.
What is Pope John Paul II’s legacy in the realm of Catholic/Jewish relations, and how is the new Pope Benedict both accepting and revising those patterns?
Well I think John Paul II’s legacy, in addition to this willingness to acknowledge the dark side of the Catholic/Christian tradition on the question of Jews and Judaism, constructively argued for the notion that Jews remain very much in a covenantal relationship, argued that there is a special bonding, theological bonding, between Jews and Christians.
Now he didn’t work those things out in a highly systematic fashion, but I think he gave a very, very positive thrust and opened the doors for theologians to reflect further on those kinds of questions. And I think that was very positive.
Now it seems to me that Pope Benedict began his Papacy, if you look at some of his initial meetings with Jewish leadership, whether Itzchak (8:18) or some other groups, he kind of in a very generic fashion affirmed his commitment to positive Catholic/Jewish relations, he said he wanted to follow in the footsteps of John Paul and so on. He initially made his own a couple of the statement of John Paul. He also has strongly condemned anti-Semitism. And thirdly I think he, really he’s certainly no Holocaust denier. On the contrary, I think he certainly has expressed a revulsion against the Holocaust in general.
The problem is, as I see it, that on the theological side — though he has in this most generic fashion, said he wanted to follow in the footsteps of John Paul II — he has done a number of things, perhaps most notably the revision of the Good Friday Prayer, which seemed in the judgment of us deeply involved in the dialogue, to be undercutting the vision of John Paul and perhaps also undercutting the vision of the Second Vatican Council. I think in terms of the Holocaust again, the problem is that he tends — and he did this in his response last week to the crisis over the St. Pius X Society — he speaks in very strong language about the horrors of the Holocaust, but it’s very generic language. “It’s an attack on humanity.” It doesn’t really… He does, I mean I won’t say he doesn’t single out the Jews, but what he absolutely seems to refrain from, and this is where he is quite different from John Paul, he just does not see it as something that involved in a significant way the collaboration of Christians at all levels ‐ grassroots level, leadership level, and so on. And, you know, there’s a couple statement he’s made where, “Yeah, okay, there were a few bad apples,” but in terms of really confronting the failure of the Christian Churches in the way that for example John Paul did on the first Sunday of Lent in 2000 and then again in the statement he put in the Western Wall in Jerusalem, we have none of that from Benedict.
Even, I was with him when he went to Birkenau, and again, I mean, he was very tired at that point; it was quite visible. Visibly tired. It was the very last event before he went home. But his speech again was just this generic attack on the Holocaust. Which is, I mean there’s nothing wrong, I think, but basically he sees it as a Pagan phenomenon, which threatened all religion.
Now, many of us who have studied the Holocaust would say, “Yes, that’s an element of it, but it’s not the full dimension.” And without the collaboration of Christians in large part because of the history of Christian anti-Semitism and the history of theological anti-Judaism, I don’t think the ideology of Nazism would have come upon as fertile a reception as it did. I’ve always said that I think the Christian anti-Semitism provided an indispensable seed bed for the success of Nazism at the grassroots level. You can certainly say that at the theological level it was involved with biological racism and all that. That certainly has to be said. But to sort of factor out the Catholic anti-Semitic or the Christian anti-Semitic dimension is I think to falsify the real reason why the Nazis were as successful as they were.
Given Pope Benedict’s more ambiguous commitment to Catholic/Jewish reconciliation, the Jewish community recently erupted in anger over Benedict’s rehabilitation of several Bishops from the Society for St. Pius X. They are particularly hurt since one member of the Society, Bishop Richard Williamson, is an outspoken Holocaust denier. Can you please give us some background on the Society and the recent controversy?
Well, this Society was formed by one of the Bishops who was at the Second Vatican Council, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre from France, who basically objected to almost all the changes that the Second Vatican Council was proposing and then eventually passed. One of those changes of course occurred in Chapter 4 of the Declaration on Non-Christian Religions about the wholesale transformation by the Council in the understanding of the Christian/Jewish relationship, and he refused to accept that. Eventually they were formally excommunicated from the Catholic Church by Pope Paul VI.
Now it is true that in these kinds of cases usually there is an attempt to try to outreach and eventually hopefully bring such people back into the fold. However, and there has been negotiations going on with them for several years now as Pope Benedict I think has made this an important aspect of his Papacy, even though this process really started under Pope John Paul II. One of the problems seems to be the man, the Cardinal who has been appointed, and was originally appointed by John Paul to sort of be the spokesperson from the Vatican side in the negotiations, Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos from Latin America, who is very, very conservative, and who I should say was the strongest supporter of the Mel Gibson film The Passion of The Christ within Vatican circles. Now, you can say there’s no connection or you can say that there may be a very important connection between his stance on the Mel Gibson film and this current situation.
Now he would’ve been the person who proposed to Pope Benedict that these four people’s excommunication be lifted. Let me be very clear; this is only a first step. It doesn’t mean they’ve been completely rehabilitated. Nor is it related to the Society as a whole; only to these four people for now. However, I think we have a disturbing situation because it is not just Bishop Williamson. And to say while it may be true that Cardinal Hoyos did not bring the full knowledge about Bishop Williamson to the attention of the Pope, which indeed is a major, major failure for which I think he should be automatically dismissed. Any person, say, serving a political leader would’ve been out on the street in a short time if he made such a horrible blunder.
