The jury is still out on the wartime pope

By Ed Kessler, March 5, 2009
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Discussion of the new evidence about the behaviour of Pius XII during the Holocaust ignores the fact that most of the findings are not all that new and actually sidestep the central issue about Pius’ papacy: did he do all he could and did he do it soon enough?

The findings of last year’s conference in Rome, organised by the US Pave the Way Foundation, have now been published online and appear to be part of an orchestrated campaign to declare Pius XII a saint in the Catholic Church, a process which is currently at an impasse. The conference was attended primarily by defenders of Pius. Major Holocaust scholars, as well as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, declined to attend because, as Catholic Professor Michael Marrus said, “this was a one-sided rally rather than a serious intellectual inquiry”.

Whilst the new evidence disproves exaggerated claims that the Pope did nothing, the Vatican has yet to open up the archives fully and admirers of Pius XII, including the Pope himself, should take care in relying on flawed scholarship coming from a limited number of favoured historians.

When Haifa’s Chief Rabbi addressed the Pope in 2008, he spoke for Pius XII’s critics: “We cannot forget the sad and painful fact of how many, including great religious leaders, didn’t raise a voice in the effort to save our brethren, but chose to keep silent and help secretly”.

In his view, as well as that of many Catholics and Jews, Pius was no model, nor should he be beatified. Of course, such a decision is at the discretion of the Roman Catholic Church and Benedict XVI has already argued that Pius worked quietly to “save the greatest number of Jews possible”. According to Professor John Pawlikowski, this indicates “hardliners have the upper hand in the Vatican”.

While for the critics, Pius simply did not do enough to save Jews, for his supporters, he worked behind the scenes to help because direct intervention would have worsened the situation. Cardinal Bertone explained that, “if he had made a public intervention, he would have endangered the lives of thousands of Jews who, upon his directive, were hidden in 155 convents and monasteries”.

His only public wartime statement was a 1942 Christmas broadcast, when he spoke of the “hundreds of thousands of innocent people who have been killed or condemned to a slow extinction only because of their race”. He did not single out persecution of Jews and, more surprisingly, failed to mention it after the Holocaust.

Having reviewed the evidence, it seems to me that the reason why Pius did not speak out is clear: he made the choice not to. He believed he had done all he could; not because he did not care, but rather because Jews could not be allowed to distract him from Catholic preservation. Former editor of the Catholic Herald, Gerard Noel, suggests in a new book, Pius XII: The Hound of Hitler, that in another period of history Pius might have made a fine Pope, but in the one that also contained Hitler he found himself politically and diplomatically at a loss.

He was also bound by centuries of Christian anti-Jewish prejudice.

The present Pope, while having put the canonisation on hold, still hopes the process will eventually go forward. Given evidence of his pontificate so far, including controversies over the revised Tridentine Rite Good Friday prayer, which calls for conversion of Jews and the Bishop Williamson affair, Benedict XVI’s visit to Israel in May should be of great interest.

Doubtless Benedict XVI will commit himself “to genuine brotherhood”. A good place to start will be to initiate an extensive study into the actions and omissions of Pius XII, one that would draw in the best available scholars in the field. Until then, it will remain uncertain whether the wartime pope did all that he could and whether he did it soon enough.

Dr Ed Kessler, Woolf Institute of Abrahamic Faiths, Cambridge

    Last updated: 1:05pm, March 5 2009