Cardinal Stepinac – villain or saint?

As a result, the Vatican Secret Archives will open starting March 2, 2020.

Pope Francis holds weekly general audience at the Vatican, May 15, 2019. (photo credit: REUTERS/YARA NARDI)
Pope Francis holds weekly general audience at the Vatican, May 15, 2019.
(photo credit: REUTERS/YARA NARDI)
Earlier this year, Pope Francis made the decision to open the archives on Pope Pius XII to allow more profound scientific evaluation of his pontificate, which lasted from 1939 to 1958.
To a certain extent, Pope Francis’s decision was influenced by the Vatican-moderated dialogue between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Croatian Bishops’ Conference on the controversial figure of Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, Archbishop of Zagreb. Dialogue was initiated by a letter written from Patriarch Irinej of the Serbian Orthodox Church in 2014.

Although the Inter-Church Commission meetings chaired by the president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, Fr. Bernard Adura, – six of them from 2016 to 2017 – didn’t produce a consensus on the role of Cardinal Stepinac, space for open dialogue and new scientific research projects did open.
As a result, the Vatican Secret Archives will open starting March 2, 2020. In the meantime, historians and other researchers have published their books based on other available archival materials.
Stepinac and Holocaust in Independent State of Croatia
Generally speaking, there is no lack of literature on Cardinal Stepinac and his attitude and acts in relation to the genocides committed by the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) against Serbs and Roma, to the Holocaust against Jews and other war crimes against Freemasons, the Old Catholic Church, communists and so on. However, there was no single publication which provided a well-researched and meticulously analyzed account of Stepinac’s relation toward the suffering of Jewish communities in NDH, particularly for the period 19411945. This gap within the body of academic literature was filled by Ilic’s Stepinac and Holocaust in NDH (2018).
The book consists of four parts, each of them dealing with the crucial periods for Archbishop Stepinac as well as for the Jewish community in NDH. The first chapter dwells upon the pre-War War II period (Kingdom of Yugoslavia 19341941), in which the author introduces readers with the cardinal’s dominantly traditional antisemitic stances toward Jews. First as Archbishop-Coadjutor and then Archbishop of Zagreb and Croatian Metropolitan (from 1937 to 1960), Stepinac valued the power of the modern media, i.e., newspapers. He or his secretaries would make regular entries in his diary, often commenting on various press articles and press clips would be attached alongside these entries. Many of them had explicit or implicit antisemitic content which were approved by the cardinal.
Chapters II and III are almost entirely based on NDH’s racial laws and other official documents, Roman-Catholic newspapers and Stepinac’s public sermons and private correspondences with NDH’s leading figures due to the void in the published version of the cardinal’s diary.
Here, while Ilic is depicting further development of the Holocaust in NDH (with deportations and killings of Jews in NDH’s concentration camps of Jadovno and Jasenovac), he is also providing us with data on activities undertaken by Stepinac to protect those Jews who were converted Catholics or in mix-marriages with Aryans (in practice, Croats).
The fourth and final chapter provides a detailed account of the final phase of Holocaust in NDH (during May 1943), in which the remaining 2,000 Jews perished (out of pre-World War II community, which numbered around 40,000 people).
Simultaneously, as in the two previous chapters, Ilic is providing data on the cardinal’s reactions, which were more vociferous and not reserved only for converted Jews or ones in mixed-marriages, but in favor of all innocent people. However, his traditional antisemitic view was not changed by the tragic fate of Jews in NDH, for which Ilic provides ample evidence.
Stepinac – villain  or saint?
In his open letter to Pope Francis, (dated 1st of July 2015) published by Belgrade daily newspapers Danas, Ilic argued that now-blessed Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac does not meet criteria required for sanctification. Although Ilic’s letter has based its argumentation on Stepinac’s enmity against Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Serbs, Jews and Roma, in his first book on Stepinac he further elaborates it. Conclusions of this in-depth case study on the cardinal’s anti-Judaic and antisemitic views could be summarized as follows:
1) Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac was and remained a traditional antisemite even during the final phases of Holocaust in NDH (1941-1945);
2) Under his direct or indirect control, Roman-Catholic daily and weekly newspapers participated in creating and further inflating antisemitic atmosphere within Croatian society;
3) Stepinac at first tried to protect only converted Jews, but from 1942 he started to intervene on behalf of non-converted Jews while his efforts to protect them became more concrete and frequent in 1943 and onward;
4) The Independent State of Croatia (NDH), an ally par excellence of Nazi-Germany according to Raul Hilberg’s typology, had the cardinal’s unquestionable support until the end of that state.
Ilic’s Stepinac and Holocaust in NDH, by using various historical sources (published version of Stepinac’s diary, Stepinac’s public sermons and private correspondences with key persons within NDH institutions, legislation of NDH, daily and weekly, especially Roman-Catholic, newspapers) provides valuable insights in Stepinac’s controversial role in Holocaust. Furthermore, not only depicting, reconstructing and contextualizing activities and views of the then Archbishop of Zagreb, Ilic is also trying to understand and explain them as well as valuate them in light of the ongoing process of Alojzije Stepinac’s canonization which is, at the moment, put on hold by Pope Francis.

The writer is a historian (at the Museum of Genocide Victims) and secretary of Jasenovac Committee of Serbian Orthodox Church.