Civilisation beyond the Church

It is particularly difficult for a Pope that comes from Germany to come here,” said Benedict XVI at Auschwitz in 2006. This was surely true.

But the Pope, who resigned this week, might have mentioned, too, the difficulties for the Roman Catholic Church in confronting its own historical contribution to the hatreds that fuelled the Holocaust.

Post-war German leaders acknowledged the horrors of the Nazi era. As Chancellor in 1970, Willy Brandt knelt in penitence before the memorial to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto.

While there does remain historical debate about the role played by the Vatican and Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust years, there can be no doubt that the Church is historically implicated in the myths of antisemitism.

There is an inherent dilemma in Christian doctrine

Pope Leo XII ordered in 1826 that Jews be confined to ghettos. Pope Pius IX infamously refused to return a Jewish boy to his parents after he had been abducted by papal police, for the boy had been secretly baptised a Catholic by a domestic servant.

Only in the post-war era has the Roman Catholic Church confronted squarely this legacy. The Second Vatican Council of 1962 to 1965, initiated by Pope John XXIII, renounced the notion of the Jews’ collective guilt for the crucifixion of Christ, and denounced antisemitic hatreds. To his credit, Benedict has shown himself as sensitive as his predecessor to developing relations with the Jews. He visited Israel and Yad Vashem in 2009.

Yet there is an inherent dilemma in Christian doctrine. If you regard Jesus as the Messiah, you necessarily stumble on the historical fact that the Jews rejected that claim. Jesus chose only Jews to be his disciples, one of whom is regarded by Catholics as the first Pope. The Church has rejected the antisemitic myth of deicide but, right up to the modern era, Catholic thinkers have still regarded the persistence of Jewry as, in some sense, a historical mistake (see, for example, Jacques Maritain’s 1939 book A Christian Looks at the Jewish Question).

Whereas the modern Catholic Church has shifted and Pope Benedict has undoubtedly played his part in this, it has never resolved this problem. It was evident even in Benedict’s visit to Auschwitz, where he gave thanks for the witness of Christian martyrs who opposed Nazism, but said little about the crimes against the Jews.

I recalled this history when reading the weekly column of Daniel Finkelstein, my close Times colleague and fellow-JC contributor. Reflecting on Benedict’s resignation, Finkelstein maintained that, contrary to the views of secularists, “the Church has been one of the great civilising institutions of mankind”.

This seems to me exactly wrong. The Church is, rather, a reflection of human frailties and has often compounded them through zeal. The great civilising influence in human history is the emergence of the Enlightenment, which among other things has, in Western democracies (including Israel), at last separated religious and civil authority. Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute on Religious Liberty, which enshrined the principle that there be no religious test for public office, is a defining advance for the freedom of religious minorities as well as the freedom of those who profess no religion.

There has never been, to my knowledge, a divine revelation of the merits of democracy and liberal political rights. These are values that human beings have alighted on for themselves. The thriving and flourishing of the Jews, and of all minorities, depends far more on defending them than on the personalities of religious leaders or the politics of interfaith dialogue.

Oliver Kamm is a leader writer for The Times

Last updated: 4:45pm, February 15 2013