In the closing days of December 2009, Pope Benedict XVI signed a decree of “heroic virtues” of Pope Pius XII, which places him on the path to sainthood. This decision has caused a worldwide uproar among Jews, dissident Catholics, and others who believe that Pius was silent, or worse yet, complicit, in the Holocaust.
In the first two decades following World War II, there was certainly no public perception, among Jews, Catholics, or anyone else that Pius had been silent to a fault during the Holocaust, much less that he was “Hitler’s Pope.” Prominent Jewish leaders such as the first Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, as well as Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog of Palestine praised Pius. TIME Magazine reported in 1953 that Pius was “to Romans and to much of the world, something of a living and familiar saint.” It was widely known that Pius XII, to a greater extent than many secular heads of state, opposed the designs of the Third Reich. When Pius was able to speak to the world, as he did on Christmas in 1942, there was no question as to where he stood on the tragedies unfolding worldwide.
With what army he was supposed to have overthrown Hitler and shut down the concentration camps, his critics have yet to say. What seems likely is that the sort of belligerence that many seem to insist that Pius should have directed towards Hitler would have only had the effect of hastening the mass murders of Jews and Christians (who were also frequently imprisoned in the concentration camps). It is also safe to say that until the mid-1960’s, no one expected Pius to have single-handedly put a stop to the Holocaust, and that many acknowledged that which he did do to shelter Jews from Nazi persecution.
What has happened to Pius’ memory since the mid 1960’s reads like a chapter out of George Orwell’s 1984, with once commonly accepted facts about the late, great Pontiff disappearing down the memory hole, replaced with a historical narrative based on fiction (quite literally, a play called “The Deputy”) and rumors instigated by the Soviet KGB. Mark Twain once said that a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth puts its shoes on. This one traveled fast, and endured for decades.
Fortunately, the efforts of Pius’ defenders, for a while few in number, have begun to pay off. Scholars and writers such as Sister Margherita Marchione never relented in their defense of Pius’ wartime record. Now even Jewish rabbis are defending Pius. Because of this, a legitimate shadow of doubt has been cast over “the myth of Hitler’s pope.” But a positive appraisal Pius is not yet entirely acceptable either, as evidenced by the reaction of Jews and some liberal Catholics to the recent decree.
Some are complaining that the Vatican has yet to provide access to all of the documents of Pius XII’s pontificate. The Vatican has responded by insisting that, in the first place, there are tens of thousands of documents that still need to be retrieved and organized, a process that can take several years. In the second place, the Vatican has in fact made many documents from the period available for anyone to study, but apparently they are only collecting dust. In November of 2008, Cardinal Tracisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State, said in a public address on this matter, with justifiable frustration:
Prefigured thus in the first Encyclical of Pope Pacelli were not only the horrors of war, but also the enormous work of charity that the Church was to set in motion towards all, without distinction, in the years of the conflict. Proof of this is to be found, among others, in the collection, instituted at the wish of Pius XII immediately after the beginning of the conflict. The collection of three and a half million documents in the Vatican Information Office regarding prisoners of war is a resource of the Vatican Archives, that covers the years up to 1947, which is completely open, but nevertheless hardly used. It seems in fact that it is enough to open up an archive, an opening possibly demanded with great clamour, for its documents to be totally disregarded: evidently history interests many only insofar as it can be used as a weapon.
Others, however, have accepted that Pius XII was most likely not complicit in the Holocaust. They concede that his defenders have successfully established a measure of reasonable doubt regarding the worst calumnies leveled against him. But, they assert, it is not enough to defend; in order for a person to become a saint, a positive case must be put forward. In the case of Pius XII, they believe that no such case has been presented, and so they ask, “why should Pius XII become a saint, even if he didn’t do the terrible things he was alleged to have done?” This is the question asked by John Allen Jr. at the National Catholic Reporter, Father Raymond J. de Souza at the National Post, and others.
It might be bad form to answer a question with a question, but in this case I can’t resist; why is it that these “Pius skeptics” (distinct from whom I will call “Pius deniers”) have not acquainted themselves with the historical record, or for that matter, what Pope Benedict has said about him? Presumably neither the Pope nor the Congregation for the Causes of Saints is in the business of arbitrarily designating historical figures for sainthood.
The main point, however, is this: to read through the various defenses put forward is to acquire a picture of a Pontiff who, under extremely difficult circumstances, and at a risk to himself and those directly under his care, helped thousands (some say as many as 860,000) escape persecution and extermination.
Pierre Belt’s book, Pius XII and the Second World War, based on an examination of Vatican archives, contains numerous examples of Pius’ efforts to counter the persecution of all “non-Aryan” peoples by the Nazis, including Jews. From the very beginning Pius was moved to act on their behalf, working to establish relief for those forced to flee from Nazi Europe to other countries. He made use of every building he had authority over to provide shelter and refuge to Jews fleeing their Nazi oppressors. He wrote encyclicals and made public announcements condemning the war as well as the doctrines of those who began it, doctrines of racial/national superiority and totalitarian government. When few in Europe would dare speak out against the Third Reich, he did.
He did all of this after having tried, desperately and in vain, to prevent the war from beginning in the first place through diplomatic efforts.
Less important to some of his left-wing critics, Pius also deserves credit for severely condemning and opposing the terrible persecution of Christians all over the world by violent anti-clerical regimes, particularly in Mexico and Spain. During what was a dark time not only for Jews, but for millions Christians faced with communist persecution, Pius XII inspired hope and fought tirelessly on behalf of his flock. After the war, he played an instrumental role in reestablishing peace among the nations.
All of this is to say that the defense of Pius XII is precisely that he was a good Pope, and a good human being. This is evident to Pope Benedict, who has spoken highly of Pius XII in public on many occasions. Those of us who have followed the “Pius Wars” in general and Benedict’s public statements in particular, therefore, are not surprised by this development. The Holy Father paints a picture of an utterly dedicated servant, whose culture and intellect contributed to the development of the Church in many vital areas, from science to missionary work and beyond.
But what is more surprising is that the skeptics don’t realize that Pius XII has been considered a candidate for sainthood since 1965. Cardinal Bertone, in the aforementioned public address, quoted the words of Pope Paul VI:
“In this way the desire which has been expressed by innumerable voices in regard to both [Pius XII and John XXIII], will be met; in this way the wealth of their spiritual heritage will be assured to history; in this way it will be certain that no motive, other than the reverence for holy truth and thus the glory of God and the building of His Church, shall reconstruct their authentic and dear figures for our veneration and that of the generations to come”.
Thus it is both easy and difficult to answer the questions of Mr. Allen and Father de Souza. It is easy in that there is an abundance of material that attests to Pius’ goodness when it would have been easier, and perhaps safer, to be the indifferent Pontiff he was falsely accused of being. It is difficult for the same reason. There is a lot of material to sift through.
I’m not sure what it is the Pius skeptics are looking for. But given what we do know about Pius XII, about how he conducted himself during the greatest crisis of the 20th century, I see no reason why anyone who rejects the KGB-initiated calumny against him should object to a mere recognition of his “heroic virtues”, which have been amply demonstrated.