In Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust, edited by Robert P. Ericksen and Susannah Heschel, Guenter Lewy writes in his article “Piux XII, the Jews, and the German Catholic Church”:
As early as 1934 the Church had made clear to the Nazi government that the enactment of a law forbidding racially mixed marriages would create a very difficult situation. In the eyes of the Church, the German bishops pointed out in a memorandum, every Catholic, whether born to a pure German or to a racially mixed marriage, whether baptized as a child or as an adult, was equally entitled to the sacraments. Hence if two baptized persons of racially mixed stock insisted on being married by a priest, the latter would have to comply, even if the state were to have prohibited such a union.
This response is correct from the perspective of Catholic tradition. However anti-Semitic individual Catholics and individual Catholic priests may have been, Catholic doctrine and law required all baptized Catholics to be treated equally, regardless of whether they were born Catholic or something else — even Jewish. This is the principle which the Catholic Church was supposed to follow and should have followed; when it came right down to it, however, the principle was basically ignored:
This, however, is precisely what the state soon did, for one of the practical results of the so-called Nuremberg laws of September 15, 1935, was to make it illegal for two Catholics to marry when one was considered racially “non-Aryan” under the standards set up by the law. (Since the persecution of the Jews had led to many new conversions to the Catholic religion, the number of such marriages was undoubtedly rising at the time). The central office of information of the German episcopate in Berlin reported in September 1935 that earlier Catholic couples of racially mixed descent had been traveling to England to get married there, but now even those marriages had become illegal, and the Church had a very serious problem on its hands. What did it do?
In some instances priests circumvented the law by using a provision of the Concordat of 1933 which, in cases of “great moral emergency,” permitted a church marriage without a preceding civil ceremony, but by and large the church conformed to the law, bowing to what earlier it had termed an inadmissible infringement of its spiritual jurisdiction.
It’s great that some priests defied the law, though they only did so under the cover of a provision of the Concordat. If there hadn’t been such a provision, would have gone ahead anyway on the argument that Catholic doctrine permits such marriages and the state has no authority to block them? Given the fact that most priests didn’t even try to do this much, it’s unlikely that many priests would have stood up to the state at all without this modest form of cover.
Thus, the Catholic Church caved in with barely a peep of protest. Marriages which should have been perfectly valid according to Catholic doctrine were refused because the Nazi government didn’t approve of “mixed” marriages. Did the Catholic Church give up its principles in order to placate the government? Given the absence of real protest, it’s perhaps more likely that they never thought very much of that principle to begin with. It sounds like they followed the Nazi lead because they approved of what the Nazis were doing and what they wanted.
And what does this have to do with the mass murder of Jews?
A decree of April 7, 1933, which resulted in the discharge of numerous Catholic civil servants, had also provided for the dismissal of all Jews, except veterans of the First World War, from the civil service. Henceforth, anyone applying for government employment — and soon for various other positions as well — had to submit proof that he was not a Jew. Since prior to 1874-76 births had been registerer only by the churches, the latter were asked to help in determining who was or was not fully Aryan, for under Nazi law this depended on the racial (i.e., religious) status of parents and grandparents.
The Church cooperated as a matter of course, complaining only that priests already overburdened with work were not receiving compensation for this special service to the state. The very question of whether the Church should lend its help to the Nazi state in sorting out people of Jewish descent was never debated. On the contrary, “We have always unselfishly worked for the people without regard to gratitude or ingratitude,” a priest wrote in the Klerusblatt in September of 1934, “We shall also do our best to help in this service to the people.” And the cooperation of the Church in this matter continued right through the War years when the price of being Jewish was no longer dismissal from a government job and loss of livelihood, but deportation and outright physical destruction. [emphasis added]
The Catholic Church knew who was and was not a “Jew” according to Nazi racial standards. The Catholic Church knew whose parents and grandparents were originally Jews and only later converted to Catholicism. According to Nazi racial standards, a person whose grandparents had been born Jews and later converted was still technically a Jew, even if they and their parents had never known anything other than German Christianity.
People like this, and millions more, were slated first for official discrimination and later extermination. The Catholic Church helped the state achieve this. The Catholic Church helped the Nazis identify Jews for the purpose of discrimination. Later, the Catholic Church helped the Nazis identify Jews for arrest, deportation, and extermination.
A few priests must have balked at this and done something to thwart the Nazi agenda, but there was no official protest or refusal to help. A few priests must have had the courage to refuse to help the Nazis identify Jews for extermination, but it appears most did not. Even worse, there was no official protest over this — the only thing which Catholic officials really protested was the fact that the priests weren’t being paid to help exterminate their Jewish neighbors and parishioners.
Priests were willing to assist mass murder for free, but given how much work they already had they would have preferred that the state compensate them for their help. Fair is fair, right?