1389.4 Holocaust A

NB: This short paper is a response to Fr. John Pawlikowski’s presentation entitled “Holocaust: Its Contemporary Ethical Challenges,” presented at Regis College in the University of Toronto on November 5th, 2013. Prof. Pawlikowski was presenting at a session entitled “What Influence has the Holocaust had on Christian Social Ethics?”, which was part of the 2013 Holocaust Education Week in the City of Toronto. Prof. Pawlikowski has been an outstanding figure in Catholic Social Ethics over the last 40 years in terms of teaching the field about the significance of the Holocaust for Catholic Social Ethics. Unfortunately, as this brief response argues, it has seemingly had little influence on the discipline of Catholic Social Ethics.

I am honoured to be part of this event for a number of reasons. I am honoured to have an opportunity to respond to John Pawlikowski, a man who has spent much of his academic life on keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive in the Christian and specifically Catholic community, and that has been a great gift to the guild of Catholic social ethics and to the wider Catholic Church.

I am also honoured because I believe this is my first invitation to address the holocaust in public as a scholar. While over my teaching career I have taught about the Holocaust – and had the privilege to have a Holocaust survivor address my class on more than one occasion – this is my first invitation to address the relationship between Catholics and Jews in a public setting as a scholar. And this is particularly existentially important to me.

Why is it important? First, because Jews are my cousins, theologically speaking. More about that in a minute. Second, because Jews are also my cousins, ethnically speaking. That is, I grew up in Ottawa, Canada a child of a mixed marriage – an evangelical Protestant mother of Scots/English background and a secular Jewish father of Russian background. As physicians, they were brought together as priests of that late 20th C God known as modern medicine, despite their more traditional religious differences (How from that marriage I would wind up a Catholic moral theologian is a story for another day). For our purposes today I want to emphasize that while my upbringing involved a lot of Sunday mornings getting quasi-Calvinist theology, it also involved a lot of evenings and lunches getting latkes and smoked meat at Nate’s Deli and going to the Rideau Bakery getting their light rye bread. (If God had provided manna in the desert anything like Rideau Bakery rye, Jews might still be nomads in the desert …)

And I want to tell you one funny story of my upbringing that perhaps will in the end illuminate my remarks. Shortly after my parents’ engagement, my father brought my mother to see his mother, my Grandma Winer. As soon as my Grandma Winer was alone with my mother, she expressed her great disappointment with the engagement. Grandma Winer said “I always wanted a daughter-in-law with whom I could go to synagogue.” What’s so funny about that, you may ask? Well, it’s because Grandma Winer never went to synagogue! Oy!

I find addressing the challenge of the Holocaust to be daunting, even overwhelming. I fear anything I could say would be facile or fatuous in light of the horrors of it. But I gather my courage and follow Prof. Pawlikowski’s brave course.

While there is much in Prof. Pawlikowski’s fine paper that I could respond to, I will only have time to say three things – first to applaud and comment on Pawlikowski’s appeal to the importance of witnesses – second, to comment on the failure of post- Holocaust Catholic social ethics to adequately address the Holocaust, something I think Prof. Pawlikowski tacitly acknowledges by his silence in this paper on that matter – and third, to say what I think Catholic social ethics must learn from our Jewish cousins, if it is to be faithful to the gospel and its Jewish Lord.


The witnesses of Pawlikowski’s paper are those individuals who in various ways served as rescuers and sometimes as martyrs to help those being persecuted by the Nazis. He also notes that many of those rescuers are sometimes puzzled by being singled out as heroes for what they did. And while we might want to still want to laud them as heroes, at the same time we should be even happier that they don’t see themselves as heroes – because they are the kind of people who were formed to believe that you should help those in grave need, and that that is not heroic, but simply part of who one should be as a moral person. And that is what a witness does.

Now we do not necessarily know how or why the rescuers did what they did, but we certainly would wish that we could bottle the character of those witnesses and give a drink of it to our children. While we can’t bottle it, we can and should give it to our children, at the very least in the form of our remembering the Holocaust to them.

Rather than telling us about the witnesses, Pawlikowski tells us more about the anti-witnesses, those who murdered, or cooperated in murder, and/or stood by doing nothing. For Pawlikowski, the anti-witnesses are believers in a scientific and eschatological technocracy, where the worst kind of social Darwinism teams up with up nationalism and a progress ideology to improve the human race by eliminating those weighing down the gene pool. And he heaps a degree of scorn on his own Catholic Church, which he says was interested in its own survival more than that of the Jews.

While Pawlikowski and I fully agree in witnessing contra these false Gods, we perhaps seek to train people to witness in somewhat different ways. In his paper presented today, Prof. Pawlikowski’s response seems to focus on overcoming the false Gods by downplaying if not eliminating the Gods from public discourse, with the appeal to human rights. And that of course is no little thing.

However, more than Prof. Pawlikowski, I suggest that we Catholics also need to articulate a much better theology with regard to thinking about our Jewish brothers and sisters. The language of rights may in fact be important in the project of having us get along with minimal civility. While that is no bad thing, I would like to say at least a little more about how I think Catholics and Jews ought to try to understand each other, specifically as witnesses to God and God’s truth in a world that so often has forgotten or outright rejected God.

