THERE have been easier times to be Pope. I don’t mean now, with the relatively gentle divisions between conservative and reformer, but during the Second World War, when the irrational became the norm, and genocidal madness dominated Europe. Eugenio Pacelli had been elected to the papacy in March 1939, and, as Pius XII, remained Pope until 1958. The times demanded a man of strength and resolve, whereas Pacelli was a diplomat and a compromiser.
Those attributes rather than any extremes of personality or policy characterise his personality and reign. But because he led the Roman Catholic Church during the Holocaust, and the eventual Nazi occupation of his country, such anodyne skills were simply inadequate.
It has been genuinely difficult to gain a firm and fair understanding of where he stood when faced with tangible evil. Immediately after the war, Pius was regarded as a friend of the allies and a rescuer of the Jewish people. That portrait changed dramatically in 1963 with Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy, in which the writer claimed that Rome not only ignored the suffering of the Jews, but tacitly and sometimes explicitly supported the Nazis.
In 1999, came the British author John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope: The secret history of Pius XII, the title somewhat indicating the book’s arguments. Six years later, there was a counterblast in The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: How Pope Pius XII rescued Jews from the Nazis. The author was David G. Dalin, who is not only Jewish, but a rabbi. Thus it has continued, with shots fired from all sides in the Pius wars.
IN 2019, Pope Francis ordered that, from March 2020, previously secret documents concerning Pius and the Shoah should be released to academics, and he has now made them available to the general public (News, 8 March 2019).
What began to be discovered two years ago is that Pope Pius was neither as grim as his critics claim nor as noble as his defenders maintain. As a cardinal, he had drafted an encyclical condemning Nazi racism and had it read from every pulpit; and, as Pope, he employed Vatican assets to ransom some Jewish families held by the Germans. There were also Roman Jews hidden in the papal palace of Castel Gandolfo. He did save individual Italian Jews; he did work on behalf of Jewish people who had converted to Catholicism or were married to Catholics; and he was not a friend to National Socialism.
The problem is that nor was he a significant enemy. His considerable intelligence sources — some of them strongly anti-Nazi — had informed him of the extent and barbarity of the extermination of the Jews. But at no time did Pius explicitly condemn the Holocaust. He had, after all, been the Vatican’s ambassador to Germany, and knew the beliefs of the Nazis.
As for the often made argument and defence that any public condemnation would have been impossible, or led to further suffering, the question has to be asked: further suffering for whom? There were 1.5 million children murdered in the death camps. Also, it was during the Pius XII pontificate that the Church issued the decree against Communism, declaring that any Catholic who became a Communist was an apostate and to be excommunicated. This was after the war, but at the height of Stalinism. Had Pius learned a lesson, or was Communism viewed with far more distaste than Nazism?
MY FATHER’s family were not Italian but Eastern European. They died in large numbers in the Holocaust, and, in western Ukraine, many of the Nazi fellow travellers and fellow murderers were Catholic — as were Holocaust facilitators all over Europe; and as was the Slovak leader and obsessive anti-Semite Jozef Tiso. He was a Catholic priest. Imagine what would have happened if they had been held fully accountable by the papacy, even threatened with excommunication? The countless Catholics who were resisting Nazism and risking their lives to save their Jewish neighbours, would, I am sure, have appreciated the support.
The King of Morocco requested yellow stars for himself and his family when told that Moroccan Jews would have to wear them. The Dutch Carmelite priest Titus Brandsma publicly opposed Nazism, rescued Dutch Jews and Allied airmen, and was eventually murdered by the Nazis for his resistance. He was canonised by Pope Francis two months ago. There are many such heroes.
Hindsight courage and resolve during times of safety is easy and cheap. But more could and should have been done, and the obscenities of the Holocaust could perhaps — just perhaps — have been limited or even halted. Millions still cry out for justice, as does the Jewish Jesus.
The Revd Michael Coren is a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada. His latest book, The Rebel Christ, is published by the Dundurn Press at £13.99.