Pope Pius XII’s role before and during the Holocaust, both as Pius XI’s Secretary of State and as wartime pope, is the subject of ongoing controversy. The controversy began at war’s end when the existence of ratlines, a system of Vatican approved escape routes for Nazis and other fascists fleeing Europe to avoid prosecution for war crimes, came to light. It intensified in the early 1960s when German playwright Rolf Hochhuth’s play, The Deputy, premiered in Berlin, London and New York. The controversial play accused Pius XII of failure to speak out against the Holocaust. And it continues today with attempts, primarily from members of the conservative Vatican Curia, including Pope Benedict XVI, now emeritus, to have Pius XII canonized a saint, despite opposition from Jewish groups and others who urge that no action be taken, at least, until more information is available.
Abraham Foxman, U.S. Director of the Anti-Defamation League, urged Pope Benedict to suspend indefinitely the canonization process until secret World War II Vatican archives are declassified and fully examined “so that the full record of Pius’ actions during the Holocaust may finally be known.” Regarding canonization, Rabbi Albert H. Friedlander, author of “Out of the Whirlwind: a Reader of Holocaust Literature,” asks this provocative question:
“Who is a saint in the time of evil?… The question is not whether the Pope was evil, but: was he a saint? I must ask the Church to re-assess its conscience. Does not ‘sainthood’ indicate a superhuman effort? And if the Church wants to be a teaching testimony to everyone, should it not take extra care, even if it leaves the establishment of those days less than perfect?”
Fr. Peter Gumpel, SJ, relator (f.k.a.devil’s advocate), in the cause of Pius XII’s canonization, on the other hand, asserted: “The cause of the beatification and canonization of Pope Pius XII, who is rightly venerated by millions of Catholics, will not be stopped or delayed by the unjustifiable and calumnious attacks against this great and saintly man.”
In one of his most forceful defenses, Pope Benedict in 2007 declared that Pius XII did all he could do — and more than most — to stop the Holocaust. “Wherever possible, he spared no effort in intervening in (the Jews’) favor either directly or through instructions given to other individuals or to institutions of the Catholic Church. “Pius’ wartime interventions were ‘made secretly and silently’ precisely because, given the concrete situation of that difficult historical moment, only in this way was it possible to avoid the worst and save the greatest number of Jews.”
In 2008, while celebrating a Mass commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Pius’ death, Pope Benedict declared: “In light of the concrete situations of that complex historical moment, he (Pius) sensed that this was the only way to avoid the worst and save the greatest possible number of Jews.” Benedict then indicated that he prayed the process of beatification can proceed happily. In December, 2009, Benedict confirmed the “heroic virtues” of Pius, opening the door to beatification, once a miracle is attributed to the late pope.
The International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission, comprised of three Jewish and three Catholic scholars, was appointed in 1999 by the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. In October, 2000, the Commission finished its review of Vatican archival material released to that date and submitted preliminary findings to the Commission’s President, Cardinal Edward Cassidy. The report, entitled “The Vatican and the Holocaust,” indicated; inter alia, that several of the documents examined refute the Vatican’s claim that it did everything possible to facilitate emigration of Jews out of Europe. For example, internal memoranda confirm, according to the report, that the Vatican opposed Jewish emigration to Palestine, i.e. “The Holy See has never approved of the project of making Palestine a Jewish home… (because) Palestine is by now holier for Catholics than for Jews.” It should be noted, moreover, that the Holy See did not officially recognize the State of Israel, founded in 1948, until 1994, close to fifty years later. Ironically, the Holy See was first to recognize Nazi Germany in July 1933, within months of its founding.
