The Blood Libel and the Holocaust:
The Cost of Wrong Doctrine

Forerunner, "Prophecy Watch," January 2004

"Anti-Semitism is inadmissible. Spiritually we are all Semites."
—Achille Ratti

Achille Ratti was elected Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church in 1922; history knows him as Pius XI. He occupied the papacy during a decade of missed opportunities, during those momentous years of "the gathering storm," an expression Winston Churchill used to describe the run-up to the Second World War. Pius XI died in 1939, before the storm unleashed its full fury. Arguably, his most important achievement was the famous Concordat with the German government, an agreement the Catholic Church negotiated in 1933 in the hopes of protecting the interests of the Church from the worst of Hitler's abuses.

Speaking in Rome to a group of Belgian pilgrims, Pius XI departed from his prepared remarks. With tears in his eyes, the ailing Pontiff—he was 81 and only months from death—spontaneously and emotionally, declared the inadmissibility of anti-Semitism based on, of all things, Semitism. He was responding to a Missal the pilgrims had presented to him, referring to the "offering of Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek." In this context, it is clear that the Pope was aware that his audience—not only those pilgrims, but many of the Europeans and Americans who would read his comments in the printed media—was descended from Shem, and was, hence, largely Semitic. Indeed, most of them were the descendants of Abraham, as we know.

Behind the Pope's statement lies the doctrine of inclusion. The Catholic/Protestant theological argument is complex, with a number of denominational variations, but the doctrine of universal inclusion goes something like this:

God loves everyone, playing no favorites. This He has demonstrated through the sacrifice of His Son and His universal gift of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, it is His will that mankind, His agents on the earth, collaborate with Him in showing love to everyone. Everyone is included in His love, and everyone should cooperate with His purposes.

The ramifications of this thinking—its effects on social, political, and economic policy—are staggering. For instance, through the application of universal inclusion, capital punishment becomes an evil because it denies God His chance to bestow His saving grace on the felon. Capitalism becomes demonized (Pius XI was an outspoken critic of laissez-faire economics) because it can marginalize the poor, excluding them from the physical benefits of God's love. Tolerance to all, no matter what his beliefs may be, becomes valuable because it reflects God's freely given grace to everyone. In practical terms, inclusivity is the backdrop to many major decisions and directions we see today. For example, universal inclusion provides the rationale for ordaining women into the priesthood. Ideologically, it explains a good part of the thinking behind the election of an unabashed homosexual to the leadership of the Episcopal Church USA.1 One can think of any number of other examples.

We of God's true church understand that this doctrine, as understood by most Catholic and Protestant churchmen today, flies in the face of God's revealed truth. God's Word teaches that God works on a timeline—He follows a plan, which excludes some from His grace at certain times in history. God is working only to bring salvation to some individuals today. Peter's comment that "the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God" (I Peter 4:17) implies that such judgment has not come for those currently outside that house. We recognize that God takes the prerogative to exclude some from His grace today: "Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated" (Romans 9:13). The apostle Paul alludes to God's plan when, in I Corinthians 15:22-23, he affirms, "All shall be made alive. But each in his own order." Ultimately, all people will be included in God's work of grace, but only in His time.

Pius XI, heir to the doctrine of universal inclusion, at least recognized a common ancestry shared by European Gentiles and Jews. As we will see, his statement, however well-intentioned and sincere, failed to stop, or even to hinder, German anti-Semitism of the 1930s. It did nothing to reopen closed kosher butcher-shops, to help Jews regain their jobs in the universities or public sector,2 or to derail the Auschwitz-bound trains.

The Hypocrisy of Inclusivity

Some have said that the Pontiff's statement, uttered in September 1938, was a classic example of "too little, too late." That is true. However, there is more to the story. At bottom, the Pontiff's unreserved rejection of anti-Semitism failed to change history because it did not at all square with long-standing Catholic attitudes and practices concerning the Jews.3 In this sense, the Pope's statement regarding the inadmissibility of anti-Semitism was hypocritical, for as one Catholic priest admits,

[B]y the beginning of the twentieth century Christian anti-Judaism, traditional for centuries, had attained virtual canonical status. In association with modern racial doctrines, . . . it had developed in many instances into a Church-promoted anti-Semitism, which in the years following the First World War grew in scope and intensity.4

For centuries across Europe, Catholicism taught that the Jews as a people were guilty of deicide—the murder of God in the person of Christ. At various times in its history, the Church felt no compunction to ghettoize the Jews, ostracize them, confiscate their goods, and murder them.