I’m not sure that Cardinal Hoyos, given his stance on the Gibson film, is all that sensitive to anti-Semitism frankly. But to say, as the Vatican is now saying, that they didn’t know about his teaching… The Bishop Wilkinson (Williamson s.p.) actually was a witness in a court trial in Canada, in Calgary, of this notorious Holocaust denier (Ernst) Zundel, and actually testified on his behalf. So his record has been out there in the public. His attitudes have been out there for quite a number of years, and if you say the Vatican had no idea of this at the minimum you’re saying that you have a pretty lousy administration in the Vatican that would be so ignorant of the situation. There of course was no consultation with Cardinal Kasper as he himself says, and so on.
The issue also is about the Society, both specifically in terms of Catholic/Jewish relations, but in a wider sense also whether they’re really going to be asked to embrace the fullness of the Second Vatican Council teachings. As of last Saturday Father James Martin, who is one of the assistant editors at America magazine, indicated that on the website of the Society was still some pretty awful if not anti-Semitic at least theologically anti-Judaic notions. And whether those have now been removed I don’t know. But they were there as of last Saturday.
So the issue in a way is more than Bishop Williamson. I mean the man is pretty much a nut on lots of other issues (like women’s education). But whether the Society was going to be asked to embrace Vatican II and specifically its teaching on Catholic/Jewish relations as part of any further attempt at restoration to full Communion, only time will tell on that. I think this situation also has to be read in the light of the Good Friday Prayer and so on, and it brought up further questions as to whether Benedict was really trying to, if not totally undercut, to severely curtail the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.
So he has never given us any real clear positive statement on the theology of the Christian/Jewish relationship. On the contrary he has actually in relatively minor speeches given us some ideas which really, in my judgment and the judgment of others, really are rooted in a pre-Vatican II approach to the understanding of the Christian Jewish relationship. So, I mean, I think you have to see the current crisis as within a wider context where there already has been a serious questioning.
This of course has, I mean the astounding thing, and in some ways the positive thing, has been the anger within major parts of European Catholicism, especially in Germany but not only in Germany. A genuine embarrassment, a deep concern on the part of a number of key Catholic theological faculties including his former faculty in Muenster. Bishops have spoken out quite strongly, quite un-typically if you want, and really criticizing Benedict. And of course the strong statement by Angela Merkel, the Prime Minister of Germany, I think played a very, very important role.
He also did it at the worst possible time. This was on the eve of the annual day of observance of the Holocaust throughout Europe, which has taken on a certain special solemnity almost I think in Europe that we don’t have here in the United States even though we have an official week of observance. But I don’t think it has captured, if you want, the imagination of the American public in the same way that it has in Europe, in part because Europe actually experienced this event in a way that the United States never directly did, so I think it’s something much deeper. And in a number of European countries it’s a crime punishable by imprisonment for being a Holocaust denier. So I mean he couldn’t have done it in the worst possible time. He picked about as worse a time to do it as possible.
Since you bring it up, would you mind briefly describing the situation surrounding the Good Friday Prayer controversy?
Again, it has to be seen in terms of this effort at reconciliation with the St. Pius X crowd. Cardinal Hoyos clearly was very influential in this regard, and Cardinal Kasper seemed to have very little influence. We do know, and Cardinal Kasper himself has said, that he did make an intervention but basically got nowhere. He was told it was a done deal, and what people were saying, “Okay, if you’re going to go ahead with this greater promotion of the Tridentine Mass, why don’t you just take the Latin version of the 1970 prayer from the 1970 Missal; it already exists?” But the Pope was adamant and said that this didn’t represent the mindset of the Tridentine Mass, which on that he’s probably correct.
But the point is there is a real problem with that mindset. Basically, his prayer, although it takes away a lot of the harsh language in the original Tridentine Missal, nonetheless fundamentally is oriented towards the conversion of the Jews. The 1970 Missal really stresses the continued faithfulness and covenantal inclusion of the Jewish people without settling the question of what should happen eventually. It leaves that open, it seems to me, for theologians and other scholars to reflect on and work on over the years. So there’s a real difference there, and as I said when this prayer came out, I don’t see how the church can really speak with two voices in this regard. It’s almost like it’s contradicting [itself]. And the statement made by some Vatican spokespeople that there’s not contradiction between these two perspectives I think is absolute nonsense.
Over the past few years it seems like several high profile members of the pre-Vatican II fringe have publicly espoused Holocaust denial. Is there, in your opinion, a theological or social connection between the pre-Vatican II extremists and Holocaust denial?
Well, I wouldn’t want to say in any way that there is a straight line between Holocaust denial and more classical anti-Jewish attitudes in the Churches. Some of the people who espouse very profound anti-Jewish, anti-Semitic attitudes also wind up being Holocaust deniers. But the majority do not necessarily fall in that category. Certainly as I already said Benedict is no Holocaust denier, and even I wouldn’t say that everyone in the St. Pius X fraternity shares the vision of Bishop Williamson on this point, even though they are quite conservative and they generally embrace the anti-Judaic feelings.