His critics offer various explanations for Pius’ so called feckless response to the Holocaust — his own anti-Semitism; preoccupation with protecting and preserving the institutional church; fear of Nazi reprisals; fear of causing schism within the German Catholic and other national churches; fear of his own kidnapping or assassination; fear for the destruction of Rome; fixation with diplomacy; belief that private interventions would be more productive than public ones; belief that Nazism was the lesser of two evils (the other Bolshevism); and desire to broker the peace treaty ending WWII. Such considerations, coupled with the Church’s long tradition of anti-Judaism (animus against Jews based on religion), anti-modernity and papal inerrancy/infallibility, constrained Pius from acting prophetically — as Vicar of Christ (playwright Hochhuth’s “Deputy”). In short, when the world desperately needed a prophet, Pius failed to measure up. His critics charge, moreover, that, as the most visible and influential religious/spiritual leader in the world, as the pre-eminent “shepherd of the flock,” from whom exceptional witness was expected, his performance during a moral crisis of extraordinary proportion was woefully inadequate. Franklin H. Littell, the founding father of Holocaust study, said, “It is true that each must finally answer personally for the condition of his own conscience. It is also true that when the flock drifts far astray and wanders into mortal danger, the ‘shepherds’ are uniquely guilty.”
In the later stages of the war, Pius did appeal to representatives of several Latin American governments to accept emergency passports obtained by several thousand Jews. Through his efforts, thirteenLatin American countries decided to honor these documents, despite Nazi threats to deport passport holders. The Vatican also answered a plea to save six thousand Jewish children in Bulgaria by helping them flee to Palestine. Unquestionably, Pius engaged in various actions which bore good fruit, which raises the legitimate question of what more he might have been done. Pius should be given credit for all that he did, but not given a pass for what he failed to do.
In Pius’ defense, the Holy See counters that a “black legend,” has developed since Hochhuth’s play premiered, one which falsely maligns Pius XII, is without historical foundation, and is the product of a communist conspiracy to discredit the Church. His defenders, among them, Rabbi David G. Dalin, Pierre Blet SJ, Sr. Margherita Marchione, Ralph McInerny, Pinchas Lapide, Ronald J. Rychlak, Jose M. Sanchez and Joseph Lichten, argue that Pius’ behind the scenes diplomacy (realpolitik) saved hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives, preventing even greater catastrophe. Pius’ failures, whatever they might have been, in their view, were those of a holy man with human shortcomings compelled to act in particularly tragic and dangerous circumstances. His defenders, moreover, credit him both for general resistance to Nazi persecution of Jews in Italy and elsewhere, as well as for specific actions by clergy and religious who engaged in rescue and resistance. It should be noted that the Vatican sheltered about four hundred seventy Jews behind its walls during German occupation of Rome in 1943, while another 4,200 were protected in Roman monasteries and convents, including Castel Gondolfo, the papal summer residence. And, it is also accurate that, after the war, Rome’s Chief Rabbi and various members of Italy’s Jewish community praised Pius for his support during the Holocaust.
One of Pius’ defenders, Rabbi David G. Dalin suggests that Pius should be honored as a Righteous Gentile for his (Pius’) role in saving “more Jews than Oskar Schindler” and because of the praise of Jewish leaders. Pius’ admirers, according to Rabbi Dalin, include Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Halevy Herzog of the Palestinian Mandate and Israel, Israeli Prime Ministers Golda Meir and Moshe Sharett, and Israel’s first president Chaim Weizmann. Author Susan Zuccotti in her book, “Under His Very Window, the Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy,” however, argues that Jewish politicians who praised Pius’s performance during the Holocaust actually had an ulterior motive, namely, as Jews dedicated to the creation of the State of Israel, they were attempting to urge Vatican diplomatic recognition of the Jewish state.
As proof that Pius spoke out against the Nazis, his defenders cite this New York Times editorial published on December 25, 1941: “The voice of Pius XII is a lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe this Christmas. He is about the only one who dares to raise his voice at all.”
Another of his defenders, Sr. Margherita Marchione, has written several books, defending Pius’ sanctity, advocating his canonization, urging he be named a Righteous Gentile and pointing out that John Paul II, who proposed him for sainthood, consistently praised him. Sr. Margherita, for example, writes:
“Pius XII strongly condemned the anti-Semitic persecutions, the oppression of invaded lands and the inhuman conduct of the Nazis. He urged the Christian restoration of family life and education, the reconstruction of society, the equality of nations, the suppression of hate propaganda and the formation of an international organization for disarmament and maintenance of peace. He was a champion of peace, freedom, human dignity, encouraging Catholics to look on Christians and Jews as their brothers and sisters, all children of a common Father….”
