Roman Catholic Bishops of France
Francia 30/09/1997On the 57th anniversary of the enactment of the antisemitic laws under the Vichy government, in the context of an interreligious ceremony near a former Jewish deportation camp in the Paris suburb of Drancy, Bishop Olivier de Berranger of St. Denis read the Declaration of Repentance which was signed by Bishop Gaston Poulain of Perigueux, president of the French Bishops' Committee for Relations with Judaism, 15 other bishops of dioceses that had internment camps, 12 bishops of the greater Paris region, and the bishop to the armed forces. A SIDIC translation of the Declaration follows.SIDIC Periodical (1997/3)
A major event in the history of the 20th century, the Nazi effort to exterminate the Jewish people, raises formidable questions of conscience which no human being can ignore. The Catholic Church, far from wanting it to be forgotten, knows that conscience is constituted by memory and that neither society nor individuals can be at peace with themselves if their past is repressed or falsified.
The Church of France examines itself. With the rest of the church she has been called to this by Pope John Paul II at the approach of the third millennium: "It is good for the Church to cross this threshold by being clearly conscious of what she has lived (...). To recognize the failures of yesterday is an act of loyalty and courage which helps us reinforce our faith, which makes us aware of today's temptations and difficulties and prepares us to confront them. (1)
Following this year's celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Seelisberg (the small village in Switzerland where, soon after the war on August 5 1947, Jews and Christians took the first steps toward a new teaching about Judaism), in anticipation of the anniversary of the first statutes concerning the Jews promulgated by Marshal Philippe Petain's regime (October 3, 1940), and in view of the presence of internment camps in their dioceses, the undersigned Bishops of France desire to take a new step.
They do so in response to the demands of their conscience as informed by the light of Christ. The time has come for the church to submit its own history, particularly during this period, to a critical examination, without hesitating to acknowledge the sins committed by its members, and to ask forgiveness from God and from humanity.
In France violent persecution did not begin immediately. During the months following the defeat of 1940, State antisemitism became rife, depriving French Jews of their rights and foreign Jews of their freedom. All of the country's institutions were involved in enforcing these legal measures.
By February, 1941 approximately 40,000 Jews were in French internment camps. At a time when the country was partially occupied, demoralized and prostrate, the hierarchy considered the protection of its faithful and the assurance of the life of its institutions its primary obligation. Assigning top priority to these objectives, legitimate in themselves, unfortunately eclipsed the biblical demand to respect every human being created in the image of God.
Compounding this retreat from a comprehensive understanding of the church's mission was the hierarchy's lack of understanding of the immense global tragedy which was taking place, threatening the very future of Christianity. Yet, Catholics and many non-Catholics were longing for word from the Church to remind confused minds and hearts of the message of Jesus Christ.
The vast majority of church officials, caught up in loyalism and docility which went far beyond traditional obedience to civil authorities, maintained an attitude of conformism, caution and abstention, dictated in part by fear of reprisals against charitable works and Catholic youth movements. They failed to realize that the church, called to intervene in a disoriented society, had considerable power and influence, and that given the silence of other institutions, the unique impact of their statement could have impeded the irreparable. It is important to remember that, at the time of the Occupation, there was a lack of awareness of the full extent of the Hitlerian genocide. While it is true that many gestures of solidarity can be cited, it is necessary to ask if these gestures of charity and mutual aid were sufficient in light of the demands of justice and respect for the rights of human beings.
Thus, in view of the antisemitic legislation enacted by the French government - begun by the October 1940 and June 1941 statutes regarding the Jews which deprived a portion of French society of their rights as citizens, blacklisted them and rendered them to an inferior status within the nation - in view of decisions to inter in camps foreign Jews who thought they could rely on the right to asylum and on the hospitality of France, there is no choice but to acknowledge that the Bishops of France did not speak out, acquiescing through their silence with these flagrant violations of human rights and leaving the way open for the spiral of death.
We do not pass judgment on the consciences nor the persons of that time. We ourselves are not responsible for what happened, but we must assess the attitudes and actions of the past. It is our church and today we are obliged to objectively acknowledge that demands of conscience were superseded by perceptions excessively restricted by ecclesiastical interests, and we must ask ourselves why.
Beyond the historical circumstances we have just recalled, we must ask ourselves in particular about the religious origins of this blindness. What was due to the influence of secular anti-Judaism? In the context of the debate which we know took place, why did the Church not listen to its best voices? On several occasions before the war, through articles and public lectures, Jacques Maritain endeavored to open Christians to another perspective on the Jewish people. He also forcefully warned about the perversity of the antisemitism which was developing. From the eve of the war Cardinal Saliege recommended that Catholics of the 20th century find guidance in the teaching of Pius XI rather than in the 13th century edicts of Innocent III. During the war, theologians and exegetes in Lyons and Paris prophetically emphasized the Jewish roots of Christianity, highlighting that the root of Jesse flowered in Israel, that the two Testaments were inseparably linked, that the Virgin, Christ, and the Apostles were Jews, and that Christianity is linked to Judaism like a branch to the trunk which bore it. Why was so little attention paid to these words?
Certainly, on the doctrinal level the church was fundamentally opposed to racism for both theological and spiritual reasons as Pius XI strongly expressed in the encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge which condemned the underlying principles of national socialism and warned Christians about the dangers of the myth of race and of the absolute power of the State. As early as 1928, the Holy Office had condemned antisemitism. In 1938 Pius XI forcefully declared, "Spiritually we are Semites." But what weight could be given to such condemnations, what weight could be given to the thought of the above-mentioned theologians in the context of constantly repeated anti-Jewish stereotypes which were present, even after 1942, in declarations which otherwise were not lacking in courage?
