Date: Tue, 5 Oct 1999 23:11:48 -0500 (CDT)
Subject: Pope Pious Pius XII & the Nazis
Article: 78814
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How pious was Pius XII?

By Marilyn Henry, 5 October 1999

(October 5)—A look at the repercussions John Cornwell's new book, Hitler's Pope, may have on Jewish-Catholic relations and on Vatican plans to beatify Pius XII

Weeks before Succot in 1917, the chief rabbi of Munich, Dr. Werner, approached Eugenio Pacelli, the papal nuncio, in need of a favor. The Italian government was barring the export of the palm fronds that the Jewish community had bought from an Italian supplier. The rabbi thought the Church could help.

The Israelite community [is] seeking the intervention of the pope in hope that he will plead on behalf of thousands of German Jews, Pacelli wrote to his superior in a letter sent by a slow, overland route to Rome. Pacelli said he had warned the rabbi of wartime delays in communications and added that he did not think it appropriate for the Vatican to assist them in their exercise of their Jewish cult.

Although the community got no assistance, Werner thanked me warmly for all that I had done on his behalf, Pacelli later reported.

Two decades later, during another war, Pacelli, whose grandfather had been the legal adviser to Pope Pius IX, became Pius XII.

A new book, Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, argues that this small Succot incident belies subsequent claims that Pacelli had a great love of the Jewish religion and was always motivated by its best interests.

The book by John Cornwell, a British journalist and research associate of Jesus College, Cambridge, is the latest salvo about Pius XII and the Vatican during World War II.

Pius XII is a lightning rod in Catholic-Jewish relations. Although these relations have dramatically advanced in the last 35 years, they have been bruised recently. Some 18 months ago, the Vatican issued We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah. That papal document was assailed by many in the Jewish community for failing to address the Vatican's official silence during the Holocaust and was also criticized for its defense of Pius XII.

Pius XII, Cornwell wrote, is not a saintly exemplar for future generations, but a deeply flawed human being from whom Catholics, in our relations with religions, can best profit by expressing our sincere regret.

Cornwell's book, published by Viking Press, was excerpted last month in the American magazine Vanity Fair, giving it a wide and popular audience.

His thesis has been attacked by Pierre Blet, a Jesuit historian. Blet's book, Pius XII and the Second World War: According to the Archives of the Vatican, is being published this month by Paulist Press, a religious publishing house catering to a specialized market.

BLET IS the only surviving member of a team of Church historians that was commissioned to look into the Vatican's World War II archives to produce an 11-volume study. Blet has argued that Pius XII did not speak out more forcefully for fear of worsening the fate of Catholics and Jews in Germany and Nazi-occupied countries.

Blet also contends, in the Jesuit journal Civilta Cattolica, that the apparent silence hid a secret action carried out [by Pius] through nunciatures [Vatican embassies] and episcopates to avoid, or at least to limit, the deportations, the violence, the persecutions.

Public declarations by Pius only would have aggravated the fate of the victims and multiplied their numbers, Blet wrote.

That was echoed by Reverend Vincent A. Lapomarda, the coordinator of the Holocaust collection at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. In the summer issue of Commentary, Lapomarda wrote: It is not clear that Jewish leaders wanted words as much as actions from Pius XII. As Marcus Melchior, chief rabbi of Denmark, declared, ‘If the pope had spoken out, Hitler would have probably massacred more than six million Jews and perhaps 10 times 10 million Catholics.’

He was referring to the grandfather of cabinet minister Michael Melchior, who is revered for helping save the Jews of Denmark.

The papal document We Remember, a 14-page statement that took 11 years to produce, was called an act of repentance. It did not address the silence of the Vatican during the Holocaust, but referred to the rescuers and included Pius XII.

Those who did help to save Jewish lives as much as was in their power, even to the point of placing their own lives in danger, must not be forgotten, it said.

During and after the war, Jewish communities and Jewish leaders expressed their thanks for all that had been done for them, including what Pope Pius XII did personally or through his representatives to save hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives. Many Catholic bishops, priests, religious and laity have been honored for this reason by the State of Israel.

Scholars such as Dina Porat of Tel Aviv University have challenged the Vatican's claim that hundreds of thousands of Jews were rescued.

But, even overlooking the troublesome number, inserting Pius XII in We Remember opened a Pandora's box, said Rabbi A. James Rudin, interreligious affairs director for the American Jewish Committee.

When you defend someone as controversial as the wartime pope using historical documents, you invite other historians to use historical documents to take a totally different position, which is exactly what these two books reveal.

