On the Nature of Complicity

In a column last year titled “Politicizing the Eucharist?” I pointed out that no one now claims that when Archbishop Rummel of New Orleans excommunicated three Catholics for publically encouraging people to defy his order to de-segregate the Catholic schools, he was “politicizing the Eucharist.”  Rather, Rummel is now praised highly for his singular courage, especially since his condemnation was so contrary to the more “accommodating” views of many of his fellow southern Catholics.

I also mentioned Cardinal Adolf Bertram, the ex-officio head of the German episcopate in the 1930s, who ordered Church bells rung in celebration of Nazi Germany’s victories over Poland and France and who sent greetings to Hitler on his 50th birthday in the name of all German Catholics, an act that angered his fellow bishops Konrad von Preysing and August von Galen.

The subject of whether the bishops should speak out publically against the treatment of the Jews arose at a 1942 meeting of the German bishops at Fulda. The consensus was “to give up heroic action in favor of small successes.”  In the 1933 Reichskonkordat between the Holy See and the German government, Church leaders pledged to refrain from speaking out on issues not directly related to the Church.  Repeated violations of the Konkordat on the part of the government, including closing churches and church schools, did not change their minds. And it also didn’t keep bishops like Bertram from endorsing government actions they favored, such as opposition to communism and the subjugation of Poland.

If you imagine I am being too tough on these German bishops, then perhaps you should read the twenty-three-page report made public last May by Germany’s Council of Catholic Bishops in which they admitted “complicity” by their predecessors who did not do enough to oppose the rise of Nazi regime and its mistreatment of Jews.

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In eighty or ninety years, will future U.S. bishops be submitting a similar document of their own, confessing the “complicity” of their predecessors who did not do enough to oppose the abortion regime?  Will Catholics of that time be as baffled about our present bishops and prominent Catholic politicians as we are about the accommodationist Catholics of Nazi Germany?

How could Catholics of that time have failed to understand the evil staring them in the face? And why did they “accommodate” a regime that had labeled Christianity, and Catholics in particular, as “enemies of the state”?  Was it perhaps because so many leaders of the regime had been raised Catholic and some were still rosary-carrying church-goers?

Who, in retrospect, would not look back in shame at a German bishop who called questioning the Catholic commitments of Catholic Nazi leaders “offensive because they constitute an assault on the meaning of what it is to be Catholic.” Because “being Catholic means loving the Church; being Catholic means participating in the sacramental life of the church; being a Catholic means trying to transform the world by the light of the Gospel”?

And yet those are the words of our own Bishop McElroy of San Diego about those who question Joe Biden’s Catholicism.

And we transform the world in the light of the Gospel how?  Is it not by opposing the killing of innocent human beings?

In retrospect, we would suspect that a bishop who had said about the treatment of Jews, as Bishop McElroy has about abortion, that “To reduce that magnificent, multidimensional gift of God’s love to a single question of public policy is repugnant and should have no place in public discourse” had little or no serious concern for the lives being lost.  “Sure, abortion is bad, but what about global warming!”  “Sure the ill-treatment of Jews is unfortunate, but what about the future of Europe!” Wouldn’t we consider that to be repugnant?

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What would anyone say now about a Catholic politician as prominent as Mario Cuomo if, during the 1930s in Germany, he had said:  “I accept the Church’s teaching about Jews, but must I insist others do so?  Our public morality. . .the moral standards we maintain for everyone, not just the ones we insist on in our private lives – depends on a consensus view of right and wrong.  The values derived from religious belief will not and should not be accepted as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the pluralistic community at large by consensus.” That statement would have worked equally well for Catholic segregationists in the American South.

If that Catholic politician in 1930s Germany had available to him the “seamless garment” argument used by Mr. Cuomo, he might have said, “I grant that the treatment of Jews may have a unique significance but not a preemptive significance.”  “The Jewish question is an important issue for Catholics, but so is the question of the injustice of the reparation payments we have been forced to make along with all the resulting hunger and homelessness and joblessness, all the forces diminishing human life and threatening to destroy it.”

All the forces diminishing human life and threatening to destroy it?  Like . . . oh, I don’t know . . . abortion?

Who, in retrospect now, wouldn’t find such a “Catholic” politician either an obvious liar or a delusional hack?

If you find my comparison between the Catholics who enabled the Nazis and modern Catholics who enable abortion troubling, perhaps you should glance at the cover of a recent edition of The Atlantic with the article title, “On the Nature of Complicity: Trump’s Enablers and the Judgment of History.”  In it Anne Applebaum discusses historical figures who compromised their most basic principles to accommodate a political party.  Take out all the tendentious stuff about the numbers of people at Trump’s inauguration and the phone call with the Ukrainian ambassador and replace it with Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden’s support for abortion and for policies that result in the closure of faithful Catholic institutions, and then change the title to “On the Nature of Complicity: Abortion’s Catholic Enablers and the Judgment of History.”

That judgment is unlikely to be any kinder to them than it has been to their German predecessors.

 

Images:

Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick (second from the right) and propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (far right), pose with Franz Rudolf Bornewasser (Bishop of Trier) and Lugwig Sebastian (Bishop of Speyer) as they make the Nazi salute during a ceremony in Saarland, c. 1936-1938.

** “The death of the Jews will end the Saarland’s distress”— graffiti in a Jewish cemetery, November 1938

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas. His book Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Guidebook for Beginners is available from Emmaus Press. his latest book, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary was published in 2019 by Cambridge University Press.



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