Resist the culture of death

  • March 7, 2008

The culture of death hates the Catholic Church, with good reason. We stand for life in all its fullness, beauty and possibility, perhaps never before more actively and consistently than we do right now.

But, for each of us, Lent is a season of frank self-examination, undertaken, in part, to determine how closely our words and actions live up to the teaching of the church about life. Looking into the church’s history and into our own lives, we see the Holy Spirit within us, actively transforming us into instruments of peace, love and justice. And we also see our failures, in history and at the present hour. We see that, when we fail — when we collaborate with the culture of death in any of its myriad forms — we frustrate the saving work of Christ in the world and bring down scandal on our heads.

This was the point I made in my last column, which told the story of my friend Peter.

Peter, you will recall, is an unbeliever with a powerful hunger for God. He has glimpsed the furnace of love that blazes at the heart of the Catholic Church, and he longs to be a member of the People of God. Yet, so far, he has been held back from taking that momentous step, above all, by his morally sincere revulsion at the terrible things people who call themselves Christians have done to themselves and to others, often in the name of God.

In recent decades, the official Catholic Church has frequently acknowledged and denounced many of these things, but especially racism. John XXIII, in his personal witness and by inspiring the Second Vatican Council’s statement on relations with non-Christians, Nostra Aetate, encouraged Catholics to root out their long-standing anti-Semitism and opened a new era of charity in the church’s dealings with Jews. This movement of the Holy Spirit climaxed in the ministry of John Paul II, who, more forcefully than any pope, called us to repent of our sins of racism and turn toward Jews, and all humankind, with renewed commitment to love and justice.

In 1993, John Paul wrote this stirring appeal: “As Christians and Jews, following the example of the faith of Abraham, we are called to be a blessing to the world. . . . This is the common task awaiting us. It is therefore necessary for us, Christians and Jews, to be first a blessing to one another.”

For Peter, and others who want to become Christians but cannot, these noble words were still just words, coming too late in time to change the pogroms, persecutions and more subtle discriminations of Christians again Jews. With Peter, I wondered in my column: “How could nominally Christian nations, such as Germany and Romania and Poland, have willingly colluded with the Nazis in their attempted destruction of the Jewish people?” (I could have added France and Italy and other countries to the list.) My question prompted a small avalanche of mail, all of it from readers of Polish origin, objecting to my sweeping Poland into this sorry company and pointing out, correctly, that the Jewish death camps in that country were the handiwork of Germans, not Poles.

Was I saying that all Poles were accomplices in the Holocaust? Of course not. Many Poles, including Karol Wojtyla, risked their lives, and sometimes lost them, in defence of Poland’s Jews.

But my point, however infelicitously phrased, stands. Without complicity from individuals in local populations, the Nazis could not have carried out their murderous designs. In places where such collaboration was not forthcoming, and was actively resisted — Denmark is the outstanding example — the Nazis could make no headway with the Holocaust. This is not to denigrate the outstanding heroism shown by persons in Poland and elsewhere. It is to remind us that, in a crisis touching our deepest humanity, many remained silent and otherwise abetted great crime.

What I was really driving at was the failure of European Christians to stop the Nazis in their tracks, long before the Holocaust took shape, and during it. The greatest shame belongs, of course, to the Germans, whose deep, historic anti-Semitism helped bring the Nazis to power in the first place. But almost every people occupied by the Nazis played its part in the attempted destruction of the Jews. That much is history.

What these facts should do for Europeans is not compel endless wallowing in guilt. They should warn of the danger of complicity with the culture of death and urge us to repent and move forward.

The temptation to become accomplices of this lethal culture is ever with us. Most Canadians, for example, find abortion an acceptable way to end pregnancy. We must resist this opinion and the laws that express it. Though there are signs of improvement, many jurisdictions in the United States still have the death penalty on the books. That, too, we must resist and remain vigilant about the attempts by some Canadians to bring back the noose. Affluent Canadians have slipped into tolerance for poverty and the plight of native people. There also Christians have our work cut out for us. Lent is a time to ponder how best to pursue this work of resistance, in the name of God and humankind.

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