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Unholy alliance

The Catholic Church and the Holocaust

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This is a corrected version of this story.

Anthony Sciolino grew up in Rochester's northeast section, in a neighborhood so Christian in the 1950's that Sciolino says he never saw a Jewish person until high school. But in eighth grade, when he was assigned to read "The Diary of a Young Girl" by Anne Frank, it struck a chord.

"She was my age," Sciolino says, "and she died because she was Jewish. There was something fundamentally wrong, unfair."

Six decades later, after retiring from his position as a New York State Family Court judge, Sciolino has published "The Holocaust, The Church, And The Law Of Unintended Consequences: How Christian Anti-Judaism Spawned Nazi Anti-Semitism." The book paints a scathing picture of the Catholic Church's anti-Jewish bias over many centuries, a bias that Sciolino says helped create the conditions that allowed the Holocaust to happen.

Sciolino is no anti-Catholic activist. He has a master's degree from St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry and he is an ordained permanent deacon of the Roman Catholic Church, Diocese of Rochester.

Sciolino graduated from Columbia University and Cornell University Law School and has done extensive research on the Holocaust, visiting concentration camps and participating in conferences. He wrote the book in the basement of the Pittsford home he shares with his wife, Gloria. The book's cover features a startling image of four Catholic priests raising their arms in the familiar "Heil Hitler" Nazi salute at a 1933 Catholic youth rally.

In a recent interview, Sciolino talked about the vilification of Jews in the New Testament; the encouragement of anti-Jewish bias by early theologians, church councils, and popes; Nazi laws against Jews derived from church tradition; and the Nazis' use of torture techniques pioneered by the Holy Inquisition. He also discussed recent developments in the church, including the new pope and where he believes the church is still on the wrong side of history.

The following is an edited version of that discussion.

Anthony Sciolino is a retired Family Court judge. - PHOTO BY MIKE HANLON
  • PHOTO BY MIKE HANLON
  • Anthony Sciolino is a retired Family Court judge.

CITY: Why did you write this book?

Sciolino: It's a truth that needs to be told, although admittedly an inconvenient truth for some. The tendencies that caused the church to become unintentionally complicit in the Holocaust continue to this day.The pope, for example, is still an absolute monarch like the king of Saudi Arabia.

How could Jesus, who was born, lived, and died a Jew, have approved of the Holocaust, the worst catastrophe in human history? How could any thinking person with any semblance of conscience think that it was O.K. to kill millions of people in cold blood? Yet the Holocaust was perpetrated by Christians. The Holocaust didn't start at Auschwitz; the road began 2,000 years ago.

What is your thesis?

The Holocaust happened because Christians failed to live according to Jesus's Gospel of Love. They failed to practice what Jesus preached about leading an ethical life. Tragically, the image of Jews as God-killers, and their refusal to convert to Christianity fueled a long tradition of intolerance, hatred, and violence against them.

It is an indisputable fact of history that for close to two millennia, Jews have been humiliated, victimized, denigrated, discriminated against, banished from countries, compelled to wear distinctive clothing, and forced to live in ghettos. They have been marginalized, demonized, stigmatized as "other," portrayed as offspring of the devil, wrongly blamed for causing human and natural catastrophes, accused of libels like the ritual murder of Christian children, tortured and killed — by Christians — with the approval of the church.

Regrettably, Nazi propaganda effectively exploited this shameful tradition to pave the way for the Holocaust.

A primary function of the church is to help form the consciences of believers, providing them a mechanism to determine right from wrong. Christian conscience malfunctioned before and during the Holocaust. Popes were supposed to be the primary teachers and exemplars of moral behavior.

For reasons explained in the book, the church — the hierarchy and laity — failed to function as Jesus would have expected, resulting in the unintended consequence of Christian complicity in the Holocaust.

You write that "for close to 2,000 years, Jews have been objectified and dehumanized, making it easier for 20th century Christians, so inclined, to murder them individually or as a group." How is the Holocaust, as you say in your book, an "unintended consequence" rather than a logical conclusion?

You're not the first person to ask me that; how could they not have seen this coming?

But others condemn my thesis as anti-Catholic. They claim my book is revisionist history written by a disgruntled Catholic smearing his church. I don't think so; I'm a deacon in the church. Catholicism is in my DNA. But over the years I've recognized that the church is made up of people and people are prone to error and sin.

