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The Catholic Church’s moral reckoning on Jews and the Holocaust

The evolution of church teaching has been transformative in Christian (not just Catholic) attitudes toward Jews.

People attend a ceremony at the monument Levenslicht, or Light of Life, by artist Daan Roosegaarde, consisting of 104,000 light-emitting stones for the number of Dutch Holocaust victims, during the unveiling in Rotterdam, Netherlands, on Jan. 16, 2020, to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

(RNS) — As we mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Wednesday (Jan. 27), many will focus on the resurgence of anti-Semitism worldwide 76 years after the liberation of Auschwitz. This is more than appropriate: Though anti-Semitism in and of itself won’t lead to another genocide, we need reminders that the Holocaust would never have happened without the inculcation of anti-Semitic attitudes in Europe over many centuries.

At the same time, Holocaust remembrance should also take into account that things have improved since those dark days. The most overlooked change may be the transformation of the Catholic Church in its attitude toward the Jewish people.

If the Holocaust could not have happened without a culture of anti-Semitism, that anti-Semitism could never have reached the levels it did without the role of the Catholic Church. Through the centuries when the church was a dominant authority throughout Europe, church doctrine, literature and art presented the negative tropes about the Jews that would manifest as anti-Semitism: Jews as killers of Christ. Jews as evil. Jews as poisonously powerful. Jews as money hungry. Jews as disloyal.

The “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” couldn’t have been believed without this history of church teachings.

That is why the evolution of church teaching and attitudes has been so transformative in Christian (not just Catholic) attitudes toward Jews. Beginning in the 1960s with the Second Vatican Council’s declaration, known as “Nostra Aetate,” the church explicitly rejected Jewish collective responsibility for the death of Jesus. The significance of this statement in improving the condition of Jews in Western countries can hardly be exaggerated.

Not only are these ancient tropes banned from Catholic teaching today, but Catholic kids are not being exposed in such an authoritative manner to those anti-Semitic epithets that were so destructive.

Pope Francis touches the stones of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City on May 26, 2014. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Andrew Medichini/Pool

Pope Francis touches the stones of the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 26, 2014. (Andrew Medichini/Pool photo via AP)

The church has gone beyond “Nostra Aetate,” however, to make allies of the Jewish people and faith. Pope John Paul II was instrumental in his visits to synagogues and reinterpreting the New Testament to avoid the anti-Jewish implications that dominated for centuries. Pope Francis has prayed at the Western Wall and Yad Vashemdenouncing anti-Semitism, standing up for Jews when anti-Semitism occurs.

None of which is to say that there aren’t any outstanding issues. There still are questions about the role of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust, some of which may be answered now that the Apostolic Archives for the period are now open to researchers. There isn’t sufficient acknowledgment within the church about the connection of its historic anti-Semitism to the Holocaust. And there still are issues that should be addressed about the church’s distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism.

But as a result of its transformation, in a world where anti-Semitism is resurgent — classically on the far right as well as in the guise of criticism of Israel on the left and in Islamist circles as anti-Zionism — the church has become part of the solution rather than part of the problem. 

While the history of anti-Semitism in the Islamic world is in no way comparable to what Jews endured in the Christian world, one can only hope with the emergence of the Abraham Accords, signed with Israel and several Arab states, that a similar process will ensue in the Islamic world.

The leadership of Pope John Paul II made a difference in the 1980s. The leadership of the United Arab Emirates, not only in its normalization with Israel, but in its commitment to foster respect between Islam and Judaism, can make all the difference now.

These are hopeful notes at a time when so much seems to be falling apart.

(Ken Jacobson is deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)