A third defender, Fr. Pierre Blet SJ, a Catholic scholar who spent 15 years examining Vatican archival documents, maintained that “(Pius’) public silence was the cover for a secret activity through Vatican embassies and bishoprics to try to stop the deportations.” It should be noted, however, that The Vatican has yet to open its wartime archives for public inspection. Fr. Blet admitted that Pius was fond of the German people, but objected to the characterization that Pius was a Nazi sympathizer. He pointed out that Pius was forced to act within extremely difficult circumstances, which included a creditable threat of kidnapping and/or assassination. Fr. Blet and others also cite, in Pius’s defense, an article appearing in the Israeli newspaper, “The Jewish Post,” after the Pope’s death in November, 1958, which read:“…There was probably not a single ruler of our generation who did more to help the Jews in their hour of greatest tragedy, during the Nazi occupation of Europe, than the late Pope.”
Joseph Lichten in his book, “A Question of Judgment,” labels any criticism of Pius’ actions during World War II as “a stupefying paradox” in that, “no one who reads the record of Pius XII’s actions on behalf of Jews can subscribe to Hochhuth’s accusation (in The Deputy.)”
Elie Wiesel has opined, on the other hand, that when all is said and done: “The principle that governs the biblical vision of society is, ‘Thou shall not stand idly by when your fellow man is hurting, suffering, or being victimized.’ It is because that injunction was ignored or violated that the catastrophe involving such multitudes occurred.”
According to David Kertzer, author of “The Pope Against the Jews, The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism,”what is most important for understanding the Church’s role in making the Holocaust possible is not discovering what Pius XII did or did not do. More important, says Kertzer, is bringing to light the role Pius’ predecessors played over previous centuries in dehumanizing Jews and in encouraging Europeans to view them as evil and dangerous. Kertzer writes:
“It is only in this context that we can understand why the special legislation (Nuremburg Laws) that in the 1930s served as a first step toward the Holocaust, making Jews second-class citizens, was greeted with indifference, if not pleasure, by large segments of the European population. Even for the more limited goal of making sense of Pius XII’s behavior during the war, we need to understand this longer stretch of history. Only in its light can we understand why, as millions of Jews were being murdered, Pius XII could never bring himself to publicly utter the word ‘Jew’”
Neither demon nor angel, Pius XII reigned as pope during one of the evilest times in human history. Not a free agent, he was molded and straitjacketed by close to two thousand years of church history, including traditions of anti-Judaism and papal absolutism. On occasion, he interceded to ameliorate the plight of Jews and was successful, which leads to legitimate speculation about what additional success he might have had, if he had done more. One can only imagine, for example, what might have been if, as Vicar of Christ, he, or Pius XI, had threatened to excommunicate any Catholic who joined the Nazi party or who cooperated with the Nazis; or if he, or Pius XI, had excommunicated Hitler or any Catholic Nazi or Nazi collaborator and/or placed Nazi Germany under interdict. Or if, as a respected worldwide voice of conscience and the world’s most influential religious/spiritual figure, he, or Pius XI, had publicly and explicitly condemned Nazi extremism; or if, in the manner of Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. had urged passive resistance to blatantly unjust laws in Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and elsewhere in Occupied Europe.
In March, 1998, the bishops of Italy wrote an open letter to the Italian Jewish community, in which they acknowledged the “lack of prophetic action” on the part of the Church during the Holocaust, adding: “We recall these events with dismay and also with a profound and conscientious ‘teshuvah.’” Teshuvah in Hebrew means “return” and is the word used to describe the concept of repentance in Judaism. Jews believe that only by atoning for their sins can they restore balance to their relationship with God and with their fellow human beings.