Catholic Sense 12

Defending an “Urban Legend”

By David Mills

As long as this world shall last, we shall be hearing about “Hitler’s pope.” Everyone knows that the now venerable Pope Pius XII supported the Nazis, or maybe he just helped them, or maybe he just didn’t say anything against them, or maybe he just didn’t oppose them strongly enough. Anyway, everyone knows he failed somehow.

Everyone knows it, but it isn’t true. The charge is what the diocese’s Robert Lockwood calls a “Catholic urban legend”: made up history that has become something everyone knows, because it fits what people already believe or want to believe.

In the next column we’ll look at some ways to respond when someone attacks Pius XII. Here we’ll look at why defending him is so hard. It’s a good example of the challenge the Church continually faces in the public square.

Not so many people now claim that the pope helped the Nazis, though some of his critics used to. That’s too absurd. He was, after all, a man who in Paris in 1938 had denounced the Nazi “pagan cult of race,” and their “vile criminal actions” and “iniquitous violence.” The Nazis themselves saw him as an enemy.

More are simply saying that he didn’t say enough against the Nazis. It is true that although he said a great deal earlier in the war, he said much less later. There is a reason for this, and it has nothing to do with cowardice or anti-semitism. Pius XII was working in real time. If video games have taught people anything, it’s the huge challenge of making crucial decisions on the run, while you’re dealing with 28 things at once, trying to figure out what’s going on, guessing what your opponent is going to do, calculating on inadequate information how each possible action will turn out.

Think of anyone who’s had to deal with a difficult child or a emotionally troubled friend. You don’t know with much certainty when to speak and when to remain silent, when to encourage and when to rebuke, when to help and when to leave the person to find an answer for himself.

He governed a small city state surrounded by a Nazi ally. He had to deal with men who had already done and might do the most monstrous things. He was a man who spoke with moral authority but who had no worldly power, whose ability to help the Nazis’ victims depended on his protecting the Church’s independence and persuading people to risk their lives to help others. He had to make a lot of quick decisions on partial information.

He also knew his words could change peoples’ lives. In 1942, the archbishop of Utrecht in Holland denounced the Germans for rounding up the Dutch Jews, and the Gestapo responded by rounding up all the Catholic Jews they’d left in Holland. 600 people went off in packed cattle cars to Auschwitz, where the Nazis either worked them to death or killed them in the gas chambers. The German leaders would kill innocent people to make a point.

He also knew how little good simply denouncing the Nazis could do. Do Pius’s critics think men like Hitler, Goering, Himmler, and Eichmann would have stopped in their tracks, slapped their foreheads, and said, “Hey, wait, you guys, we’ve got to stop this! The pope said so!”

Pius XII chose to let the bishops, who knew the local situation and knew what they could say effectively, speak for the Church in the later part of the war. It was a perfectly reasonable strategy to maintain both the Church’s witness and her ability to help everyone she could. Anyone, including Pius’s critics, might well have done the same thing.

Pius’s critics ignore the realities he had to deal with. “He didn’t say enough!” is one of those charges no one can ever really refute, if everyone ignores the history. It’s too broad. That’s one reason Catholics have trouble defending him. Another reason is that history offers his critics so many ways to attack him, and maybe one in five thousand Catholics is going to know the history well enough to respond.

When someone declares that Pius didn’t do enough, you might ask him to explain what Pius didn’t do that he could have done, and press him for the details. He probably won’t be able to produce any, but sometimes you’ll find someone who knows a fact that seems definitive.

Someone might point out that in 1939 Pius XII killed an encyclical on anti-semitism his predecessor had drafted. This seems damning evidence against him, but it isn’t — if you’re one of the one in 5,000 who know the story.

The draft needed a lot of work. The Church had already made her position known, particularly in Pope Pius XI’s 1937 encyclical Mit brennender sorge, which the future Pius XII had helped write. Pius XII’s views were well known and he would continue to speak out in different ways. He simply chose not to keep working on a draft. It’s not evidence that he didn’t care. It’s evidence that he wanted to make the same points in other ways.

Some of the attacks are too broad to refute easily, some too tricky to refute easily. That’s part of the challenge when something everyone knows just isn’t true.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. This column appeared in the Pittsburgh Catholic on January 15, 2010.