Volume > Issue > Briefly: October 2008

October 2008

Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau

By Jean Bernard

Publisher: Zac­cheus Press

Pages: 197

Price: $14.95

Review Author: Dan Flaherty

When it comes to the Holocaust, the modern world has sought to make the Catholic Church out to be at best unaffected and at worst outright responsible for the horrors perpetrated by Hitler.

Priestblock 25487

is the latest book to debunk such myths and deceit. It is the story of Fr. Jean Bernard, a priest taken prisoner by the Nazis. As general secretary of the International Catholic Cinema office, Fr. Bernard worked to promote the Church through film. In 1940 the Gestapo closed his Brussels-based office; in early 1941 he was arrested for refusing to divulge the whereabouts of his friends. He was sent to the Dachau concentration camp, where he suffered his long ordeal.

Priestblock 25487, so named for the prisoner number Fr. Bernard was assigned, recounts the horrors, miseries, and drab grinding that constitutes prison life. For example, SS guards took sadistic pleasure in torturing prisoners who were trying to shower — first turning up the water to scalding hot, then immediately shifting it to ice cold, all the while threatening anyone who dared step out of the stall.

Psychological torture accompanied the physical. On one Good Friday, 60 priests were punished with an hour “on the tree.” They were tied together and hoisted up in such a way that the weight of their bodies twisted and stretched their joints. Upon Fr. Bernard’s arrival, he was told that the guards continually threatened the priests with “the tree” for the following Good Friday. Though the torture was not repeated, the ever-present threat took its mental toll.

Efforts by Pope Pius XII to speak out against Nazism resulted in increased barbarity inside the camps. After one such occasion, clergymen — Catholic and Protestant alike — were herded out of their assigned labor so quickly it was feared they were going to be gassed. As it was, they “only” had to listen to a vulgar speech replete with insults against the Pope, the Church, and clergy in general. A physical beating followed for those who crossed the guards. Such incidents answer the question of why the Vatican’s work against Hitler was better done behind the scenes.

In addition to the physical and mental suffering, and the drab conditions of life in the best of times, there was also the anguish of hopes raised and dashed. One day, Fr. Bernard was told to gather his things to get ready to be moved out. Filled with excitement at the prospect that his release had been obtained, he rushed to prepare for his departure. Upon arrival at the gate, he saw that his “Notification of Release” had been changed to “Notification of Ten Days Leave.” The reason for his leave? His mother had died.

There is no more inspiring part of this book than when Fr. Bernard was able to offer Mass. He writes of prisoners in neighboring cells asking him to whisper the prayers just a little bit louder, and to knock on the wall three times at the Consecration. Early on in his stay, he was able to preach to an audience of fellow prisoners that included both Catholics and Protestants. He chose to talk about punishment and accepting it as atonement — “I never had such attentive listeners.”

Finally, in August 1942, Fr. Bernard was released. His final days in the camp were spent in the infirmary, the place he believed he was going to die because of a heart problem — priests were not given medical treatment. He obtained his release only through one more display of courage. Because sick and severely debilitated prisoners were not released, the priest had to exert every last bit of will to conceal how ill he was. On August 6 he said his first post-prison Mass — on the anniversary of the day he had said the first Mass of his priesthood.

Priestblock 25487 is a short read and would fit well into an educational curriculum. A homeschooling family might couple it with books defending Pius XII’s honor, to show how the Catholic Church both fought Nazism and was persecuted by it. A Catholic high school could do the same. Public institutions interested in a full account of what happened during that awful period of history will find Fr. Bernard’s work a useful addition to the syllabus for any classes on the Holocaust. Ultimately, Fr. Bernard’s memoir of Dachau will be valuable to any reader who wants to read how one heroic priest suffered under one of history’s most savage regimes.

