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Vol 39 No 1

God does care!

Charles Hill

Richard Colledge

Joseph Grayland

Cardinal Idris Edward Cassidy

Paul Babie

Elaine Wainwright RSM


Kevin Mark


Sixty years after Auschwitz: What does it mean for Christian Theology?


THE SIXTIETH ANNIVERSARY of the liberation of Auschwitz is rightly re-membered as a singular moment in the history of the Jewish people. Auschwitz is significant not only for the Jewish People but for many others, among them believing Christians and especially Christian theologians.

Auschwitz is an icon of the Holocaust. At one level it is one among many concentration camps, work camps and places of torture where significant minorities, like gays, gipsies and the intellectually and physically disabled were exterminated. As an icon it sums up the horror that human beings can, and do, kill each other for reasons other than self-preservation.

The very existence of Auschwitz raises the question for the Christian theologian, not only how could this happen, but what does Auschwitz mean for the existence of Christianity itself? This question is not an idle one, given the fact that ordinary Christian men and women worked in these places of extermination; they supported the existence of the camps or chose to ignore their existence to keep themselves safe. Believing Christians, lay and ordained, were members of the Nazi Party and at least two Catholic bishops were supporters. In the icon of Auschwitz the Jewish nation, together with all members of victimised minorities exterminated, tortured or degraded in camps, point the finger of accusation at the Christian community: how could you do this to us? How could you let this happen and call yourselves ‘other Christs’?

Not all German Christians were complicit in the Holocaust. Holy men and women like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Fritz Meyer stood out against Nazism. Many, as in the case of Meyer, a Jesuit Priest, were not supported by church leaders or fellow Christians.

Seeking a Solution: Johann-Baptist Metz
Following the Second World War German theologians and schools of theology began to explore the question of what Auschwitz and the Holocaust means for theology. Believing Christians, both Lutheran and Roman Catholic, Germans especially, were compelled to explore the question of their complicity in the Holocaust. Among the leaders was one of the most famous German schools of theology, at the University of Münster. And a particular theologian-priest, Johann-Baptist Metz, became prominent in this exploration.

Metz’s experience of war was short. As a teenage soldier he had been ordered to take a message from his forward post back to the central command. When he returned to his unit he found them all dead—young boys like himself. He asked himself why? This profound experience radically changed his whole way of thinking. He began to ask: What happens to you when you suffer and die? What do I dare hope for you and, in the end, also for myself?

His theological insight ran counter to the prevailing piety of individual salvation, and he expressed it thus: ‘It is not who saves me, but who saves you?’ Salvation is communitarian; it is the act of a people and takes place within a people. In this we find a return to the fundamental Hebrew notion of salvation that had been lost in the Christian tradition because of the influence of Greek philosophy. God saves a people.

Metz turned to the question of Auschwitz and asked the question at the heart of many other’s reflections: As a Christian, complicit in the event of the Holocaust and heir to centuries of Christian hatred against the Jewish nation, how can I pray, how can I believe, how can I worship, how can I theologise after Auschwitz? In short, is there salvation after Auschwitz?

Solidarity with Those Who Suffer
Metz’s question is highly significant. Answering it demands of the enquirer a deep concern for ‘the other’, their salvation and their eternal life. It exposes us, writes Metz, to the ‘irreducibility of the narrative of suffering’, and forces Christians to explore the relationship between suffering and death, and the praxis and question of hope. This, he discerned, was the source of the solidarity he experienced for his dead comrades as he looked at their ‘lifeless faces’. Solidarity with the other, in their suffering and death, gives the believer the right to believe and the means to pray. The answer to Metz’s question came from deep within the Jewish experience of the Holocaust: ‘You can pray after Auschwitz only because we prayed in Auschwitz.’

That answer revealed the long ignored Hebrew tradition as source of Christian theology and revealed solidarity with the suffering as authenticator of theological insight. Both of these had been obscured in the centuries of theology preceding the Holocaust. Their absence, at the theological level, made the Holocaust possible.

