Victoria Barnett, PhD
Director, Program on ethics, religion, and the holocaust
Understandably and appropriately, the recent uproar about the Vatican’s rehabilitation of four bishops from the Society of St. Pius X has centered on the outrageous remarks of Bishop Richard Williamson and how best to respond to such blatant Holocaust denial and antisemitism. Since then, a number of Catholic leaders around the world have repudiated Williamson’s viewpoints. The Vatican has called upon him to recant publicly.
But in the religious realm, Holocaust denial must be confronted in the context of a crucial question: how people of faith—including the members of the Society of St. Pius X—understand their faith in a post-Holocaust world. For Christians, this question always has to be grounded explicitly in the historical facts of what happened in the Holocaust and the years that led up to it. The horrifying and incremental steps toward the genocide of Europe’s Jews began in a nation that was 98 percent Christian and unfolded on a predominantly Christian continent that was marked by centuries of violence against its Jewish population. All too often this violence was carried out in the name of Christianity and with the sanction of Christian leaders.
The ideology of National Socialism confronted European Christians with very particular challenges, and there was a wide range of responses from the different churches in Europe and the U.S. Some Christians rescued Jews at great risk, and that should not be forgotten. A few church leaders, notably the Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke out forcefully against the genocide. But most were silent. In Nazi Germany, the relationship between Christian leaders and the state was characterized largely by compromise and complicity. Several leading German theologians became apologists for Nazism. There are numerous complexities, but ultimately 6 million Jews were murdered over a period of years, and far too few Christian leaders publicly protested. And the sheer demographics of this genocide tell us that most of the perpetrators must have been nominal Christians, at least, and that their faith clearly did not stop them from participating.
This is why the Holocaust remains a seminal event for people of faith. Particularly because of the record of Christian indifference and complicity, the Holocaust raises disturbing questions about the process by which religious prejudice and discrimination gain legitimacy and power. More broadly, the Holocaust raises questions about the intersection of religion, hatred, ideology, and violence that remain very relevant indeed in our world today. One of the most haunting questions—the pertinent one here—is how people of faith, particularly leaders, should react to such challenges when they arise.
That question became central in the aftermath of the Holocaust, when a remarkable process of Christian self-examination and Christian-Jewish dialogue began, leading to actual changes in liturgy, theology, and interpretations of traditional teachings about the Jews and Judaism. Since then, over one hundred post-Holocaust statements addressing these issues have been issued by Protestant and Catholic churches around the world. A very significant example of this is the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate, which repudiated the deicide charge and acknowledged the ongoing validity of the covenant with the Jewish people.
For Christians and Jews who have been involved in this process, Holocaust denial can never be a secondary or peripheral issue, and that’s why there has been such an outcry about Williamson and what position the Vatican would choose to take here. It’s also why the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has an office on Church Relations and an enormous collection of historical and website resources on this topic for religious leaders, interfaith groups, and academics who teach and write on these questions.
So our outrage isn’t purely over Holocaust denial, as abhorrent as it is. It reflects a deep concern that the painful work of decades could be brushed aside. Ultimately, the issue here is what kind of faith has integrity in a post-Holocaust world. Part of that is ensuring that religious leaders speak out courageously and clearly whenever antisemitism—or Holocaust denial—threaten to undermine the bonds of common humanity that we should work toward building and not tear asunder in the aftermath of the Holocaust.