Vatican II: A Sociological Analysis of Religious Change

By Melissa J. Wilde

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Pages: 224

Price: $35

Review Author: Arthur C. Sippo

In this short and accessible book, Melissa Wilde, a sociologist from the University of Pennsylvania, attempts to explain the results of the Second Vatican Council through the use of sociological analysis. She writes that there were four major factions among the bishops who participated in the Council, each with its own agenda. The most conservative group included bishops from Italy and Spain, places where the Catholic Church had a virtual religious monopoly with favored recognition by their respective governments. The most progressive group came from the liberal secular democracies of northern Europe and North America, where the position of the Catholic Church was stable but where there were large numbers of non-Catholic Christians, making ecumenism and the recognition of religious liberty important issues. The bishops of Latin America, progressive in social and economic concerns but conservative in doctrine, formed the next group. Various anti-Catholic missionary movements were active in their countries, placing their congregations under a perceived threat of competition from other religions. They had little or no interest in ecumenism but were open to changes in religious practice that would help them compete with Protestant sects for the hearts and minds of the poor and unchurched. The final group was made up of the bishops of Asia and Africa, true missionary territory that faced a combination of social-justice and ecumenical issues. It was critically important that the right to freedom of religion be advocated in their areas as a necessary adjunct to their mission work. By the same token, Catholics in these areas needed to be on the leading edge of social change and reform in places where the majority of people were not Christians.

Wilde writes that this peculiar mix of factions led to a grassroots movement for reforms in the Catholic Church’s public persona in order to meet the needs of the times while still maintaining an impetus toward doctrinal conservatism on certain issues, especially with regard to Marian devotion and human sexuality. Wilde explains that the most conservative elements in the Church at that time were strongly wedded to a centralized papal/curial autocracy in which Church policy and doctrine were determined by the Vatican and imposed on the rest of the Church. But the climate in which all the bishops of the world were gathered in one place was more conducive to a collegial approach to such matters. Consequently, the progressive elements organized themselves more effectively than the conservatives, creating solid voting blocks. The conservatives, by comparison, directed most of their lobbying to the Pope, in the hope that he would intervene and impose a more conservative position. Consequently, the democratic nature of the conciliar process favored the progressive elements, and they were perceived to have triumphed on most issues. It should also be noted that the two Popes of Vatican II — John XXIII and Paul VI — favored the collegial process.

Wilde discusses in detail the results of the Council regarding three major issues: religious liberty, Marian devotion, and artificial birth control. She shows how the progressives won on the religious-liberty issue with Dignitatis Humanae, and on Marian devotion, where our Lady was not treated separately but within the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” Lumen Gentium. Both of these were of serious ecumenical import. Birth control, on the other hand, was not a major ecumenical issue; consequently, the progressives were less concerned about it.

Overall, Wilde makes a good case for her analysis of how and why Vatican II turned out as it did. She presents a far more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the process by which the Council made its decisions than we can find in other sources. Sadly, however, several flaws in her study need to be mentioned. First of all, Wilde depended for her understanding of Catholic doctrine on the help and advice of Fr. Andrew Greeley, which is always a big mistake. Fr. Greeley is completely out of touch with Catholic teaching, and has been for the past thirty years. As a consequence of his poor guidance, Wilde believes that at Vatican II “the Roman Catholic Church relinquished its claim to be the one true church.” This is a benighted notion that is unsupported by the facts. A reading of Lumen Gentium (#14) clearly shows otherwise.

Further, Wilde is under the mistaken impression that purely political concerns lay at the foundation of the Council’s teaching on religious liberty. She seems unaware of the popularity of the personalist philosophy that Karol Cardinal Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II) employed to develop the rationale for Dignitatis Humanae. While acknowledging that “error has no rights,” the Church recognized that erroneous people do, and that the specific obligation to practice the true religion assumes the more general right to be religious.

Wilde also does not seem to understand the difference between a change in doctrine and the development of doctrine. This, coupled with her overly political understanding of the conciliar process, leads her to believe that in the future the Catholic Church could reverse her position on artificial contraception and abortion. Clearly, Wilde has no concept of the true sources of Catholic doctrine, or of the limits on possible doctrinal development.

The overly progressive attitude of the author and her mentor, Fr. Greeley, leads to an erroneous understanding of how Catholic doctrine is discerned and promulgated. Nevertheless, Wilde’s analysis of the process by which Vatican II drew up its documents is enlightening and helpful for our understanding of this critical event in Catholic history.