In the historical process leading to the Shoah, it is important to acknowledge the primary role, if not direct then indirect, played by false anti-Jewish stereotypes constantly perpetuated among Christians. Indeed, in spite of (and in part because of) the Jewish roots of Christianity, together with the fidelity of the Jewish people to the One God throughout their history, the "original parting of the ways" begun in the second half of the 1st century led to separation, then to animosity and long-standing hostility between Christians and Jews. While not denying the social, political, cultural, and economic influences in the long history of misunderstanding and often antagonism between Jews and Christians, a main cause of the conflict lay in the realm of religion. This is not to say that a direct line of cause and effect can be drawn between these expressions of anti-Judaism and the Shoah, because the Nazi plan to annihilate the Jewish people had other sources.
It is a well-attested fact among historians that a centuries-long tradition of anti-Judaism - which in various degrees affected Christian doctrine and teachings, theology and apologetics, preaching and liturgy - prevailed among Christians until Vatican Council II. This soil nurtured the poisonous plant of hatred for Jews with its legacy of serious consequences which, still in our century, are difficult to remove. Wounds remain open and unhealed.
To the extent that the pastors and leaders of the church for so long allowed the teaching of contempt to develop and foster in Christian communities a collective religious culture which permanently affected and deformed mentalities, they bear a serious responsibility. One can conclude that even though they condemned the pagan origins of antisemitic theories, they failed to enlighten minds as they should have by challenging these centuries-old thoughts and attitudes. As a result consciences were often lethargic, their capacity considerably weakened in face of the sudden appearance of national socialist antisemitism's criminal violence, a diabolic and extreme form of contempt for Jews based in categories of race and blood, explicitly directed at the physical annihilation of the Jewish people - "an unconditional extermination (...)implemented with premeditation" according to the words of Pope John Paul II.
Later, when the persecution escalated and the genocidal policy of the Third Reich invaded French territory, with the Vichy authorities making its police force available to the occupying forces, some courageous bishops (2) knew that, in the name of human rights, they had to speak up and forcefully protest the rounding up of Jews. These public statements, though few in number, were heard by many Christians. The many initiatives by ecclesiastical authorities to rescue men, women and children in danger of death must not be forgotten; nor the generous multifarious outpouring of Christian charity by the rank and file who faced the greatest risks to rescue thousands and thousands of Jews.
On their part and well before these interventions, without hesitating to use clandestine means, religious, priests and laity saved the honor of the Church often in a discrete and anonymous manner. This was also done, particularly through the publication Les Cahiers du Temoignage Chretien (Notebooks of Christian Witness), by forcefully denouncing the Nazi poison which was threatening souls and spirits with all its neo-pagan, racist and antisemitic virulence, and by recalling on every occasion the words of Pius XI: "Spiritually we are Semites." It is an established historical fact that these acts of rescue in Catholic milieux as well as in the Protestant world and through Jewish organizations assured the survival of a large number of Jews.
However, the fact remains that, although there was no lack of courageous actions in defense of persons by clergy, religious and laity, we must acknowledge that indifference largely prevailed over indignation and, in the face of the persecution of Jews particularly through the multifarious antisemitic laws passed by Vichy, silence was the rule and words in favor of the victims the exception. As Francois Mauriac wrote, "A crime of this proportion redounds in no small part on all the witnesses who did not protest and on those who were responsible for their silence." (3)
The result was that the attempt to exterminate the Jewish people, instead of being perceived as a central concern on the human and spiritual level, remained a secondary issue. In face of the magnitude of the tragedy and the unprecedented nature of the crime, too many of the church's pastors, through their silence, committed an offense against the Church itself and its mission.
Today we confess that this silence was a mistake. We also acknowledge that the church of France failed in its mission of educating consciences and that she thus bears with the Christian people the responsibility of failing to help in the early stages when protest and protection were possible and necessary, even though there were numerable acts of courage later on.
This is the reality we acknowledge today, because this failure of the church of France and its responsibility toward the Jewish people are part of our history. We confess this sin. We beg God's forgiveness and ask the Jewish people to hear our words of repentance.
This act of remembering calls us to increased vigilance on behalf of humanity in the present and for the future.
1) Pope John Paul II, apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 33.
2) In 1942 five archbishops and bishops in the southern (occupied) part of France protested against the violation of human rights caused by the rounding up of the Jews. They were: Archbishop Saliege of Toulouse; Bishop Theas of Montauban; Cardinal Gerlier of Lyons; Archbishop Moussaron of Albi; and Bishop Daly of Marseilles. Within the occupied zone, Bishop Vansteenberghe of Bayonne published a protest on the front page of his diocesan newsletter Sept. 20, 1942.
3) From the Preface to Leon Poliakov's book, Breviaire de la haine (Breviary of Hate), 1951, p 3.
N.B. - The German bishops and the Polish bishops published a declaration on the attitude of their churches during the war on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. - The legislation passed by the Vichy government, and particularly the Jewish statutes of 1940 and 1941, can be found in Les Juifs sous l'Occupation. Recueil des textes officiels francais et allemands, 1940-1944, published by the FFDJF (1982), as well as in Vichy et les Juifs, by Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton (1981, Calman-Levy). - The main stances taken by Protestants can be found in Spiritualite, Theologie et Resistance (1987, Presses Universitaires de Grenoble), pp 151-182.
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