Anthony J. Sciolino, a retired family court judge in upstate New York and an ordained Roman Catholic deacon, had long been troubled by the “powerful anti-Jewish bias” that has existed within the Church.
The now-debunked belief that Jews bore responsibility for the death of Jesus helped spark pogroms, the Crusades, and the Inquisition, in which many hundreds of thousands of innocent Jews were murdered. In the 20th century, it helped lay the groundwork for the extermination of six million Jews in the Holocaust.
“How is it possible for one group of people, Christians, to hate another enough to kill six million of them?” he wondered. “It all began with words, words in toxic proportion.”
Sciolino’s interest resulted in a book, The Holocaust, the Church, and the Law of Unintended Consequences: How Christian Anti-Judaism Spawned Nazi Anti-Semitism, rereleased earlier this year.
Sciolino firmly believes Christians, particularly Catholics, need to come to terms with their historical moral lapses and complicity in the Shoa.
“This has been bubbling inside me for more than 50 years,” said Sciolino.
On Oct. 26, he spoke at the Keepers of Jewish Excellence program at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick. There and in a phone interview with NJJN the next day, Sciolino acknowledged there had been “blowback” from traditional Catholics, who bristled over his criticism of Pope Pius XII for his inaction during the Holocaust, and over his assertion that the Church chose to protect the institution rather than take a stand to save innocent lives.
“To traditional Catholics the Pope is infallible,” said Sciolino. “He is a prophet, a vicar of Christ on Earth. To them this book was scurrilous. I was accused of slandering Pope Pius XII and holding the Church up to ridicule.”
But, he said, throughout history Christian leaders demonized and humiliated Jews, likening them to Satan and claiming they were beyond salvation because they were “Christ killers” or “God killers.” They were accused of killing Christian children for their blood, and tortured and murdered, all with tacit Church approval, said Sciolino.
It took until 1965 and the “Nostra Aetate” declaration under Pope John XXIII for the Church to declare that Jews weren’t responsible for Jesus’s death and the Jewish people had not been abandoned by God.
Sciolino, who sat on the bench in Monroe County for 20 years, said he weighed the evidence as a jurist, reaching a guilty verdict on Church actions during the Holocaust.
Although there were individual Catholics who acted on their own to protect or rescue Jews, he said, “the Church as an institution, in my opinion, failed miserably.”
Not only did it fail to take a stand, but it provided little moral support to encourage individuals to help their neighbors.
“Jesus was born, lived, and died a Jew,” said Sciolino. “Somebody following their own conscience in Germany would know Jesus would not have condoned what went on. The Holocaust happened because Christians failed to live according to Jesus’s Gospel of Love.”
It isn’t surprising that many of the most notorious Nazis were raised Catholic, including Dr. Josef Mengele, Joseph Goebbels, and Adolf Hitler himself, and cited some of the more noxious Christian liturgy to rally other Christians.
The son of Italian immigrants, Sciolino’s first encounter with the Holocaust came as an eighth-grader reading The Diary of Anne Frank.
“I was taken by the injustice of a girl about my same age who died in a concentration camp just because she was Jewish,” he said.
Later he would visit concentration camps and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, speak with survivors, and help develop an interfaith Holocaust education course in the Rochester, NY, area.
While the book itself was awarded both the 2013 Independent Publisher Book Award and its silver medal in world history, Sciolino acknowledged he has received few invitations to speak at churches. Although he has spoken in his own parish, when two local libraries scheduled an appearance, they received numerous calls from Catholics urging cancellation.
Even worse, his ministerial privileges as a deacon were revoked by the Diocese of Rochester “because my orthodoxy was suspect.” Even Sciolino’s offer to continue his jail ministry without teaching or preaching was rejected unless he took “an oath of fidelity to the magisterium” to uphold Church doctrine, a process Sciolino refused because he was denied a hearing and “due process.”
“I’d rather be right than a deacon,” said Sciolino, who holds a master’s degree in theology from St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester. “I cannot preach and can’t teach, but I have not been silenced. I am in an elite group of Catholic liberals and I’m proud to be associated with them.”
Sciolino remains a practicing Catholic because “I would rather be inside and attempt to change the status quo than outside throwing stones.”