The combustible imbroglio over Pius XII is expected to flare in a public debate over the two books, as the defenders and detractors within the Catholic world tussle over the beatification of Pius XII, with Jewish opinion hovering fitfully overhead.

There's very little problem in critiquing a pope of 300, 400 years ago, said Dr. John T. Pawlikowski, a professor of social ethics at the Catholic Theological Union at the University of Chicago.

But the problem is, for many people, it is almost a shattering experience to have this pope challenged in this way because it challenges the very basic faith assumptions, including the doctrine of papal infallibility.

Questions such as whether he should have been more public in criticizing the Nazis, whether he should have acted earlier, whether he should have spoken out simply to maintain the Church's moral integrity whatever the practical consequences—all these questions are valid and should be pursued in a non-polemical fashion, Pawlikowski wrote last year in the Catholic publication Commonweal.

However, Pawlikowski said in an interview that he feared that attacks on Pius XII certainly have the potential of creating the most serious problem in the Catholic-Jewish dialogue since the Auschwitz convent conflict crisis.

I think that people on the Catholic side, even those of us who certainly have defended the importance of doing an honest and thorough critique of Pius's papacy, feel that this is such an exaggerated attack, that these sorts of attacks are so exaggerated and don't have nuance and are fundamentally shallow from a scholarly point of view, said Pawlikowski, a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council since 1980.

IT WAS not only Jews about whom Pius XII was silent. He did not speak out in defense of Polish Catholics or against euthanasia, historian Michael Marrus has noted. The Vatican, wrote Marrus in The Holocaust in History, professed neutrality and was intent on safeguarding its institutional interests and the Church's jurisdiction.

The most vocal critics of Pius XII during the actual period of the Third Reich were Poles, for the same reasons as the Jews—namely that he did not speak out publicly but only through diplomatic channels on behalf of the non-Jewish Polish victims who were overwhelmingly Catholic, said Pawlikowski, a priest of the Servite Order. The Polish criticism became so intense that the Vatican commissioned the Jesuits to prepare a defense of the pope.

Cornwell had previously written a book, Thief in the Night, a best-seller about the death of Pope John Paul I that was sympathetic to the Vatican.

Cornwell, a Catholic, said in the Vanity Fair article that his original intent had been to prove that Pius XII was honorable. Instead, Cornwell wrote, he found that Pacelli, who was Pius XII from 1939 until 1958, associated Jews with Bolshevism. From the time that he was in his early 40s, Pacelli nourished a suspicion and contempt for the Jews for political reasons. This was, Cornwell said, a scorn and revulsion consistent with antisemitism.

He has now been accused of using Pius XII to pick a fight with the Church.

Cornwell has a real problem with the institution of the Church—he doesn't like the fact that it is a hierarchy and that is why he goes after Pius XII for being an autocrat, said Eugene Fisher, director of ecumenical and interreligious affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

He was, but so was everyone else in his culture in the Holy See at the time. The system is not a democratic system, didn't pretend to be, Fisher said. To try to use the Holocaust because you don't like the way your church is organized is morally bankrupt.

Fisher is also intent on proving that Pius XII was not an antisemite.

The word cult, he said, referring to the 1917 letter about Werner's palm fronds, was not a pejorative term.

This was a period when Catholics would not go into Protestant churches, or you would get excommunicated for standing up at a Protestant wedding, Fisher said in Washington.

It has to do with theological closedness of the Catholic Church of the period. It has nothing to do with personal animosity toward Jews.

I am not here to defend Pius XII, but everybody needs to be treated with some objectivity, said Rabbi Jack Bemporad, the director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding, which is based in New Jersey.

I would also say that Pius XII under no circumstances can be called an antisemite. That is nonsense. That he did not speak out, that is clear, said Bemporad. But the question of why he did not speak out, that is open to a lot of interpretation, and until we understand what the full context is, it is easy, but it is not correct, to jump to judgment and condemn.

MUCH OF the debate about Pius XII, and the Cornwell and Blet conclusions, are an internal Catholic matter. But this is expected to influence the agitation over—and perhaps accelerate—beatification, which in turn affects Catholic-Jewish relations.

Within the Jewish and the liberal Catholic community, there is anxiety about both the efforts to make Pius XII into a saint, and where the line is drawn on the criticism of outsiders.

Sister Carol Rittner, a professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey, asked: Is this the time for the Roman Catholic Church to talk about canonizing someone who is a lightning rod? From all that I know about Pius XII, he was a very complex human being who lived in a complex, convoluted, conflicted time. Unfortunately, at least in the Roman Catholic Christian community, people are either for him or against him.

She also questioned whether people outside the Roman Catholic tradition have the right to tell us within the Roman Catholic tradition how to deal with internal issues.

