(that I really wish I could have my headlines written by Dawn Eden!)
A few days ago, I posted a link to an article about a Catholic midwife at Auschwitz. I also sent the link to the midwife listservs to which I belong. The response was generally positive (hey, midwives are like any other group - we like to hear and read good stuff about our fellows). But there were a couple of disturbing comments made along the lines of "the Catholic church did nothing at an official level to save jews (midwives or not) from camps." Pope Pius XII, who was in the chair of Peter before and during WW II, has gotten a lot of bad press recently alleging that he, and the Church as a whole, did little or nothing to stop Hitler and his methodical genocidal activities. Patrick Sweeney has a list of books defending the Pope, and I think that most are also aware of the defamatory book Hitler's Pope and its like. My intent here is not to go into detail on the events of 60 + years ago - they are very important and I urge all to study them. My intent is rather to reflect just a little bit on how we have learned from history (or tried to) and have chosen to speak out here and now, trying to prevent the forces that enabled the Nazi death camps, the Soviet gulags, the many other genocides of the past from being re-established in our day.
The first step to annihilating a group of humanity is to declare that somehow, members of that group are somehow less than human and are therefore not entitled to the protections to which the rest of us are entitled. The other tactic that might be employed is to acknowledge that this group of "others" may in fact be human and as individuals possessed of those rights and protections, but that as a group they constitute such a threat to the well being of the 'whole' that their rights mus be sacrificed "for the greater good". It is a sick game that has been played out repeatedly throughout history.
Two thousand years ago, the Roman empire attempted to annihilate both Christians and Jews. The government believed that their refusal to make even a perfunctory obeisance and sacrifice to the deified Caesars was a grave threat to the well-being of the whole empire. Two hundred years ago, it was widely held that even the slightest amount of African heritage made one innately inferior, and hence less that fully human - subject to being owned and abused. Racism, ethnocentrism, cultural prejudices are sadly a part of the human condition, an inheritance of Original Sin, and often as well become occasions of actual sin. Seventy some years ago, a group of men with a belief in 'racial purity' and eugenics founded a political movement whose effects are still reverberating on our culture today.
The Nazis did not start out with wholesale genocide. If they had, I think (at least I hope and pray) that all institutions around them, from the various churches to the various social and governmental agencies, to the governments of foreign countries, would have risen up in protest and stopped them. No, they started out small, with appeals to ideals of perfection and improvement, and their allies on other shores were blindsided. Eugenics, for example. "Let's improve the welfare of all of us by preventing the burden of the unfit!" It started with appeals for voluntary birth restrictions from 'the afflicted', campaigns for birth control among the poor, the ill, the ethnic minorities. It moved on to court-ordered sterilizations despite the lack of scientific evidence to support the idea that these afflictions were actually inherited. The Nazis developed methods of abortion (intrauterine injection) and sterilization (tubal ligation) that are still in use today. In this country, Margaret Sanger and others widely supported the ideals, if not the methods, of the "Race Improvement" movement. Planned Parenthood's founder was well known for her racist views. "Colored people are like human weeds and are to be exterminated" is a direct quote from some of her earlier writing. Her 134 page booklet "The Pivot of Civilization" includes the statement that among the aims of the American Birth Control League (predecessor of Planned Parenthood) is:
"Sterilization of the insane and feebleminded and the encouragement of this operation upon those afflicted with inherited or transmissible diseases..."
The Catholic church fought against these concepts throughout the world, including in Nazi Germany. The church spoke out then as it does now against abortion (especially forcibly performed abortion), sterilization (especially eugenic sterilization) and euthanasia. The church denounced the attitudes that ultimately led to the atrocities of Nazi Germany, but in hindsight might have been able to do more. On the other hand, the physical administration of the church (in the Vatican) was geographically and ideologically trapped, surrounded by Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Communist Russia and its satellites, robustly anti-clerical France - to say nothing of the anti-Catholic countries of Scandinavia and Great Britain.
Today, the Catholic church continues to speak out against the cultural forces that she believes are evil. In an extremely rare intervention on behalf of an individual, the Vatican has pleaded for the life of Terri Schindler-Schiavo. The church has argued against all forms of euthanasia, from the abortion of disabled and dying unborn babies, to the 'mercy killings' of handicapped children, to the intentional lethal overdoses of Oregon's "Right to Die" act, to the intentional starvation of those who are disabled and brain damaged. Seventy years from now, if our culture comes to its senses and begins to repent these crimes as we now repent the many unspeakable atrocities of Hitler's Germany, will the church be derided for having done too little to save the helpless? Will JP II be vilified as Pius XII is currently being vilified?
My other question - are we, as individual Catholics and Christians (and whatever other faith persuasions - or none) doing enough? Are we acting on our convictions? Are we helping and supporting those who are the most helpless? Is there something more that we could do that would be the equivalent of those heroic persons who risked themselves and their families to try to rescue Jews and others from the death camps?
I am not calling for an unthinking vigilanteism, although the helplessness one feels when hearing about Terri (and like cases) could easily lead to vigilante action. The battle is for hearts and souls. Storming the castle walls, no matter how tempting, is not likely to be of avail. We have pulled out our weapons. We are praying. Some of us are fasting. We are using the tools of democratic government. We are appealing to the good sense and ethical core of those in power. Yet on many levels we are still as helpless as the first century martyrs before the jeering crowds in the coliseums.
addendum - Christopher Blosser has this about the history of Euthanasia and the Nazis