Sitting in a Park Avenue hotel coffee shop Tuesday, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen speaks rapidly and passionately about his latest controversial enterprise.
The 43-year-old Boston native, clad in a black sports jacket and black knit sports shirt, wants nothing less than the Roman Catholic Church to finally and fully acknowledge its crimes towards Jews during the Holocaust and effect a lasting moral restitution — including dealing with anti-Semitic passages in the New Testament and liturgy.
Thus the title of Goldhagen’s latest book, “A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair,” officially released in the United States Tuesday.
He says it is a “moral investigation” of how the Catholic Church helped Hitler murder Jews during the Holocaust. But it is also a primer on what he believes the Church must do to make amends.
In this, Goldhagen cites the Church’s own prescription for correcting sins. And the former Harvard University political science professor isn’t mincing words. He comes right out and calls wartime Pope Pius XII an anti-Semite and “Nazi collaborator.”
The book has already sparked controversy in Germany when Church leaders last month tried to have it banned because of an erroneously captioned cover photo.
“The whole thing was ridiculous,” he says, sipping an espresso. “It was a transparent, desperate attempt on the part of the Munich Church leaders to try and suppress the book because they don’t want to acknowledge what it has to say.”
Despite the ensuing publicity bonanza, Goldhagen says, “It’s not what I wanted. I want to discuss the issues.”
But, he says, he seems to be the only one.
In debate after debate with Catholic bishops in Europe, Goldhagen says Church leaders “never answered my questions” about the role of the Church in helping Hitler murder Jews, and the need for moral repair. “If they don’t like what I have to say, I ask them to tell me what they think the Church did wrong and what moral repair is needed. They say no.”
Indeed, Goldhagen is no stranger to controversy. His first book, 1996’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners,” stirred international debate because of its main thesis: that average Germans were enthusiastic participants in Hitler’s project to murder Jews. It’s the result, Goldhagen argued, of a unique “eliminationist” brand of anti-Semitism imbedded in German culture.
Scholarly reaction ranged from praise to sharp criticism of Goldhagen’s methods and research.
It is safe to assume “Moral Reckoning” will bring similar strong reactions. That’s because of the book’s major premise: That despite substantial progress in Catholic-Jewish relations since 1964, the Church has failed to adhere to its own religious principle of moral repair by continuing to obstruct information about its role in the Holocaust and thus avoid making spiritual and material amends.
Goldhagen contends his book is unique among other recent groundbreaking historical accounts of the Vatican’s actions before and during the Holocaust, such as David Kertzer’s “Popes Against the Jews,” Susan Zuccotti’s “Under His Very Windows,” and James Carroll’s “Constantine’s Sword” because he goes further and deeper in calling on the Church for “moral repair.”
“This is the first systematic moral investigation on how to judge the transgressors,” he says earnestly. “It is a radical new way to think about moral responsibility and moral repair.”
Goldhagen freely acknowledges as “perfectly legitimate” his extensive use of the above-mentioned books, when asked to respond to critics who accuse him of merely repackaging other scholar’s works.
But he says what distinguishes his book is his “recasting of the historical material. You end up with a very different view.”
Goldhagen says rather than focus on World War II era- Pope Pius XII, accused by critics of keeping silent during the Holocaust, “I have shifted the focus from the pope to the Church in general.”
Secondly, he says rather than ask what Church officials could have done to help Jews, he concentrated on exploring the actions of cardinals, bishops and priests in Croatia and Slovakia who actively took part in mass murder.
The last two parts of the book are devoted to judging the actions — “applied ethics,” he calls it — and then detailing what the Vatican must do to repair the damage.
While acknowledging the historic positive initiatives of Nostra Aetate (whose 37th anniversary was celebrated this week in Rome) and Pope John Paul II’s unprecedented actions, including several apologies to Jews and visits to Yad Vashem and the Western Wall, Goldhagen says it isn’t sufficient.
“The problem is the Church wants us to tell them what a wonderful job they are doing. They act as if they say I’m sorry, as if it’s enough,” he says.
But to achieve true moral repair, Goldhagen says the Church must:
Stop its “continuous whitewashing and stonewalling” of its past and finally make a full confession of its and its clergy’s crimes and other offenses against Jews;
Combat the enormous amount of anti-Semitism that still exists among Catholics. “Tens of millions of Catholics in Europe alone still believe the blood libel that Jews today are guilty and cursed because of the death of Jesus,” he says;
Renounce its political ambitions to conquer all souls and stop telling its faithful that Judaism is not a legitimate path to god and salvation;
And finally, confront and counteract the extensive anti-Semitism of the Christian Bible. He lists nearly 500 “explicitly anti-Semitic verses” in the Christian Gospels. Goldhagen calls for a “Congress of the leadership of the Catholic Church and other Christian churches, and of Jews, to convene to find solutions to the Church’s Bible problem.” Dr. Eugene Fisher, liaison to the Jewish community for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, who blasted Goldhagen’s last book, does the same here. While admitting he hasn’t read it yet, Fisher told The Jewish Week Goldhagen “seems to have joined the current crowd trying to whitewash the Nazis and blame everything on Pius XII, which puts him in the ‘it’s all a Vatican conspiracy’ camp. He’ll probably get his best seller and laugh all the way to the bank at the serious objective historians of the Holocaust who are appalled by his sensationalism.” Regarding the book’s call for moral repair, Fisher said: “From what I’ve heard so far, it sounds as if he is behind the curve on this too, listing things that ‘need’ to be done that have already been done or are long under way. Kertzer, while noting that Goldhagen did very little original work, nevertheless said some of the issues he raised are valid and must be addressed. “I think there’s a continuing major problem that the Vatican faces by its continuing refusal to deal objectively with its role in the fomenting the demonization of the Jews that along with other forces helped make the Holocaust possible,” said Kertzer, whose 2001 book revealed heretofore secret Vatican papers showing a longstanding papal anti-Semitism. Like an experienced sailor, Goldhagen seems prepared for the coming storm of criticism. “Whenever you speak truth to power, this is what happens,” he said.