Vichy and the Vatican –
In August 1941, Léon Bérard, Vichy’s ambassador to the Holy See, tested the Vatican’s reactions toward the Jewish laws just enacted in France and found no objection. Back in France there was “quasi- absolute silence of the Catholic hierarchy in the face of the anti- Jewish legislation of Vichy.” The dean of the French hierarchy, Cardinal Gerlier, spoke to the leaders of the Jewish community of Lyon in 1941 of the unfortunate “errors” of Léon Blum and “expiation” in the circumstances. Despite heroic individual acts taken in de- fense of Jews by individual Catholics including Gerlier during the war, many in the hierarchy continued to compromise themselves with racists and anti-Semites to the bitter end, such as when Cardinal Suhard of Paris presided over the funeral services of the notorious milice leader and racist radio orator Philippe Henriot on July 1, 1944, in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. In the name of “Christian France,” French Catholic leaders found the “exclusion” of the Jews acceptable (in a way not dissimilar to the Israeli leadership’s expulsion of Palestinians from their homelands in the name of “Greater Israel” today).
The savage attacks on European Jewry during the war was a matter of great personal distress to Maritain. He wrote to his friend Yves R. Simon in September 1941:‘How can one live when thinking of the Jews tortured and massacred in Poland … of the treatment of the refugees in France … If I wasn’t responsible to other people, I would return over there to be put to death.’
Yves Simon responded that one had to face the fact that, behind things like Father Tizo’s laws against the Jews, there was deep-rooted anti-Semitism in the Church, and recognize that the last decade had seen “a de-Christianization of the Church herself. ” Simon insisted that the role of Thomism in the inadequate Catholic response to fascism and militant racism had to be critically examined because “If Saint Thomas were alive today he would be for Pétain, Tizo, and the rest,” as the positions taken by leading Thomist of the day, Father Garrigou-Lagrange, demonstrated. Simon helped persuade Maritain that a rethinking of Catholic philosophy was in order. Some important post-war writings on Christian Democratic political philosophy would result.
The deep vein of anti-Semitism in the French Catholic world into which the Maritains converted at the beginning of this century would not soon disappear. But the Maritains retained a particular perspective on the Jews from their godfather Léon Bloy: the conversion of the Jews would announce a “New Middle Ages” and hence racist anti-Semitism was out of place. Citing Saint Thomas, Jacques Maritain always distinguished between the religious Jews with their mysterious supernatural role and the “carnal” Jews. Since Maritain eschewed racial hatred he became known as a great friend of the Jews even if his “carnal” Jews would not be given total freedom in a “Christian” democracy. While the Christian order would take measures to restrain secularizing Jews, it would denounce racial hatred and keep open the highest of hopes for those Jews of good will, the believing Jews, the potential converts.
Maritain’s apparently moderate and common-sensical thinking about the Jews figured in the background to the initial exclusionary measures taken against French Jews by the Vichy regime even if Maritain himself would soon be horrified by what followed. Maritain’s approach has resurfaced in the thinking of his student John Paul II, whose “Thomist Personalism” envisages the toleration of the Jews as a distinct community within a “Christian Europe” consciously reaffirming Christian values. There was little that was liberal or pluralistic about Maritain’s approach to the Jews until he encountered the savagery visited on them by World War II.