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SIDIC Periodical XXXI - 1998/2
Good and Evil After Auschwitz (Pages 18 - 20)

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Good and evil after Auschwitz in papal teaching
Rémi Hoeckman


No other Pope has spoken about Jews and Judaism as frequently as John Paul II during the twenty years of his pontificate. Rémi Hoeckman cited him at length illustrating that the thoughts of the Pope, which are opening the eyes of many, are a cry of alarm for humanity. He emphasized that it is necessary to go to the roots of the evil. It is important though not sufficient to remember. The victims of Auschwitz and other places of crime die again if we do not remove the power of evil by working together for the good of all humanity. In this way a dawn of hope will be able to rise anew after Auschwitz.

Going to the Roots of Evil.
In his Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus (1991) Pope John Paul II wrote about these crimes in terms of “the consequences of a basic error” which consists in “an understanding of human freedom which detaches it from obedience to the truth, and consequently from the duty to respect the rights of others. The essence of freedom,” he affirms, “becomes self-love carried to the point of contempt for God and neighbor, a self-love which leads to an unbridled affirmation of self-interest and which refuses to be limited by any demand of justice.” The Pope then looks at the “extreme consequences” which such an error had in the tragic series of wars which ravaged Europe and the world between 1914 and 1945:
Without the terrible burden of hatred and resentment which had built up as a result of so many injustices both on the international level and within individual states, such cruel wars would not have been possible, in which great nations invested their energies and in which there was no hesitation to violate the most sacred human rights, with the extermination of entire peoples and social groups being planned and carried out. Here we recall the Jewish people in particular, whose terrible fate has become a symbol of the aberration of which man is capable when he turns against God.”

And he makes an appeal: “May the memory of those terrible events guide the actions of everyone, particularly the leaders of nations in our own time, when other forms of injustice are fuelling new hatred and when new ideologies which exalt violence are appearing on the horizon.”1

It is Not Enough to Remember
We need to remember. We want to remember, but, he told hundreds of Christians and Jews - including amongst them a number of survivors of Auschwitz - gathered together at a concert given in the Vatican on 7 April 1994 in commemoration of the Shoah, “it is not enough that we remember, for in our own day...there are many new manifestations of the antisemitism, xenophobia and racial hatred which were the seeds of those unspeakable crimes. Humanity cannot permit all that to happen again.” And he concluded by affirming forcefully:
We have a commitment, the only one perhaps that can give meaning to every tear shed by man because of man...We have seen with our own eyes, we were and are witnesses of violence and hatred which are kindled in the world all too often and consume it. We have seen and we see peace derided, brotherhood mocked, harmony ignored, mercy scorned...

This is our commitment. We would risk causing the victims of the most atrocious deaths to die again if we do not have an ardent desire for justice, if we do not commit ourselves, each according to his own capacities, to ensure that evil does not prevail over good as it did for millions of the children of the Jewish nation.

We must therefore redouble our efforts to free man from the specter of racism, exclusion, alienation, slavery and xenophobia; to uproot these evils which are creeping into society and undermining the foundations of peaceful human co-existence. Evil always appears in new forms; it has many facets and its flattery multiple. It is our task to unmask its dangerous power and neutralize it with God’s help.2

John Paul II chose the same theme for the address which he delivered to the Diplomatic Corps on 15 January 1994:
Glancing at the world today, we can only state with deep regret that too many human beings are still their brothers’ victims. But we cannot resign ourselves to this... Let us act in such a way that humanity will more and more resemble a genuine family in which each individual knows he is listened to, appreciated, and loved, in which each is ready to sacrifice self for the benefit of the other and no one hesitates to help the weaker one... Each one of us is invited to the boldness of brotherhood.

Collaboration for the Good of all Humanity
Each one of us. Or, in the words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel, “None of us can do it alone.”3 Pope John Paul II also insists on this:
“Christians and Jews together have a great deal to offer to a world struggling to distinguish good from evil, a world called by the Creator to defend and protect life but so vulnerable to voices which propagate values that only bring death and destruction.”4 Thus, “as Christians and Jews, following the example of the faith of Abraham, we are called to be a blessing for the world (cf. Gen 12:2ff). This is the common task awaiting us. It is therefore necessary for us, Christians and Jews, to be first a blessing to one another. This will effectively occur if we are united in the face of the evils which are still threatening: indifference and prejudice, as well as displays of anti-Semitism.”5 And in his letter of 9 April 1993 to the Carmelite Nuns at Oswiecim, John Paul II wrote: “How the future will grow from this most painful past largely depends on whether, on the threshold of Oswiecim, ‘the love which is greater than death’ will stand watch.”