Given that dark background, it is not surprising that the Catholic hierarchy's reaction to Jewish sufferings under the Nazis was at best ambivalent—at worse unsympathetic. Notice this excerpt from a 1933 sermon by Austrian Bishop Johannes Gföllner: "Nazi racial views [represent] regression into the worst kind of paganism . . . [and are] completely irreconcilable with Christianity, and must therefore be totally rejected."5 So far, so good. However, note the bishop's quick retreat. Many

irreligious Jews [have] a very damaging influence in almost all areas of contemporary cultural life. . . . [M]any of our social and political upheavals are permeated by materialistic and liberal principles stemming primarily from Jews. Every committed Christian has not only the right but the conscientious duty to fight and overcome the pernicious influence of such decadent Judaism.6

The Church's history of anti-Semitism morally compromised it, rendering it unable—indeed, unwilling—to take a stand against the ever-worsening persecution Jews were undergoing at the hand of the German government.

With some notable exceptions, the Church remained silent, even in the early days when protest may have been effective. Note the hierarchy's ambivalence and posturing, as exampled in this commentary on a "Holy Decree" (published in March 1928) condemning anti-Semitism, which it defined as "hatred of the people once called by God."7 The commentator, a Jesuit priest, "clarifies" the Church's position in this decree by stating that it condemned anti-Semitism "only in its anti-Christian form and mentality." The Church rejected "excessive and extreme" anti-Semitism.8 However, it recognized that secularized, liberal Jews, often associated with Bolshevik and socialist causes, were especially dangerous in Christian countries. Hence, "Jews are a danger to the whole world because of their pernicious infiltration, their hidden influence, and their resulting disproportionate power which violates both reason and the common good."9

The Protestant approach to the Jews was no more enlightened. Germany, remember, is (or was) a Protestant country, basically Lutheran, but with a large population of Catholics, especially in the south. Martin Luther, an avid anti-Semite, transmitted Catholic anti-Semitism into Lutheranism. His racial thinking was basically in lockstep with those of the Catholics: If the Jews suffered, it was because God was punishing them for despising Christ.

The Blood-Libel

Wrong doctrine hurts, and it can hurt a lot. The virtual destruction of European Jewry provides no better example of this fact. For, the ancient tradition of Catholic and Protestant anti-Semitism rendered these confessions unwilling to help the Jews. That tradition was based on a totally wrong doctrine. It is connected to the doctrine of the "blood libel."

The "blood libel" has its roots in a misinterpretation—and misapplication—of one biblical passage, Matthew 27:25. Near the end of Christ's trial before Pilate, the Jews cried, "His blood be on us and on our children." The excerpt below, taken from an article in Junge Front, a German Catholic Youth magazine, provides probably the clearest exposition of the Catholic interpretation of this scripture. The article was written by the magazine's editor and published in 1933: "The cry of the people who crucified Christ, Son of the eternal God, 'His blood be on us and on our children,' echoes down the centuries and brings upon the Jewish community ever new human suffering."10

In fairness, the author did make it plain that no person has the right to cause or augment this suffering. At the same time, however, the author remains silent about anyone's responsibility to help those Jews who are suffering, to protest against the perpetration of the suffering, or even to pray for its remission.

In a later issue of Junge Front, another author asserts (beyond all reason) that race had nothing at all to do with the suffering of the Jews. The real reason for their persecution, he concludes, was their deicide: "From the standpoint of sacred history their situation must be viewed as punishment."11

This view squares with that of the Lutheran confession. The leading Lutheran commentary of its day interprets Matthew 27:25 in this way:

Unhappily, this has now come to pass. . . . With their blood-guiltiness resting upon them, [the Jews] are in travail under the judgment, scattered among every nation, and the prophecy in Deuteronomy 28:26, has been abundantly fulfilled.12

In other words, Catholic and some Protestant theology understand Matthew 27:25 to be a self-imposed curse which explains Jewish suffering through the ages. If the doctrine is taken to its conclusion, it legitimizes such suffering as God's punishment on Jews for their rejection of Christ.