Embryo Culture: Making Babies in the Twenty-First Century

By Beth Kohl

Publisher: Sarah Crichton Books

Pages: 288

Price: $24

Review Author: Mary McWay Seaman

The growing genre of confessional nonfiction now includes action-packed chronicles of exotic, elective medical procedures penned by participants with starring roles. These tell-all accounts spare readers no detail; nothing is too graphic or too private or too painful to divulge. To read Embryo Culture by Beth Kohl is to bear witness to the full gamut of her experiences with in vitro fertilization (IVF). This dispiriting look at the ultimate outsourc­ing of human life follows Kohl’s trek from infertility to motherhood with a tight, chatty narrative tracking expensive, dangerous, and morally repugnant procedures. The book’s cover itself is an affront: a child’s old-fashioned cross-stitched sampler features medical paraphernalia embroidered along the border.

The IVF process fertilizes human embryos outside the mother’s body; later the embryos are implanted in her body (or in another woman’s body) to produce what were formerly called “test tube” babies. More than a million children worldwide have been conceived in this manner since 1978; IVF produced three daughters for the author and her husband during the past decade. After sharing her physical ailments, personal genealogy, emotional struggles, and moral musings, Kohl sallies forth with revelations about finances, household wares, food preferences, and pre-marital romances.

Kohl pursued IVF after discovering her infertility at age 30. A relentless researcher, she admits to “misgivings over the connection between in vitro fertilization and God.” Interestingly, she phoned the Archdiocese of Chicago to obtain information concerning the Catholic Church’s moral ban on IVF, and she also sought advice at her synagogue. Stressful interviews with disagreeing physicians precede her selection of a “Mercedes-driving, Alps-skiing” childless IVF doctor who never manages to remember her name.

Picayune mechanics of IVF litter the pages with elaborate accounts of drug regimens, egg harvesting, fertilization, and implantation that gush with gory details. Readers become knowledgeable about lengthy, painful, and often demeaning procedures in an assembly-line atmosphere known as “batching.” Kohl attempts to leaven her trials with doses of coarse humor.

Detailed presentations of every data point, procedure, paperwork requirement, medical problem, sociological study, educational norm, and religious attitude cascade through the book. Glib excursions into abortion activism, adoption alternatives, parenting problems, overpopulation fears, and environmental distress, as well as China’s one-child governmental policy, drift into Kohl’s treatment of IVF “rights.” Discussions of future possibilities for choosing a child’s sex and physical features (designer offspring) sometimes flow as stream-of-consciousness ruminations about eugenics. Tidings from medical enterprises linked to and proceeding out of IVF, like stem-cell research and cloning, do not warm the heart.

Going off on other tangents, Kohl broadcasts opinions on American culture’s “baby-boomer construct of starters — starter house, starter job, starter marriage, starter child upon which to perfect one’s parenting techniques.” Her chattiness touches even the most mundane topics, including Chicago’s weather and traffic problems. Of her persistence, she states, “What motivated early Homo sapiens to have children, I’d guess, is roughly the same thing that motivates us today — the biological desire to pass along our genetic material, to receive reflected glory, to experience vicarious joy, and to have built-in caregivers for our dotage.”

Kohl struggles with angst over the fate of her extra frozen embryos and with the “selective reduction” of implanted embryos. Those unfamiliar with the complexities of IVF learn that multiple embryos are commonly implanted in a woman in hopes that at least one will take hold; only about 30 percent of implantations are successful. However, sometimes two, three, or four embryos succeed, yielding twins, triplets, or quadruplets. Physicians often advise parents to let them “selectively reduce” — that is, abort — the “extra” ones, leaving only one or two behind. Kohl does not hide her discomfort with this practice; likewise, she does not shrink from presenting studies of IVF-related maladies in children.

An engaging presentation on the barrage of parenting advice, safety precautions, and child development data that overwhelms young parents is heartening to read. Grandparents remember when prenatal care largely consisted of just waiting and watching during a time when numerous children were born to parents unaware of the dangers of tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine. Of course, previous generations took up parenting in their late teens or twenties, ages when procreation problems were rare, back when all babies were begotten, not made. Advanced maternal age, venereal diseases, and years of contraception and abortion now take an unprecedented toll on fertility.

Although uncertain about the bioethics of reproductive science’s progression, Kohl, appearing to believe in endless shades of gray, praises the branch that gave her three daughters. Truly an inside story, Embryo Culture will put many readers under a sour Orwellian spell. The book manipulates readers into roles as confidantes while publicizing intimate information about Kohl and her family. There is just no getting beyond the malevolence inherent in the creepy, crass manipulation of human beings — fertilized, frozen, and frequently discarded during their embryonic days. It is a relief to finish this book.

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