As a result, the study of the Hebrew Scriptures and Hebrew worship were revived in German theology as disciplines in themselves, and not merely Christian adjuncts. In order to fully understand the Christian tradition, these theologians argued, especially in the area of worship the heart and soul of theology, it is first necessary to know and understand the Jewish tradition.

The Church’s Guilt—Then and Now
Most significant since the Second World War and the Holocaust is the continuing question concerning the Church’s silence, first explored in Hochhuth’s play, Der Stellvertreter, (‘Representative’, or ‘Ambassador’, in some translations). In this play Pope Pius XII’s silence is called into question.

The Church’s position during this period is complex, but the lack of a definite and unequivocal statement from Pope Pius XII has left Catholics and other Christians wondering what the real position of the Catholic Church was. Simply put, no one knows for certain whether the Institutional Catholic Church agreed or disagreed with the Holocaust. This lack of clarity and the subsequent arguments surrounding Pius’ role have bred a distrust of the Institution. Even the courageous words of von Galen, Bishop of Münster, in opposing Nazi thinking, never mentioned the Jewish People. More recently the German Bishops’ letter celebrating the canonisation of Edith Stein implied that the Dutch Bishops’ denunciation of Nazism led to the deportation of Jews from the Netherlands (among whom were Edith Stein and her sister). Yet the Dutch Bishops have never been accused of complicity. Even the choice of Edith Stein as a Catholic martyr of the Holocaust has seemed to many a distortion of the Catholic Church’s real role.

For many contemporary Catholics in countries like Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, the painful question lingers: Can I believe in a Church that may have been complicit through its silence in the event of the Holocaust? I believe that this reason cannot be avoided if one is serious about addressing the significant rejection of the Church by post-World War II generations. I would suggest that this rejection is linked to a deep and widespread lack of trust in the Institutional Church that at its root is a question about the Church’s ability and willingness to face the truth of its position. In more recent times, the crisis of clergy sexual abuse has shown that the institutional management of the Church continues to put the safety of the institution before the victim, thereby refusing solidarity with the victim. In this instance, victims suffer at the hands of the Church’s ministers, both those who commit the act and those who cover it up. The issue remains the same, namely, a crisis of trust predicated on an avoidance of truth. Trust can only exist where truth abounds and where truth is avoided, trust dies.

In the memory of the Holocaust we have to ask ourselves ‘do we pray any differently because of Auschwitz? That is, are we any more attuned to the needs of the poor and dispossessed? Do we live in greater solidarity with them than our predecessors? Have we grasped the essential difference between a piety built on individual salvation and a theology built on the salvation of a people? Is the Institutional Church anymore at one with those who have to live out their lives in a secular world and does it, as teacher, live in solidarity with Jesus’ disciples? Solidarity with the human story is what we see in the Jesus of the Gospels, and this solidarity is what, I believe, many people are seeking today and, I fear, few are finding.

Metz’s theology, challenges us to address religion as it is now, not as it was 100 years ago. It teaches us to hold dear the memory of suffering in history and not avoid the painful questions of injustice; to seek the truth; to value solidarity with the suffering and the dead, and see in the past our future; to reject the tenets of middle-class complacency and seek instead to live out the dangerous memory of the Passion, a memory which constantly looks for a better social and political world for all people.

This in the end will change also the way we pray. We will be able to pray both in adversity and in prosperity with the spiritual robustness of the Psalmist.

Had not the Lord been with us,
Let Israel say,
Had not the Lord been with us-
When men rose against us,
Then would they have swallowed us alive.
When their fury was inflamed against us, then would the waters have overwhelmed us;
The torrent would have swept over us;
Over us then would have swept the raging waters.
Blessed be the Lord who did not leave us a prey to their teeth.
We were rescued like a bird from the fowler’s snare;
Broken was the snare
And we were freed.
Our help is in the name of the Lord
Who made heaven and earth.

—Psalm 124 (NAB)

Joe Grayland is a priest of the Diocese of Palmerston North, NZ. He specialises in Liturgy and Sacramental Theology. His doctoral thesis (University of Münster) was on Liturgical Architecture.