Last year, the outsiders included the Knesset, whose Immigration and Absorption Committee called on the foreign minister to instruct his representatives to request the beatification process be suspended.

The train which could lead to the beatification of Pope Pius XII, who was pope at the time of the Holocaust and kept silent in the face of the horrors, must be stopped, then-committee chairwoman Naomi Blumenthal (Likud) said.

Too many trains left on a journey from which they did not return in those days. History will not forgive us if we keep silent now about this [beatification] procedure.

However, within Jewish and Catholic circles, there is fear that this borders on Jewish interference in internal church affairs.

The Catholic Church can make anyone it wants into a saint, said Rudin. That's their business; it is not our business. If the Vatican makes Pacelli into a saint, as a model for piety and spiritual truth, no one could object, he added.

But, if they then say in addition to his spiritual side and his prayer life and his piety, all of which is for the Catholic Church to determine, that he was also a hero of the Holocaust period, or that he saved hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives, then we have some problems, Rudin said. It is the beatification that then leads to canonization that is causing concerns.

However, said Pawlikowski: Attacks tend to only light the fire of the uncritical defenders of Pius, who then have the greater potential of actually pushing for his canonization. It kind of isolates those of us who have tried to argue for an open, critical examination of his record and who also tried to argue that this is certainly not the time to canonize him.

A MILLENNIUM fever seems to have ensnared World War II with assorted final reckonings.

Some 17 nations and numerous European enterprises have established historical commissions to examine their Holocaust-era histories. There are efforts to recover assets from Swiss, Austrian, French and German banks, European insurers and German industry—all part of what has become known as closing the final chapter of the Holocaust before the end of the century.

The Vatican is not immune to the public and political calls for accounting, but neither is it easily swayed by public pressure.

However, much of what is known today about Pius XII stems from an unlikely source. It was a 1963 play called The Deputy, by Rolf Hochhuth, a German Protestant writer. The play, which was translated into more than a dozen languages, portrayed Pius XII as too fearful to publicly challenge the Nazis.

Before the Hochhuth play, The New York Times had run editorials calling Pius XII heroic, and all the things written about Pius by Jews were universally positive, Bemporad said.

That play not only jarred non-Catholic thinking, it also compelled Pope Paul VI to convene a commission to examine the Vatican archives. Blet was among the Catholic scholars who spent some 15 years, from 1965 to 1981, compiling the volumes.

They released 5,100 pages in the 1960s and 1970s, in reaction to The Deputy, but then they stopped. That is not all there is, Rudin said. This is the time to bring together competent Jewish and Catholic scholars to go over the appropriate documents. That's the only way we are going to get any kind of closure on this issue.

There have been numerous calls for the Vatican to open its archives. That is a ticklish subject, in part because it fails to take into account that 18 months ago the Church made a limited offer to which Jewish groups have yet to respond.

Cardinal Edward Cassidy, the head of the Vatican Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews, met with a group of Jewish leaders right after the Church released its Shoah statement and proposed that a joint Catholic-Jewish team investigate the 11 volumes that had been compiled after The Deputy.

According to Bemporad, Cassidy said that if there were aspects that the scholars thought the volumes did not cover, they could look for them in the archives. There were no restrictions on which historians the Jewish community could ask to do this work.

So far, there haven't been any takers. That prompted Cassidy, last February in Baltimore, to report that our suggestion last year that Jewish and Catholic scholars study together the material from our archives already made available to the public has been completely ignored.

When Cardinal Cassidy hands you on a silver platter the opportunity to go into the archives in an organized systematic way, and we don't even respond to that, does that make any sense? Bemporad asked.

Bemporad said that he had read sections of these 11 volumes and come to the conclusion that this is not a whitewash; but there is enough material to raise significant questions.

However, he said, It is my conviction that if this group gets together and investigates the material and it comes up that there are real questions about the conduct of Pius XII, I do not believe that the Catholic Church would ignore them and proceed with this beatification process.

On the other hand, if it is loose, shooting from the hip, unthinking condemnation, all that it will do is speed the process of beatification because they are going to come to the defense of the pope, and all those elements in the Catholic Church who are for some kind of objective rational way of dealing with it will be treated as if they are disloyal to the pope, said Bemporad, who has been engaged in activities with the Vatican and in interfaith work for more than two decades.

The Church's partner, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, had become moribund, acknowledged the new chairman Seymour Reich. However, he said, the committee is in the process of organizing a team of scholars to undertake the research with the Vatican.

It's a first step, Reich said. If indeed the scholars find the 11 volumes wanting, then I would think the Vatican would have to take it a step further.