In an audience with Jewish leaders in 1985, the Pope gave expression to this new spirit which the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate has created in Jewish-Christian relations in the following terms:
Where there was ignorance and therefore prejudice and stereotypes, there is now growing mutual knowledge, appreciation and respect. There is, above all, love between us, that kind of love, I mean, which is for both of us a fundamental injunction of our religious traditions and which the New Testament has received from the Old.

In a 1990 address to representatives of the American Jewish Committee he put it like this:
As a result, we can effectively work together in promoting the dignity of every human person and in safeguarding human rights, especially religious freedom. We must also be united in combating all forms of racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination and hatred, including anti-Semitism. I am pleased to note the significant level of cooperation that has been achieved in these areas over the past quarter-century, and it is my hope that these efforts will continue and increase.

The Pope does insist on the need and possibility of Jewish-Christian collaboration on the basis of what Nostra Aetate described as “the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews,” which he explained during his pastoral visit to Brazil in 1991: “Adoring the one true God, in fact, we discover our common spiritual root, which is the consciousness of the brotherhood of all people. This awareness is truly the closest bond which unites Christian and Jewish people.” In March 1982 he told a group of Catholic and Jewish leaders: “It is ultimately on such a basis that it will be possible to establish...a close collaboration towards which our common heritage directs us, in service of man and his vast spiritual and material needs. Through different but finally convergent ways we will be able to reach...this true brotherhood in reconciliation and respect, and to contribute to a full implementation of God’s plan in history.” Addressing what he called “the problem of morality”, the Pope spoke to the Jewish community of Rome on 13 April 1986 about “the great field of individual and social ethics”:
We are all aware of how acute the crisis is on this point in the age in which we are living. In a society which is often lost in agnosticism and individualism and which is suffering the bitter consequences of selfishness and violence, Jews and Christians are the trustees and witnesses of an ethic marked by the Ten Commandments, in the observance of which man finds his truth and freedom. To promote a common reflection and collaboration on this point is one of the great duties of the hour.

He told the Diplomatic Corps on 13 January 1997: “What the international community perhaps lacks most of all is not written conventions or forums for self-expression... but a moral law and the courage to abide by it.”

Another basis for the Pope’s continuous appeal to Jewish-Christian collaboration “in favor of all humanity where the image of God shines through in every man, woman and child, especially in the destitute and those in need”6 is found in his profound belief in “the fundamental dignity and goodness that dwell within every human being.”7

Hope and Promise
On the morning of 24 June 1988 Pope John Paul II welcomed leaders of the Jewish community in Austria to the Apostolic Nunciature in Vienna. The reflections and sentiments which he shared with them that morning, and which he also expressed later in the day during his visit to the former World War II concentration camp at Mauthausen, are significant. He spoke of the experience of his and the Church’s “deep and mysterious union in love and faith with the Jewish people,” affirming his conviction that “no historical event, however painful it may be, can be so powerful that it could contradict this reality which belongs to God’s plan for our salvation and fraternal reconciliation.” He spoke also of hope. “You and we are still burdened by the memory of the Shoah,” he said, but “out of those cruel sufferings can grow...deeper hope... To remember the Shoah means to hope and to see to it that there will never be a repetition of it... Speak, you who have suffered and lost your lives, you have the right to do so. We have the duty to listen to your testimony.”8 “This is our commitment,” he promised.9 “Be sure of this: You are not alone in bearing the pain of this memory; we pray and watch with you, under the gaze of God, the holy and just one, rich in mercy and pardon.”10

On the other hand, the Pope also invites us to “try to perceive, salvage and renew the good things that occurred in our mutual relations...over the centuries.”11 In his mind this is part of “righting the wrongs,” (Ibid.) as he said to a delegation from the Anti-Defamation League whom he received at Castelgandolfo on 29 September 1994: “Friendship stands against exclusion and makes people stand together in the face of threat.”

Rev. Dr. Rémi Hoeckman, OP is Secretary of the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews since 1993.

1 - Centesimus Annus, n. 17.
2 - Cf. L’Osservatore Romano, n. 15, 13 April 1994.
3 - A.J. Heschel, “No Religion is an Island” in Union Theological Seminary Quarterly, 21:2,1 (January, 1966).
4 - The Pope’s address before the concert in commemoration of the Shoah.
5 - Reflections on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto, April, 1993, addressed to Jews from around the world gathered in Poland.
6 - ddress to representatives of the American Jewish Committee on 15 February 1985.
7 His Apostolic Letter on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, 27 August 1989.
8 - editation at Mauthausen.
9 - ddress after the concert in commemoration of the Shoah.
10 - t the prayer of the Regina Coeli on 18 April 1993.
11 - Address to the Jewish community during his pastoral visit to Poland, 9 June 1991.


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