The Tragedy of Wrong Doctrine

French historian Jules Isaac (1877-1963) has called this "the teaching of contempt."13 Historically, it soothed the conscience of otherwise generous churchmen who, seeing the persecution of Jews in the Middle Ages and after, could simply say, "Praise God. Your suffering is just." Given the proclivities of human nature, the understanding of Matthew 27:25 as a curse actually provokes anti-Semitism. At the same time, this interpretation wrestles down any motivation a person might have to oppose anti-Semitic acts and argues against taking any action to assuage suffering on the part of Jews. After all, who wants to fight God as He implements this curse?

It would be wrong-headed to assert that Nazi racial policies were grounded solely on Catholic/Protestant anti-Semitism. No, those policies had a number of roots. Yet, it is absolutely true that, without this false doctrine as a part of the German religious zeitgeist, Nazi racism would have not been able to thrive in Germany. Those policies certainly flourished in the fertile ground of the anti-Semitism taught for centuries by the Catholic and Protestant confessions.

This is not an overstatement. The fact is, Hitler actually exploited Church-sanctioned anti-Semitism, feeling no need at all to cloak his own racism when justifying his policies to the Catholic hierarchy. He used the Church's traditional anti-Semitism to justify his actions. Notice the German Fuehrer's remarkable statement to Wilhelm Berning of the German Bishops' Conference, April 1933:

I have been attacked because of my handling of the Jewish question. The Catholic Church considered the Jews pestilent for fifteen hundred years, put them in ghettos, etc., because it recognized the Jews for what they were. In the epoch of liberalism the danger was no longer recognized. I am moving back toward the time in which a fifteen-hundred-year tradition was implemented. I do not set race over religion, but I recognize the representatives of this race as pestilent for the state and for the Church, and perhaps I am thereby doing Christianity a great service by pushing them out of schools and public functions.14

Hitler knew that the Church's solution to the "Jewish problem" for centuries had been the ghetto. He was, he asserted, simply carrying on that tradition.

Although some in the Church hierarchy were uneasy, the Church officially took Hitler's racism without blinking an eye. It is true, of course: Hindsight is better than foresight. No one would argue that there is a manifest difference between the removal of Jewish professors from university chairs in 1933 and the ovens in 1940. Perhaps few protested Hitler's actions in 1933 because few imagined Hitler's actions in 1939. Historians believe that the Nazis actually did not conceive of their "final solution"—the gas chambers and the ovens—until the late 1930s.

It is also true that the Catholic Church had its own very real problems with the Nazi government in the early 1930s, concerns that naturally deflected its attentions from the plight of the Jews. The German government was proposing the takeover of Church-sponsored schools, orphanages, hospitals, and asylums; it was proposing the involuntary sterilization of the mentally ill (something it carried out later on); it was proposing a law prohibiting parents from bringing up their children in their faith. In addition, by 1937, it was producing virulent, anti-Catholic propaganda. Yes, indeed, the Church had plenty of problems on its plate.15

Still, there remains a certain hypocrisy between a Pope's statement that "anti-Semitism is inadmissible" and his hierarchy's historic and unremitting oppression of Jews. The matter is driven home by a miserable exchange between two cardinals in late 1941. In a letter, Cardinal Faulhaber questioned the lack of protest on the part of the Church in the light of the "brutal deportation of non-Aryans to Poland under inhuman conditions paralleled only in the African slave trade."16 In reply, Adolph Cardinal Bertram admonished that bishops must "concentrate on other concerns which are more important for the Church and more far-reaching, . . . [particularly] the ever more urgent question of how best to prevent anti-Christian and anti-Church influences on the education of Catholic youth."17

We today, Monday-morning quarterbacks, recognize the vast disconnect between the clear-and-present-danger to people awaiting the ovens versus the anxiety over conditions in the Catholic school system. The German Catholics of the 1930s, those Sunday quarterbacks on the gridiron, did not recognize that disconnect, blinded as they were by their ancient tradition of oppressing Jews.