Failure of post-Holocaust Catholic Social Ethics to address the Holocaust

The title of our session asks us to discuss the influence of the Holocaust on Catholic social ethics. In truth, the Holocaust has not had a lot of influence on the discipline of Catholic social ethics. On the one hand, Catholic theology (say, as embodied by the Catechism of the Catholic Church) has a fair amount to say on the significance of Jews and Israel for Catholic theology and life. But the Catholic Church’s Compendium on the Social Doctrine of the Church (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 2004), which is basically the “catechism” of Catholic social teaching, has almost nothing to say on Jews and Israel. The Compendium merely makes one reference to the Shoah in a section on the duty to protect the innocent, and the Jews get a particular mention in terms of being one of the three bodies with which Catholics should dialogue. Two brief mentions in a 500 page summary of Catholic social teaching.

So why does Catholic social ethics have so little to say about Jews? Well, to put it in over-simplistic but I believe truthful terms, fundamentally because Catholic social ethics is still sufficiently captured by an Enlightenment reinterpretation of its natural law ethic that it seeks to provide an ethos for everyone, a universal ethic that is applicable to all human beings qua human beings … on that assumption, it would seem inappropriate, even regressive, to speak about the Jews in their particularity, rather than as one among innumerable groups of people who need to be protected qua human beings with, for example, rights.

Thus, to repeat, in the Compendium we only get two mentions of Jews – one as an example of a group that needs protection against genocide, and the other as an example of a group of people with whom Catholics can and should dialogue.

And while deeply disappointing, this is to be expected if Catholic Social Ethics is based on a model of universal ethics and rationality. On that model, Catholic Social Ethics cannot be interested in Jews qua Jews, nor in Jews as our brothers and sisters in our faith in the God of Israel.

But that approach to Catholic Social Ethics neither captures fundamentally who I am as a Catholic, nor who my Jewish brothers and sisters are as Jews. Contra to the dominant current tradition in Catholic social ethics, I would argue that Catholic theology should and must make a difference, and we Catholics need to articulate a much better theology with regard to thinking about our Jewish brothers and sisters.

What I think Catholic Social Ethics must learn from our Jewish Cousins

As a disciple of Jesus, my ethics must begin with an understanding of who Jesus was as a Jew whose God – and hence my God – is the God of Israel. Jesus fundamentally understood himself as living out the story of Israel in its relationship to God in his very person. Thus as a follower of Jesus my fundamental task is also to live faithfully in response to God’s story of the origin and destiny of the world.

Now, the concern of Jesus is not first and foremost with the salvation of individuals, but with the holiness of the people of God, understood as the Church in continuity with God’s people Israel. Therefore, I cannot properly understand the story of my faith, much less properly live it, apart from a recognition of God’s elect people the Jews, and I as one who has been grafted onto God’s story of the world.

If they haven’t already, it is high time that Canadian Catholics learn that they are no longer in charge of Canadian society, and to start learning to live fundamentally as disempowered witnesses. Jews have long learned to live in societies where they must be agile to survive various persecutions and to witness to their faith, and Catholics will do well to learn that first and foremost their responsibility is to be a witnessing community of faith – and that their prescriptions for the good and just ordering of society cannot be extracted without remainder from this faith.

Of course, one thinks that Catholics and Protestants would have long ago learned this lesson from the Holocaust itself. The second world war, at least in the Western theatre, was waged on both sides by people who were ostensibly Christian – German Catholics and Lutherans and Italian Catholics against English Protestants and French Catholics and so on. How could so many have apostatized so greatly to kill each other and to slaughter their Jewish brothers in the name of the nation-state. What was it about the self-understanding of these Catholics and Protestants – how far was it from following their non-violent and crucified lord – that they could engage in the widespread murder of innocents?

If Catholic Social Ethics could start to see its role as about what it means for Catholics to witness as a Catholic community – rather than to primarily see their task as the purveyors of a universal ethic – then they might be more likely to see and learn from the witness of their Jewish cousins. For the Jewish people are a community God has called Catholics to live alongside as co-heirs of God’s covenant. God’s providence works in the Jewish community in a way distinct either from God’s work in the Christian community of faith, and distinct from God’s providential wo rkmore generally in the world. The Jewish community is not just one more community for Catholics to dialogue with or see as an example of victims of social evils. The Jewish people are not simply one more group with whom we Catholic Christians need to dialogue. Rather, we must see our dialogue with the Jewish community as a unique and primordial part of our faith, and in that dialogue, begin to learn what it might mean to analogously engage other “others.”

The Anglican theologian Scott Bader-Saye has aptly described what is must mean today for Catholics and their social ethic to live alongside Jews, a community who is and always will be “other” in important ways, but a community whom God calls Christians to be in fellowship with and to learn from. Drawing on Bader-Saye, I would say that Catholics need to be “haunted” by the Jews. By being haunted I mean that any good Catholic Social Ethics must linger over questions of its relations with Jews as “the spectre of a disconcerting and uninvited presence that disrupts the closure or completion of theology, community, and identity.” (Bader-Saye, ‘Haunted by the Jews,’ in Unsettling Arguments, 191) How might Catholic Social Ethics better learn from the Holocaust? A good start would be for Catholic Social Ethics to recognize its own particular and contingent place in the world, and sees its Jewish cousins as occupying another place given to it by the God they both serve, to recognize the un-resolvable differences between us and yet continue to love them as cousins. Then perhaps Catholic Social Ethics will begin to adequately appropriate the lessons of the Holocaust.

And this brings me back to my Grandma Winer. For if she had gone to synagogue and if she would have taken my mother to worship with her, that could have been a witness to both Christians and Jews that despite our differences, Catholics and Jews must still be haunted by each other, and continue to love each other, until the God we both serve brings us together in the eschatological fulfillment of time. And I would have had a rather different upbringing.