Pope Pius XII.
(photo credit: courtesy)
Last week, on Good Friday, I debated the Catholic Church's senior prelate in the US, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, DC, on CNN. Even amid heated disagreement about the nature and teachings of Jesus, the cardinal displayed sparkling warmth and genuine friendship to me as a rabbi. I left the studio with gratitude to God for the convivial relationship that the Jewish community today enjoys with the modern Catholic Church.
It came, therefore, as a blow to read just a few days later that the Vatican's ambassador to Israel, Archbishop Antonio Franco, initially refused to attend the official Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Yad Vashem to protest the museum's depiction of Pope Pius XII as a passive bystander to the Nazi extermination of European Jewry. In the wake of widespread criticism, Franco retracted his boycott of the ceremony.
Yad Vashem's exhibit on Pius reads: "When Jews were deported from Rome to Auschwitz, the pope did not intervene. The pope maintained his neutral position throughout the war, with the exception of appeals to the rulers of Hungary and Slovakia towards its end. His silence and the absence of guidelines obliged churchmen throughout Europe to decide on their own how to react."
To be sure, the facts of Pius's moral failure to condemn the Holocaust is well established, and it is a shame that the Catholic Church is more offended by its revelation than its occurrence.
Indeed, the inability of Pius XII to speak out against the destruction of European Jewry constitutes, perhaps, the greatest moral omission in the history of the world.
Books like Hitler's Pope by John Cornwell and The Battle for Rome by Robert Katz convincingly demonstrate that Pius was more vocal regarding threats to church property than he was regarding human beings being sent to their death from his own city.
THE US HOLOCAUST Memorial Museum, in its online article about Rome, has a description similar to that which sparked the ire of the Vatican's representative against Yad Vashem:
"Because Italian police did not participate in these roundups and most Italians objected to the deportations, many Italian Jews were able to go into hiding. For every Jew caught by the Germans in Rome, at least 10 escaped and hid, many in the Vatican... During the occupation, Germany recognized and respected the neutrality of the Vatican. Pope Pius XII, however, failed to publicly condemn German policies and actions towards the Jews. Other Catholic institutions in
Rome did offer aid and shelter to many Jews."
It is not clear why this account provoked no visible Vatican protest, while Yad Vashem's resulted in the drastic step of boycotting Holocaust memorial ceremonies. The brief descriptions of both museums are, if anything, restrained in that they avoid reference to other events.
When, in reprisal for a partisan attack against German troops, the Nazis executed 335 Roman citizens - many of them Jews but the vast majority Catholics - Pius was implored to protest the execution and protect his personal flock, as usual he refused to say anything that might upset the Nazis.
It seems that neither the love of God nor his fellow man could move Pius to publicly condemn Hitler, with whom he had famously negotiated, as papal nuncio, the 1933 treaty which the Fuehrer praised to his cabinet as being "especially significant in the urgent struggle against international Jewry."
Pius even granted a secret audience to Supreme SS Polizeifuehrer Wolff, who had served as Himmler's chief of staff and was in 1943 the chief of the German persecution apparatus in occupied Italy.
That Pius realized that what he was doing was scandalous is attested to by the fact that the meeting took place in great secrecy and Wolff came dressed in disguise. Years later, Wolff said about the meeting: "From the Pope's own words I could sense the sincerity of his sympathy and how much he loved the German people."
Pius's lowest moment came on 16 October 1943, the day the Germans rounded up more than 1,000 Jews of Rome for extermination. Nearly all would perish by gas at Auschwitz. A special SS contingent had been brought in for the roundup, and since many of them had never seen the great city they used the roundup of the Jews as a partial tourist excursion.
This brought them to St. Peter's Square, where many of the trucks actually parked 300 feet from Pius's window. Even as the Jews were herded aboard cattle trains and taken to their death, Pius, the most influential religious personality alive, refused to intervene or speak out.
AS THE BRITISH and American armies geared up, in the spring of 1944, for a massive offensive to capture Rome, Pius suddenly found his voice. He condemned the Allies for bombing the eternal city and ordered his American bishops to launch public-relations offensives in the United States to pressure the Roosevelt government not to cause destruction to the sacred monuments of the church. But while his attention was turned toward his precious buildings, the Nazis continued to gas more than 10,000 Jews each day.
In early 2005 came the revelation that Pius had refused to hand back to their families or Jewish guardians thousands of Jewish children who had been given to the Catholic Church for safekeeping during the war. "Children who have been baptized must not be entrusted to institutions that would not be in a position to guarantee their Christian upbringing," a church document discovered in a French church archive and dated October 23, 1946, declared. It made it clear that Pius himself had approved the criminal policy: "It should be noted that this decision taken by the Holy Congregation of the Holy Office has been approved by the Holy Father."
For all his white robes, Pius's record is a dark stain against a great church, whose leadership was an affront to a great religion. It would behoove the modern leaders of the august Catholic faith to join Yad Vashem and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in looking at the failures of the church and its leader with honesty and humility.
The writer's latest book, Shalom in the Home, has just been published by Meredith. He hosts a television series by the same name every week on The Learning Channel (www.shmuley.com).