Mia Theocharis’ PhD dissertation at the University of St. Michael’s is on the role of Christianity in the Holocaust and beyond. Photo by Michael Swan

Dissertation will explore Christianity and Holocaust

By 
  • February 28, 2021

A couple years ago, Prof. Robert Ventresca at King’s University College in London, Ont., was marking papers submitted to him by a precocious, intense, serious and curious undergraduate enrolled in his seminar on the role of religion in the Holocaust.

Now the world-renowned Catholic scholar of the Holocaust is looking forward to the research his former student Mia Theocharis will produce on Christianity and the role it played in — and after — the Holocaust as she works toward a PhD at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto.

“I am especially interested in Mia’s focus on the fundamental transformation in Jewish-Catholic relations after the Holocaust, including the profound changes in Catholic teaching about Jews and Judaism in the wake of Vatican II,” Ventresca told The Catholic Register in an email. “Mia’s research promises to provide new insights into Jewish-Catholic relations in Canada.”

Tracing the evolution of Catholic anti-Jewish attitudes through the 19th and 20th centuries, showing the link between theological ideas and the murder of six million Jews, is an example of what Ventresca calls “hard history.”

“It’s about some very painful chapters in the long history of Jewish-Catholic relations. It will force the Catholic community to confront some uncomfortable truths about a long, destructive history of anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic beliefs and practices in the Catholic and Christian world,” Ventresca said. “Yet what makes Mia’s work so important is that it also focuses on how and why things changed for the better.”

Historical theology fascinates Theocharis for its potential to show the link between ideas and events.

“I’m really interested in looking at how history informs theology and how theology informs history,” Theocharis said. “History plays a very important role in theology, but I also think theology plays a very important role in the history of our world as well. … Theology matters because without it the historical narrative of how our world came to be isn’t complete.”

Studying under Vatican II expert Prof. Michael Attridge, Theocharis is intensely interested in how understanding Christian anti-Judaism helps explain why and how the Holocaust happened — that is, how theological ideas shaped history. At the same time she’s looking at what happened after the Second World War — especially at Vatican II, where the Church repudiated the charge that the Jews killed Jesus and opened a new era of Jewish-Catholic dialogue.

Though some would claim the racial hatred behind Nazi anti-Semitism is really different from religious anti-Judaism and point out Adolf Hitler and his followers were hostile to religion and the Church, Theocharis knows it’s not that simple. “You can look at Mein Kampf and it’s riddled with language from Martin Luther, anti-Judaic language, that type of stuff,” she said.

For Theocharis an important key to understanding the change at Vatican II is the life and thought of German-Canadian theologian Gregory Baum, an important contributor to Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions. As she formulates her dissertation topic — one she hopes to defend in the summer of 2022, but could take until summer 2023 — she’s looking seriously at Baum’s writings.

Baum, who ended his career in the religious studies department at McGill University in Montreal, was at the height of his powers as a professor of theology at St. Mike’s.

This journey to the frontiers of Catholic thinking about the Holocaust all started because Theocharis was a student at King’s who did a double major in religious studies and history. Studying under King’s theologians trained at St. Michael’s, Theocharis began making the connections between history and theology. She found herself looking up to her Catholic Studies professors.

“They were so intelligent,” she said. “And not even just intelligent on the theological level and within their expertise. They were just these amazing people.”

Though she describes herself as a homebody who would naturally want to stick close to her family in London, following in her professors’ footsteps at St. Michael’s in Toronto was a natural step.

“All I can say is I made the best decision. St. Mike’s is one of the best places. It’s such a beautiful community of people,” she said.

(NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect that Theocharis did a double major in religious studies and history at university.)

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