Catholic Sense 13

Testimonials to Pope Pius XII

By David Mills

That Pope Pius XII was inexcusably silent in defense of the Jews during World War II is one of those things “everyone knows.” Some will say he simply didn’t care, or that he wanted to protect the Church by being nice to the Germans. Some will even say that he was an anti-Semite or a Nazi sympathizer.

Yet we have a massive, a vast, a huge, a tremendous amount of testimony, much of it from prominent Jewish leaders, to Pius’s courage in speaking out as was wisest and most effective in the circumstances, and to his care for the Jews persecuted by the Nazis. The facts just do not support the idea that he did not say or do enough.

Unfortunately, quoting the testimony isn’t a foolproof way of proving that Pius was innocent of the charges. You might quote the praise of Israel’s representative to the United Nations when he died in 1958. “During the ten years of Nazi terror, when our people went through the horrors of martyrdom,” said Golda Meir, “the Pope raised his voice to condemn the persecutors and to commiserate with their victims. The life of our time has been enriched by a voice which expressed the great moral truths above the tumults of daily conflicts. We grieve over the loss of a great defender of peace.”

This seems fairly conclusive evidence that the pope had served the Jews well. Meir had had thirteen years to reflect on the pope’s words and actions. If he’d been the moral failure his critics now claim he was, she would have known. And she praised him highly. She would be any defense lawyer’s dream witness.

Nevertheless, the answer you might get is that Meir only said that because she was trying to butter up the Vatican for political reasons, the new and endangered state of Israel needing every friend she could get. Few of us know enough about Israeli foreign policy in the mid-1950s to have any answer to this. It might be true, though this means that Meir was lying about someone who had done her people (if his modern critics are right) a great wrong, just to get a little political help. This seems unlikely. It seems a terrible insult to Golda Meir.

As I wrote last time, the arguments for the charge against Pius XII are too complex to argue against easily unless you’re an expert, because the critics of a man with such great responsibilities, who had to make so many agonizingly difficult choices, can so easily twist the historical record against him. In any case, when someone denounces the pope, you can give him a few facts that might make him stop and think. You can ask him, for example, if he knows that:

♦ The first real charge against the pope was made in 1963, five years after his death and more to the point, eighteen years after the end of World War II, by a leftwing German playwright, Rolf Hochhuth, in a play called The Deputy.

♦  On Christmas day 1942 the editors of The New York Times declared that “The voice of Pius XII is a lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe. . . . He is about the only ruler left on the Continent of Europe who dares to raise his voice at all.”

♦ The Nazis themselves complained that Pius’s Christmas address that year “virtually accus[es] the German people of injustice towards the Jews, and makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals.” They had no doubt he opposed them.

♦ After Pius died, the former chief rabbi of Rome said that “the Italian Jews had experienced the great pity and supreme generosity of the Pontiff during the unhappy years of persecution and terror . . . . The Jewish community is in mourning for the death of Pius XII and with sincere sentiments it raises its prayers to the Lord that he may grant his generous and chosen soul every beatitude.”

♦ “The pope’s decision to refrain from a formal condemnation of the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews was approved by many Jews” during the war, according to the director of the Anti-Defamation League’s International Affairs Department, writing in 1963.

♦ The director, Joseph L. Lichten, summarized Pius’ actions this way: His “aim was to utilize the Vatican’s spiritual and material resources as completely as possible to help the oppressed in their misery. His means were deliberately quiet,” because a direct attack on the Nazis could induce them to stop the Church’s work entirely. “Yet his exhortations to Catholics to cleave to the humane principles of their religion, like his messages to his bishops to do all they could to help, within the limitations of local conditions, were quite clear in their implications. Late in June 1943, the Vatican radio warned the French people, ‘He who makes a distinction between Jews and other men is unfaithful to God and is in conflict with God’s commands.’”

♦ In 1944, Rabbi Maurice Perlzweig, the political director of the World Jewish Congress, wrote that “the repeated interventions of the Holy Father on behalf of Jewish Communities in Europe has evoked the profoundest sentiments of appreciation and gratitude from Jews throughout the world.”

♦ In 1944, Chief Rabbi Herzog of Jerusalem declared that “The people of Israel will never forget what His Holiness and his illustrious delegates, inspired by the eternal principles of religion which form the very foundations of true civilization, are doing for our unfortunate brothers and sisters in this most tragic hour of history, which is living proof of divine Providence in this world.”

♦ In late 1945, the World Jewish Congress gave the Vatican a gift of $20,000 “in recognition of the work of the Holy See in rescuing Jews from Fascist and Nazi persecution.” When Pius died thirteen years later, the president of the Congress wrote that “With special gratitude we remember all he has done for the persecuted Jews during one of the darkest periods of their entire history.”

I could supply dozens of such quotes. These might do to make the critic think twice. The evidence that Pope Pius XII served the Lord, the Church, the Jews, and the world extraordinarily well in a place and time almost unimaginably difficult is, as I said, vast.

For more on Pius XII, Rabbi David Dalin’s The Myth of Hitler’s Pope and Ronald Rychlak’s Hitler, the War, and the Pope are both very good books. See also the “Holocaust” link here for an extensive list of articles, and Robert Lockwood’s Catholic “Urban Legend”.

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 29, 2010.