Interview: James Carroll

By ADAM REILLY  |  April 1, 2009

The pope is infallible, right? How do we know that? Well, the First Vatican Council told us; it was only when the council said that in 1870 that that doctrine took bite. A Second Vatican Council, approximately 90 years later, begins to nuance that claim by exercising authority itself. The watchword of the Second Vatican Council was collegiality: the pope exercises author in the church, but collegially, in consultation with the bishops. And that principle is the wedge into a more democratic church as the bishops also exercises their authority collegially with the laypeople.

It's then that you begin to see lay councils, laypeople taking charge of the church at the grassroots level, creating a more democratic structure. The church isn't a democracy — there's nothing sacrosanct about the political form of democracy — but democratic liberalism is an improvement on monarchy, and that's going to be reflected in the governance of the church too.

So that's one reason I'm hopeful for the future. The other is, is we don't sufficiently appreciate the world-historic watershed that the Holocaust was. The Holocaust — the genocide that took the lives of nearly seven million Jews as Jews — the Christian world was an accessory to that crime. I'm not saying the Christian world did it; the Nazis did it, and that must be insisted on. But the Nazis couldn't have done it without the centuries-long tradition of anti-Judaism in the Christian World, and the quiet acquiescence that took place throughout the Christian West. And one of the most pointed manifestations of that acquiescence came from Christians, and from Catholics, who did not oppose the Holocaust in significant ways. There were heroic acts of opposition, that's true. But they were isolated and they were exceptional. Those heroes should be celebrated, but never to give us the idea that the Christian world generally or the Catholic Church opposed Hitler in any significant way. It was not true.

Pope John XXIII was a person who had firsthand experience of that failure. As archbishop, he was a papal legate in Turkey during World War II. He was one of the few Catholic prelates to actively resist the Holocaust by secretly providing baptismal certificates to Jews escaping through Turkey; hundreds, maybe thousands of Jews got out because of Archbishop Roncalli, as he was known then. And as the papal legate in France at the end of the war , he was one of the first people to see how the church had been compromised by the Vichy regime, and he took steps to undo that — for example, to return the baptized Jewish child who'd been rescued by Christians to their families, if there relatives, but at least to allow them to resume their identities as Jews. And he was stopped in that by the Vatican.

Roncalli knew that the church had failed, and that I believe was his main impulse in calling the council. He knew that the church had to deal with some very basic mistakes, and central to that was the church's tradition of anti-Judaism. The teaching of the church was that the Jews were the murderers of Jesus, and that the Jewish religion had no reason to continue existing after Jesus. And the most important thing the Second Vatican Council did was attack those two ideas.

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