Why someone becomes an absolute Holocaust denier sometimes becomes very much of a mystery that may perhaps be understood far more psychologically than theologically or any other way. I don’t know. I think one can acquire a certain sympathy for the removal of Jews because of anti-Judaic theology. But anti-Judaic theology in the main argued that Jews should be miserable and marginal in human society, not that they should be exterminated because in fact, in a rather bizarre way, the argument was that they should be kept alive as what Agustin called them as witness people, to perpetually witness to human sinfulness and to the punishment that one receives when one reject Christ, which is total marginalization in society.
Now, it is true that this attitude did result in, as Father Edward Flannery said in The Anguish of The Jews, approximately a million people being killed over the course of many centuries. But nonetheless it was different from what the Nazis wanted to do. Now, I think you can have some sympathy; it’s possible if you’re a very, very ardent supporter of anti-Judaic theology and anti-Semitic attitude, that one would give some support to the Holocaust. And even for example the people who founded the Zegota movement in Poland for the rescue of Jews, some of them had the attitude that Jews were bad, they were a bad influence in Poland, and it would be better if they weren’t in Poland but this was not the way to do it ‐ to murder them. Rather they supported the idea of the promotion of a Jewish state in Palestine; Jews should go there; that that was the humane way of getting rid of the pernicious influence of Jews, say, in Catholic Poland or in Christian Poland.
So Holocaust denial is somewhat of a special category. Support for some of the efforts of the Nazis ‐ that has a somewhat more direct relationship. But many of the people who would make the connection between, say a positive connection between their attitudes on the Jews and what the Nazis were doing didn’t deny the Holocaust. I mean they didn’t say it didn’t happen. They may have supported it but they said it was happening. So to move then to Holocaust denial seems to me to be a somewhat special category, and why that happens I don’t know. To me it’s always been a bit of a mystery to deny the facts. There seems to be something deeper at work in the personality of these people.
I’ve met a few of them. I actually engaged one of them in an extended debate, which normally I wouldn’t do but I was actually requested to do this in the Los Angeles area by certain key people in the Jewish community. I still don’t know. I mean the person who in that case was the Holocaust denier, for his support group (Because each side was able to bring a number of people to the filming of this debate. I believe ten people on each side.), I mean he brought the likes of people who owned porno bookshops and that, so you figure that out. I mean, what was going on here? It didn’t seem to have anything specifically to do even with Catholic/Jewish relations or the image of the Jews historically. Something was going on there. I don’t know.
In your essay “Thinking About God After Auschwitz” you describe Nazism as both the ultimate expression of human freedom and as the ultimate expression of human evil. Can you please explain how you see these things fitting together?
Yeah, because it was in a sense the first form of what I would call a “death of God” theology. The Nazi ideologues, at least some of them, really regarded traditional religious belief, including religious belief about God, as constricting the human person. And that you wanted to go back to the kind of natural rhythms engrained in humanity, which really were oriented towards freedom and also to the notion that the human community was the ultimate arbiter of all social situations, including who was fit to live and who must die in order to enhance the further dignity of humanity, so that God was totally out of the picture.
But we saw then what the removal of moral constraints ultimately rooted in God belief, the removal of those constraints led to an absolutely horrendous period in human history with the extermination of so many people. So that while in a way they were trying to fight against the religion… I mean clearly the ideologues did regard both Judaism, Christianity, and I would say almost any religious tradition, as a major constraint on human freedom. So to eliminate it allowed humans to decide everything and anything. They didn’t have to worry about any kind of divine judgment.
In that same essay you assert that, quote, “A sense of humility occasioned by a searching encounter with the devastation humanity if capable of producing could perhaps provide a way out of the trap of human freedom as ultimate evil.” Do you really believe that humanity can become aware of the devastation it causes, and if it could do you think that could really be an antidote that might stop future Holocausts?
Well I think it’s a profound sense of dependency on the rest of creation, both human and the entirety of creation, and ultimately a sense of dependency upon a creator God; so that, what powers we have, what creativity we have, is ultimately to be described as a gift that we must use in a constructive, positive way. I don’t think there’s any automatic guarantee, and clearly as you already indicate, we have other examples of something similar in Cambodia, Rwanda, perhaps going on right now in Darfur, and even in parts of the Congo.
So I realize there’s no easy way of insuring against this, but I do think that we have to do something to counter this sort of wholesale assumption of power, absolute power, that was part of the Nazi legacy. They just felt they had absolute power, and nothing, not traditional notions of God and so on, nothing ultimately conditioned how they would use that power. It was entirely up to them to decide how they used it, and so the obverse, I think, of such an exaggerated notion of human power is some sense of humility. Not a docility, but a sense of the humility in the sense of dependency rather than docility. Too often we define humility in terms of docility and a kind of weakness, but that’s not what I’m espousing. I’m espousing a sense of dependency, but a dependency that can lead to concerted action against violations of human dignity, including forms of genocide.
Thank you so much, again, in taking the time to speak with us.
Okay Dan, good chatting with you.