Calumny as a Profession
by David Gordon
"What Would Jesus Have Done? Pope Pius XII, the Catholic Church, and the Holocaust"
By Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
The New Republic, January 21, 2002, pp. 21—45
Mr. Goldhagen maintains that the controversy over Pius XII's reaction to the persecution of Jews during World War II must be understood against a broad background. Anti-Semitism, to a large extent instigated and promoted by the Catholic Church, has disfigured the entire course of European history. Critics of Vatican policy during World War II have erred through narrow concentration on the Pope's failings. Goldhagen has no use for Pius XII, but his indictment ranges much more widely: his target is Christianity.
Goldhagen argues in a strange way. Any profession of the truth of Christian doctrine, when this differs from Judaism, counts in his view as anti-Semitic. He cites, for example, from an encyclical of Pius XII the following: "But on the gibbet of his death Jesus made void the Law with its decrees . . . on the Cross then the Old Law died, soon to be buried and to be a bearer of death" (p. 28).
This, one might have thought, is classically orthodox. Christians believe that man cannot fulfill the law by his own efforts; without Christ, the law condemns rather than saves. Goldhagen, incredibly, thinks that the "Old Law" means the Jews and thus finds the Pope asserting the "ominous," if unclear, statement that Jews are the bearers of death. By such tactics does Goldhagen transform Christianity into hatred of Jews.
Perhaps I have interpreted Goldhagen uncharitably. He does speak of the "false charge" that Pius has directed against the Jews, but is not his real concern elsewhere? "But the making of such a false charge when the Jews were being slaughtered in Christian and Catholic Europe tells us a great deal about its author" (p. 28). Is not Goldhagen's real complaint that the Pope spoke unfavorably of the Jews at a horribly bad time for them? Even if the Pope spoke the truth, he ought to have kept silent.
This defense fails, because it presupposes Goldhagen's misreading of the encyclical. Only if one assumes that the Pope is talking about the Jews at all does the question arise of whether his comments were inopportune. Goldhagen might respond that since Jews deny that Christ fulfilled the Law, the Pope's remarks implicitly attack them. But then his position reduces to the claim that the Pope, for the duration of the war at least, should have renounced Christianity.
Goldhagen's logic is no better than his theology. On the one hand, he condemns Pius XII for failing to issue an encyclical, commissioned by Pius XI, that denounced Nazi anti-Semitism: "This practice of evasion and denial began as early as 1939, when Pope Pius XII suppressed Humani Generis Unitas, the not-yet-promulgated encyclical against racism of his recently deceased predecessor Pope Pius XI. The encyclical explicitly condemned the Nazis' anti-Semitism and called for the cessation of the Germans' persecution of Jews" (p. 22).
On the other hand, it transpires later in Goldhagen's article that the very encyclical in question was itself anti-Semitic. "Even Pius XI's suppressed anti-racism encyclical is animated by modern anti-Semitic charges that might be called soft Nazism. This should come as no surprise. . . . Pius XI had long been a committed anti-Semite" (p. 37). [Does Goldhagen think that Pius XI said, "Spiritually, we are all anti-Semites?"] Pius XII is thus an anti-Semite for declining to issue an anti-Semitic document. Goldhagen's methods of argument do nothing to advance inquiry. He is a crude propagandist, not a historian.
April 30, 2003
David Gordon [send him mail] is author of LRC's Books on Liberty, a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and editor of The Mises Review. This is reprinted with permission from the Summer 2002 issue.
Copyright © 2002 Ludwig von Mises Institute