Does the Church ‘Get’ the Holocaust? A Response to Kevin Madigan

I agreed to give a Jewish response to the following paper by the Harvard historian Professor Kevin Madigan at a recent conference. The papers have just been published. Madigan spoke as a historian and I spoke about memory. For those interested in the topic, the papers provide a full bibliography in the footnotes.
Kevin Madigan, Has the Papacy ‘Owned’ Vatican Guilt for the Church’s Role in the Holocaust?
Alan Brill, Does the Church ‘Get’ the Holocaust? A Response to Kevin Madigan

Here are my conclusions. If you want more information then see the original papers or if you want to enter the discussion, then please read the original papers first.

A few concluding observations
(1) There is a sincere attempt by the Vatican for reconciliation, and reconciliation is indeed the goal.

(2) There is also a sincere attempt by the Vatican for moral reckoning of antisemitism; however, they also have other forefront concerns, including the pastoral, liturgical, and doctrinal life of the Church.

(3) I completely agree with Professor Madigan’s conclusions to the question about historic reckoning. Nevertheless, issues should not be conceptualized only in the present.

(4) However, the understanding of Jewish Holocaust memory is intermittent. Most of the time the Holocaust is understood as a Jewish tragedy, though Vatican speeches may not reveal this understanding. When going to a Holocaust memorial to show respect to the Jewish people while
accompanied by a group of Jews, Church representatives need to understand that the Holocaust is not the “30 million people killed by the fascists” nor is it a “universal problem of inhumanity and evil in the world.” For Jews, it is a war against six million Jews as Jews, with the Jews singled out for extermination. At a minimum this is demanded by diplomacy and propriety; at best it requires empathy for Jewish memory. There is a noticeable lack of a personal empathy and empathetic regret.

(5) Is there an understanding by the Church of the Jewish sense of the Tremendum? Do they “get” the Jewish silence, bereft of theological answers? Do they “get” the rupturing of Jewish faith, leaving a sense of Jewish brokenness? The answer is no. Few Jews evoke the eternal
covenants as a comfort
.
(6) Finally, current Church statements made in light of the Holocaust, are not addressing the past 2000 years of Christian anti-Judaism. Fr. Edward Flannery’s observation in the Introduction to his book The Anguish of the Jews” still holds true: Christians have torn from their history
books the pages that Jews have memorized.

From one of the sections that I was particularly interested in:
Pope Benedict conceptualizes the Holocaust using the critical theory of the Frankfort School, especially that of Theodore Adorno and Jürgen Habermas… He speaks to the Historikerstreit, occuring in the 1980s which debated the role of the Holocaust in history. He sides with Adorno and Habermas against Nolte and Fest. But this discussion does not in any way respond to Jewish memory.
Neither does his discussion of the Holocaust in Spe Salvi (In Hope We Are Saved) which asserts that the horrible injustices of history should not have the final word. There must finally be true justice. But that, in the words the Pope quotes from Adorno, would require a world “where not only present suffering would be wiped out, but also that which is irrevocably past would be undone.” This would mean the resurrection of the dead (no. 42). God now reveals his true face in the figure of the sufferer who shares man’s God-forsaken condition by taking it upon himself. This innocent sufferer has attained the certitude of hope: there is a God, and God can create justice in a way that we cannot conceive, yet we can begin to grasp it through faith. Yes, there is a resurrection of the flesh. (42-43)

In Benedict’s theological works on the Christian meaning of modernity, especially as typified by the Holocaust, his goal is to provide salvific hope before a rampant loss of values. Jewish memory of the Holocaust is not addressed. When Pope Benedict considers the theological
issues of the Holocaust he thinks of Adorno’s question and the pastoral answer of crucifixion and resurrection. He does not think of recent Jewish Holocaust theologians. In this, Pope Benedict is similar to many Orthodox Jewish theologians, who are not interested in historicity or Holocaust theology, and are more concerned with either the eternal values of the halakhah or the pastoral need to spread Judaism. They hear a commanding voice from Sinai and Zion and not from Auschwitz. Thus, it would be unfair to ask Benedict to adopt specific positions in Holocaust theology or to place the Jewish-Christian relationship at the center of his theology. He is a pastoral leader for Catholics, and he has a vision for their doctrinal, liturgical, and institutional needs. It is fair, however, to expect him to address the specific Jewish memory of the Holocaust when he is speaking to a Jewish audience at a Jewish sponsored event, such as at Yad Vashem.

If you have never read the Studies in Jewish Christian relations before, especially since it does not show up in google search, here is the first issue from 4 years ago, which is a good place to start.

2 responses to “Does the Church ‘Get’ the Holocaust? A Response to Kevin Madigan

  1. What about Jews (like me) who sympathize with the Adorno and even Heideggarian accounts of the Holocaust as symptomatic of modernity? Am I just out of sync? I feel like there is definitely a Jewish subcurrent of a more universalizable Holocaust.

    • Jews like you should write 1200 words on Adorno and Heideggerian accounts of the Holocaust to start developing the ideas.

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