Do you believe popes are infallible?

History proves that popes are not infallible. The dogma of papal infallibility deals with matters of faith and morals. An infallible pope could have reversed 2,000 years of Christian anti-Judaism at any time along the way. What is more of a moral question than Christian bias against Jews resulting in the Holocaust?

Many theologians believe that the doctrine of papal infallibility was a mistake. If you're going to claim such absolute authority, there's no room for error. Pope Pius IX and Vatican Council I made infallibility dogma, but popes have considered themselves infallible for centuries.

When popes make absolute statements like the sun revolves around the earth, it doesn't leave them any wiggle room. Guess what, they were wrong. It's the same with birth control; modern science disproves the natural law rationale for forbidding it. Times have changed.

The cover of Anthony Sciolino's book shows four Catholic priests raising their arms in a "Heil Hitler" Nazi salute at a 1933 Catholic youth rally. - PROVIDED IMAGE
  • PROVIDED IMAGE
  • The cover of Anthony Sciolino's book shows four Catholic priests raising their arms in a "Heil Hitler" Nazi salute at a 1933 Catholic youth rally.

You write, "Scripture has been misinterpreted or misused to justify slavery, religious intolerance, subjugation of women and homosexuals, unjust war, and burning of heretics and killing of infidels all in the name of God." If we still used medical books from centuries ago, we'd both be dead. Why not update the Bible and remove those terrible things?

Because believers consider the Bible to be revelation from God. That being said, however, Scripture can only be understood in context.

In calling Vatican Council II [which repudiated and rejected anti-Judaism] into session, Pope John XXIII said the church needed aggiornamento — updating and renewal. It needed to enter into a more constructive engagement with the modern world. "It is not that the Gospel has changed," he explained, "it is that we have begun to understand it better...and know that the moment has come to discern the signs of the times, to seize the opportunity, and to look far ahead."

What makes you conclude that anti-Jewish Nazi laws originated in church practice?

Historian Raul Hilberg found that 15 laws of Nazi Germany paralleled pronouncements of ecumenical councils.

One of the councils, for example, declared that Christians and Jews were forbidden to marry. It became a criminal offense in Nazi Germany. Other councils declared that Jews had to live in ghettos and forced them to wear distinctive clothing, both of which became Nazi practices as well.

Pope Pius IX endorsed the blood libel — the myth that Jews use the blood of gentile children to make Passover matzo. Pope John Paul II beatified him. Some of the most anti-Jewish popes have been made saints.

Pope Benedict XVI sought to have Pope Pius XII canonized a saint during his pontificate, and Pope Francis recently raised the issue again.

Since the Vatican's World War II archives have yet to be opened for scholarly review, the jury is still out on Pope Pius XII. But naming him a saint without a full review of all of the evidence would be a mistake. According to my research, the controversy surrounding Pope Pius XII is well founded.

In the book you are especially critical of Pope Pius XII and his lack of response to the Holocaust.

Some traditionalist Catholics question the fairness of my criticizing Pope Pius XII for what he didn't say or do in 1942, when Hitler was at the height of his power.

Well, I also criticize him for what he didn't say or do in 1933, the year of Hitler's appointment as chancellor, when Hitler was politically weak. Or what Pope Pius XII didn't say or do in subsequent years of the Third Reich, as Hitler's genocidal plan unfolded. Hitler did not arise full-blown out of the head of Venus as the powerful figure he eventually became. He could have been stopped earlier on.

How long did it take for the church to officially condemn Hitler's actions against the Jews?

It didn't happen until 1965, during Vatican II. Pope Pius XII had to leave the stage before the church could address the issue.

Pope Pius died in 1958 and was succeeded by Blessed Pope John XXIII, who was supposed to be a caretaker pope. But Pope John called the Second Vatican Council into session, which inaugurated much-needed reform in the church. Progressive Catholics like me view Vatican II as the best thing to happen in the church since the Middle Ages.

What has the church done to make amends for its treatment of the Jews? Did it ever apologize?

The church acknowledged the causal link between church history and the Holocaust, but rejected the notion that Christian anti-Judaism had anything to do with Nazi anti-Semitism, which is the premise of my book.

The church has, however, rejected anti-Semitism and has attempted to build bridges between Catholicism and Judaism.

