Truth, Faith, and the Opening of the Vatican Archives

[Published in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, February 29, 2020, p. 1.]

Documents related to the Second World War

by Abraham Skorka

Emet and Emunah, truth and faith, have the same three Hebrew letters at their root (alef – mem – nun), from which derive other Hebrew words that refer to security, stability, power and trust (omnah, meheiman, etc). In Psalms 31:6[5] we read: “Into Your hands I commit my spirit; You have redeemed me, O Lord, God of truth”. Rabbi Ḥanina, one of the Talmudic sages, said: “The Seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, is Truth” (b. Yoma 69b). Truth is used in many places in Jewish sacred literature to define a primary characteristic of God. And truth is also what God requires from human beings, as was declared by the prophet Zechariah (8:16): “Speak the truth to one another”. Maimonides likewise holds up Abraham as a model in searching for truth when he rejected the paganism of his own society and began serving the One True God (Yad, Avodat Kokhavim 1). In the Jewish tradition, therefore, the knowledge of truth is crucial to all aspects of life—scientific, ethical, and existential. It is essential for the growth of faith.

I recalled these concepts recently when reading of the opening in early March of the historical archives of the Holy See for the World War II period. This, in turn, reminded me of something Pope Francis has written: “[We] need knowledge, we need truth, because without these we cannot stand firm, we cannot move forward. Faith without truth does not save, it does not provide a sure footing. It remains a beautiful story, the projection of our deep yearning for happiness, something capable of satisfying us to the extent that we are willing to deceive ourselves” (Lumen Fidei, 24).

Unsurprisingly, then, Jewish and Christian perspectives converge on seeing truth as paramount.

I also remembered the occasion ten years ago when the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio and I discussed the topic of the Shoah for the book of dialogues that we were composing. We spoke from our personal insights; we opened our hearts to each other. I revealed my concern about Pope Pius XII and the plight of the Jews persecuted by the Nazis. On the one hand, I knew that there were those who said that with his public silence he was able to save the lives of many Jews behind the scenes, but, on the other hand, I wondered if that public silence was used by the murderers to eliminate many others.

Haunted by the heartbreaking expressions that I had seen on the faces of members of my family, whose beloved ones, my direct ancestors, had met their ends in the factories of death erected by the Nazis, I raised the topic with Cardinal Bergoglio. I remarked to him that the Church’s actions during World War II needed to be investigated to alleviate continuing Jewish suffering and distress. This required that all historical material be analyzed. He replied:

What you said about opening the archives relating to the Shoah seems perfect to me. They should open them and clarify everything. Then it can be seen if they could have done something, to with extent it could have be done, and if we were wrong in something, we will be able to say: “We were wrong in this.” We do not have to be afraid of that. The objective has to be the truth. When one starts to hide the truth, one eliminates the Bible. One believes in God, but only to a point. … We must know the truth and go to those archives” (On Heaven and Earth, Image Books, 2013, pp. 183-184).

Writing later in Lumen Fidei 13, Pope Francis mentions the Rabbi of Kock (aka “the Kotske Rebbe”). Perhaps he is the first and unique Hasidic teacher to be cited in a papal encyclical. This rabbi is famous for his dedication to seeking truth. Even though he cited a midrashic text (Bereshit Rabba 8:5) to insist that only God can have knowledge of the full truth of everything, he passionately believed that human beings must always pursue truth even if only dimly perceived. Although God alone can judge the full truth of historical events and of people’s motivations, still human beings must constantly strive to perceive as much of the truth as they can.

Ten years after Cardinal Bergoglio and I spoke about this topic, and following an intense labor of classification and cataloguing, the Vatican archives during the World War II period are being made accessible for analysis, study, and interpretation. This event contributes to the unending human search for truth. Even if human beings cannot definitively conclude whether this choice or another would have had this or that consequence for the Jews victimized by the Nazis, we are driven by the need to know as much as possible.

The hope expressed in our conversation of ten years ago is now becoming reality. The pain and anguish of not being able to seek the truth is about to be eased. In the Jewish tradition, such a search for truth is part of the path that brings us closer to God.

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Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations of Saint Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, PA