On Church Opposition to Eugenics and Anti-Semitism

Interview With Leonardo Macrobio

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ROME, FEB. 7, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Although a complex ideology underlies the Nazi anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust, many historians point to the eugenic theories that were widespread in the 1930s and 1940s.

In the book “The Racial State: Germany 1933-1945” (Rizzoli Publishers, Milan, 1992), Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann explain that Adolf Hitler fused the theories of social Darwinism, racial purity and anti-Semitism, giving life to a political movement that later became a brutal dictatorship.

To probe the links between eugenics and anti-Semitism, ZENIT interviewed Leonardo Macrobio, professor of the master’s course in environmental sciences at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University, who has just completed a study on eugenic theories and the opposition of the Church, and in particular of Pius XII, to them.

Q: What are the conceptual and organizational origins of the racial theories and anti-Semitism which spread in Europe in the ’30s and ’40s?

Macrobio: To understand the conceptual roots of racism as a racial theory one must go back to the second half of the 19th century in England.

In that nation, in fact, for some 30 years, from 1853 to 1883, some essays were published that established the theoretical basis for the birth of racial laws. I am referring to works whose titles and authors do not require special comments: Joseph Arthur Gobineau in 1853-55 writes “Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines”; Charles Darwin in 1859 publishes “The Origin of Species,” from which stemmed the theory of the survival of the fittest.

In 1862, Herbert Spencer applied the Darwinian theory to society in the essay “First Principles,” giving birth to the movement of social Darwinism. In 1869, Francis Galton took up the works of Darwin, Spencer and Gobineau in “Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences.” Only in 1871, in line with the just-mentioned studies, Darwin decided to apply his evolutionist theory to man in the volume “The Descent of Man.”

Finally, in 1883, Galton published “Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development,” in which, for the first time, the term “eugenics” appeared. All these works introduce the concept according to which life is for the fittest, while the weakest succumb.

The definition of “fit” or “weak” is vague and by its nature requires specification. The problem, to which the racial laws would give their tragic solution, is the following: Who can say who is fit — and therefore deserves to live — and who is weak — and therefore, by nature, is destined to succumb)?

The climate at the end of the 19th century in which these theories developed found an appropriate answer in medical science: The canons of worth were indicated by the physiognomic sciences and, more generally, by the anthropometric. In other words, there was an attempt to justify scientifically an ideological assumption, namely, that there are inferior and superior races.

According to these theories, Jews were considered an inferior race. And even though the eugenic theories considered a large category of people inferior, a virulent form of anti-Semitism developed throughout the world.

Q: What was the reaction of the intellectual elites and of governments to these theories?

Macrobio: The cultural elites willingly embraced the racist theories, among them, anti-Semitism. This, truth be told, because of a type of legacy of the end of the 19th century on the part of the theories of Thomas Malthus.

It is obvious that, if as Malthus maintained, the planet is overpopulated and there will no longer be resources precisely because of the “population explosion,” eugenics provided an ideal way out, indicating “objective” parameters to eliminate groups of people considered superfluous.

The governments, for their part, activated many resources to pursue racial purity. Severe and selective were the immigration laws of America at the beginning of the 20th century. But also in Europe, together with totalitarianism, laws soon emerged of a eugenic character and, therefore, racial.

Countries such as Sweden, Norway, Finland, Switzerland, France, Austria and Spain equipped themselves immediately, as early as the first decades of the 19th century, with legislation that, in the name of safeguarding the race, obliged the sterilization of some categories of citizens, such as the mentally retarded, the antisocial and the handicapped.

Q: What were, on the other hand, the reactions of the Catholic Church?

Macrobio: The Church, as early as the advent of the theories of Malthus, Darwin, Gobineau, Spencer and Galton, found itself in strong disagreement in regard to these positions. The essential point was the clash of two different conceptions of man.

The Church refers to man made in the image and likeness of God, and rejects all forms of biological reductionism of the human being. The Catholic view of man is that every man, regardless of his state, has enormous dignity, so much so that his presence is determinant in history.

Q: You have directed some research on the bioethical teaching of Pius XII. Can you tell us what Pope Pius XII thought of eugenic theories and of anti-Semitism?

Macrobio: The Pontiff took a clear position against eugenics and anti-Semitism. On December 2, 1940, the Holy Office promulgated the decree, approved and confirmed by Pius XII, which responded to the following question: “Can it be licit, by order of the public authority, to kill directly those who, although they have not committed any crime deserving of death, still, because of their physical or psychic defects, cannot be useful to the nation and might be a weight for it and, it is reckoned, might be an impediment for its vigor and strength?” Note here the echo of the language of the racial laws.

The answer, as usual for these documents, was very synthetic: “No, because it is contrary to the natural law and the divine precept.” Worth noting is the succession of two motivations: eugenics is contrary “in primis” to the natural law. In other words, it is the prerogative of all men, believers and nonbelievers, to recognize the profound irrationality of this position.

A second document was the following: “This Apostolic See, faithful to the eternal principles that radiate from the law written by God in the heart of every man (…) has never left, not even for a moment, no matter how critical it was, any doubt that its maxims and external action do not admit, nor can they admit, any of those conceptions, which in the history of civilization will be mentioned among the most deplorable and shameful distortions of human thought and feeling.”

This phrase was uttered by Pius XII on November 29, 1945, very soon after the end of the war. These words were addressed to a group of delegate fugitive Jews from the concentration camps in Germany!

In this same line, on August 3, 1946, Pius XII, speaking to delegates of the Supreme Arab Committee of Palestine, said: “[J]ust as we condemned, on other occasions in the past, the persecutions of a fanatic anti-Semitism unleashed against the Jewish people. We have always observed this attitude of perfect impartiality in the most varied circumstances, and we intend to conform ourselves to it in the future.” Once again, an explicit declaration which alludes to more interventions against anti-Semitism, and once again there are no denials of this affirmation on the part of those concerned.

Q: Why was the Church opposed and continues to be opposed to eugenic theories?

Macrobio: Eugenic theories introduce an arbitrary discrimination in the definition of man.

For the Catholic Church, one “more man” or one “less man” does not exist, because humanity is not defined by external characteristics — health, beauty, aspect — or interior ones. From the greatest sinner to the greatest saint we are sons in Christ.

Note that to be “sons in the Son” elimin
ates absolutely two possible and equally dangerous deviations.

On one hand, in fact, one cannot be “more” or “less son.” Filiation belongs to man’s nature, to his innermost being, and is not quantifiable.

On the other, one avoids falling into the most total parity: The father-son relationship is unique, even if there are many sons.

More than that, it is precisely a father’s duty to act in such a way that every son can “be what he is,” that he be able to express the maximum of his potentialities.

Therefore, in the measure that it is faithful to this fact, the Church cannot but oppose all theories that penalize one man in favor of another. And this is true, regardless of the method used.

The concept doesn’t change, whether it is verbal racism, or an intervention in people’s sexuality or — as occurred in the Nazi-Fascist and Communist totalitarianisms — when the point is reached of physically eliminating man or intending to “program” a new man by selecting some characteristics. Wherever the filial dignity of man is threatened, the Church has the moral duty to firmly oppose it.

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