In short, the church has not acknowledged complicity in the Holocaust, but a number of national bishop conferences have on its behalf, including Italy, France, Switzerland, and the U.S.

You write about priests in Germany disclosing blood types from records of marriages and baptisms to identify Jews. Did priests help the Nazis?

Unfortunately, the answer is yes. My book documents the evidence. There were, for example, at least 138 "brown priests" who actively supported National Socialism. Some of them were members of the Nazi party.

The enlightenment writer Voltaire said, "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." Does that apply today?

It certainly applies to the Jonestown massacre, for example, and to any number of incidents. People who are willing to die for their faith are often willing to kill for it. I learned that principle in my world history class at Ben Franklin High School. It stuck in my head and is mentioned in my book.

If you believe blindly, without questioning, you will get excuses like "I was only following orders," which was heard as an excuse during the Nuremburg trials for committing war crimes. Nonsense. There's something called conscience. There's something called evil. What caused the Holocaust? In my judgment, it was a complete failure of conscience vis-a-vis the Jews. Conscience didn't function because Jews were not viewed as human.

A few years ago, Pope Benedict rejected the idea that various religions offer access to God. He dismissed the idea that salvation is available to all. Was this a step backward?

Yes. One of the hallmarks of Vatican II is ecumenism. The church's position before Vatican II was [that] the Roman Catholic Church is the one true faith and the only means of salvation. Not even Protestants could attain it. Vatican II acknowledged that there are other ways to reach salvation. But traditional Catholics continue to dispute that principle.

You strongly support Vatican II, but others don't share your enthusiasm.

Most people don't realize that until Vatican II, the church condemned freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom of thought. Check out Pope Pius IX's encyclical Syllabus of Errors, affirmed by the First Vatican Council.

Vatican II changed official church positions on a number of key issues, yet there are traditionalists, many in the Vatican Curia, who maintain that it didn't change anything. For example, Pope Benedict XVI said, "The Second Vatican Council does not represent any kind of rupture with previous ecumenical councils because the church cannot change."

Does the church fear knowledge?

The church for most of its history has discouraged the faithful from reading the Bible, preferring instead to interpret Scripture for them. It has discouraged dissent and silenced critics. The burning of heretics by the Holy Inquisition is an unfortunate part of its history.

Prior to Vatican II, the role of the laity was said to be to "pay, pray, and obey." Scientific discoveries have sometimes challenged church doctrines and tradition, which has been problematic for its worldview.

You describe many instances where the church was on the wrong side of history. Where do you believe the church is on the wrong side of history today?

On the issue of birth control. Ninety percent of Catholics use birth control. What does that tell you?

On the role of women. Many Catholics believe women have not been fully recognized for their gifts and that they ought to play a larger role within the church, including being ordained as deacons and priests.

What parallels do you see, if any, to what's going on today? Are we marginalizing certain ethic groups?

It could be argued that marginalization continues within the church (but not to the extent as with the Jews), for example, among women, dissenting theologians, divorced Catholics, gays, lesbians, transgendered people, and liberal-progressive Catholics.

You have many problems with the church. Why do you stay?

Because, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, "God is greater than religion, faith is greater than dogma." I prefer to stay and work to reform the church from within. I love the church, but I love it I for what it's supposed to be.

It's incumbent upon Catholics to speak out when things go off course in the church, because popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, and deacons are all human and they all sin and make mistakes.

What do you hope people take away from this book?

Be wary of absolutist claims. Our brains, our intelligence after all are God-given gifts meant to be used. It's O.K. to question authority, especially when authority takes positions contrary to conscience. Be wary of those who demonize and dehumanize others.

How could the Holocaust have happened? And if there is a God, what does God do?

The Holocaust happened because people living in Europe at the time, who were over 95 percent Christian, failed to practice their faith. They failed to live according to Jesus's Gospel of Love. God's work on earth is meant to be done by us.

Scripture tells us that God's ways are not our ways; that the human mind cannot understand the mind of God. One way to answer the question, "Where was God?" is to answer that God is present on earth in his people. But his people were actively or passively involved in committing the horrific crimes of the Holocaust.

In short, the Holocaust happened because Christians failed to act like genuine Christians. They talked the talk of Christianity, but failed to walk the walk.

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