Wrong doctrine, taught for centuries, had deeply implanted anti-Semitism into the minds of German Catholics and Protestants, rendering them unwilling to take a decisive stand against German maltreatment of European Jewry. This wrong doctrine was not an unimportant determinant in the history of the times, for "anti-Semitism was what made the Nazis' racist ideology . . . into an engine of death for Jews."18 "Racism alone did not lead to Auschwitz. . . . Something more was needed: hatred of Jews. Rooted in large part in Christian tradition, it was this hatred that made modern anti-Semitism possible."19 Millions of people died, to some extent because of the false doctrine of "blood libel" of mainstream churches, a doctrine off which Nazi racism fed.

Next month, we will take a look at anti-Semitism from another perspective, that of the German "law of ethnic groups." This was the law that provided the legal framework for Nazi racism in the 1930s. Amazingly, that same law, wearing some modern clothes, defines minority rights in today's European Union, rendering the Jews (and other minority groups) virtually without legal protection. What church is willing to protest now?


1 Turner, Philip, "The Episcopalian Preference," First Things, November 2003, p. 28.
2 The German government enacted the "Law for the Restoration of the Civil Service" in April 1933. This law prevented all "non-Aryans," regardless of religion, from holding positions in the civil service sector.
3 Let us be plain: Hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives were saved through the intervention of Protestant and Catholic laypeople and clerics (in Germany, Poland, France, and especially in Holland) during the years between 1939 and 1945. Many pious church people jeopardized their lives—some lost them—in their efforts to rescue and provide succor to Jews. Eugenio Pacelli (Ratti's successor, Pope Pius XII) even used his villa in northern Italy as a safe house for escaping Jews. More than a few Jewish mothers delivered their babies in the Pope's bedroom, which had been pressed into service as a maternity ward. All this took place outside the "official" silence of the Church concerning the tragedy. (See especially, Henry, Patrick, "Remembering the Rescuers," First Things, April 2000, p. 13.)
4 Rhonheimer, Martin, "The Holocaust: What Was Not Said," First Things, November 2003, p. 18. Rhonheimer is a priest of the Opus Die Prelature and professor of Ethics and Political Philosophy at Rome's Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. (See also, Wistrich, Robert, "The Old-New Anti-Semitism," The National Interest, Summer 2003, p. 59. Wistrich, Neuberger Professor of Modern History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, writes: "The main elements of 20th-century ideological anti-Semitism were already in place by 1914. . . .")
5 Ibid., p. 21.
6 Ibid. "The Jewish Question," an article published in 1933 in the Catholic Augsburger Postzeitung, deplored "the increasing 'judaizing' of our intellectual, cultural, and scholarly life in Germany." With typical retrenchment, however, the article continued: "There is a certain kind of Jewish intellectualism which, despite its high intelligence, mixes with the German element in a destructive and baneful way. A people striving for national and intellectual renewal is reacting in a healthy manner when it opposes this admixture, and demands that the German mind be thoroughly cleansed of Jewish influences."
7 Ibid., p. 19.
8 Ibid., p. 21.
9 Ibid. The phrase "their hidden influence" must certainly reflect that the Church had at least tacitly subscribed to the conspiracy theories prevalent at the time. Such theories, extant in one form or another to this day, were publicized in Wilhelm Marr's Finis Germaniae (1879), Edouard Drumont's La Derni?re Bataille (1889), Houston S. Chamberlain's Foundations of the 19th Century (1899), and, of course, in the infamous The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
10 Ibid., p. 23.
11 Ibid.
12 Ylvisaker, Johann, The Gospels: A Synoptic Presentation of the Text in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Augsburg Publishing House, 1932, p. 733. This commentary was first published in Norwegian in 1905. Ylvisaker was the professor of Exegetical Theology, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.
13 Rhonheimer, p. 24.
14 Ibid. Is this an example of Satan's misquoting Holy Scriptures? How eerily reminiscent these words are of Christ's comment, recorded in John 16:2, that "the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service."
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid., p. 25.
17 Ibid.
18 Ibid., p. 24.
19 Ibid., p. 23.

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