Hitler’s pope, Pius XII, should finally be canceled -opinion

Only one pope ever bore actual witness to a genocide and did absolutely nothing about it, and that was Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII.

 POPE PIUS XII appears in an undated file photo from the archives of Vatican newspaper ‘Osservatore Romano.’  (photo credit: OSSERVATORE ROMANO / REUTERS)
POPE PIUS XII appears in an undated file photo from the archives of Vatican newspaper ‘Osservatore Romano.’
(photo credit: OSSERVATORE ROMANO / REUTERS)

History tells us that there have been good popes and bad popes, moral men who occupied the chair of St. Peter and abominable men who disgraced it.

For every giant like John XXIII or John Paul II, the greatest of modern-day popes, there has been a Rodrigo Borgia, whose name is synonymous with papal murder and corruption, or Pope Leo X, the Medici pope, whose sale of indulgences to finance his extravagant tastes infuriated Martin Luther and helped drive the Protestant Reformation.

But only one pope ever bore actual witness to a genocide and did absolutely nothing about it, and that was Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII, who reigned throughout all six years of the Second World War and the Holocaust.

Hitler's pope

Over the past decade, there has been a concerted effort on the part of many in the Catholic Church and some in the Jewish community to rehabilitate the reputation of the man infamously known as “Hitler’s pope.” They told us that Pius secretly saved untold numbers of Jews; that the reason the pontiff never once condemned Hitler or the Holocaust was in order to protect Jews. Had he spoken out, Hitler would have been even worse to the Jews (an argument that would be comical, if it were not so tragic. How do you do worse than gassing 10,000 Jews a day?). They told us that Pius, as cardinal secretary of state under his predecessor Pius XI, had no choice but to negotiate the first-ever treaty between Hitler and any foreign state because Pacelli had to protect the Catholic Church.

On and on it’s gone, with the Catholic Church trying its darndest to resurrect Pius’s reputation in order to do to him what is normally done to every other pontiff – beatify and canonize him, like Pope John Paul II, who is already a saint.

 POPE JOHN Paul II places a written prayer into a crevice in the stones of the Western Wall, in 2000 (credit: REUTERS) POPE JOHN Paul II places a written prayer into a crevice in the stones of the Western Wall, in 2000 (credit: REUTERS)

I participated in two papal visits, to Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, organized by my friend Gary Krupp of the Pave the Way Foundation, designed in part to address the controversy surrounding Pacelli. I consider Gary a friend and a Jew dedicated to Israel’s survival and protection. He has served as an important bridge between the Jewish community and the Vatican, and I respect and like him.

But on the subject of Pius XII he is simply and completely wrong, as are other advocates for Hitler’s pope. Gary and I even had a public debate in New York City on Pius, where he was joined by a Catholic historian on his side and which is available on YouTube.

What we in the Jewish community have always been told is that no definitive conclusions can be drawn about Pius’s alleged collaboration with the Nazis, because the Vatican files had never been opened or examined. If they would be, then Pius would not only be exonerated but would emerge as a hero to the Jewish community.

Credit Francis, who finally ordered that the Vatican archives be opened. Thousands of documents related to Pius’s papacy were examined by Prof. David Kertzer of Brown University, who won the Pulitzer Prize for biography with his phenomenal book The Pope and Mussolini. His new book, The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler, is even better. If I had the authority, I would make it mandatory reading in every high school in America so that students could bear witness to Elie Wiesel’s adage that “the opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference.”

Kertzer’s book is a nuclear detonation to the remaining shards of Pius’s reputation. Most damning is the most thorough presentation yet of the horrific and unforgettable events of 16 October, 1943, when the SS rounded up 1,260 Roman Jews, nearly all of whom would be gassed to death just seven days later in Auschwitz. The Jews were forced, on a Sabbath morning in the driving rain, to congregate in the Jewish ghetto. From there they were transferred to a military college just across – literally – from Pius’s residence window at the Papal Palace in St. Peter’s Square.

While we don’t know whether Pius actually opened his window and saw the Jewish mothers and babies wailing for 36 hours for any kind of food or water, before being shoved into the cattle cars to Auschwitz, we do know that Pius knew every detail of their imprisonment. An Italian princess obtained an audience and, literally on her knees, begged the pope to speak out. Many others, including churchmen, did the same, entreating the pope to use his close relationship with the German ambassador to the Holy See, Ernst von Weizsacker, to have them released.

Here’s where it gets positively sickening. Kertzer shows from the archives that the pope did intervene. About 250 of those who were rounded up were released due to the pope’s intervention. And why? Because the pope said they were Jews who had been baptized and therefore should not be murdered. The rest, 1,007, were forced, in the most abominable conditions, onto the trains, and nearly all were gassed upon arrival. Sixteen survived the Holocaust.

So now we have definitive proof that the pope’s protests worked. He could have saved all the Jews of Rome. But, alas, they belonged to the wrong religion. So the pope let them be deported and gassed.

Indeed, the pope sent the cardinal secretary of state to the German ambassador to see whether the murder of the Jews of Rome was essential. The ambassador intimated that the order had come from Hitler himself. When the pope and the cardinal understood that it was Hitler himself who had given the order, they told the ambassador they would not publicly protest.

Catholic Church must come to terms with moral failing 

I COULD go on about Kertzer’s other findings: how the pope had a previously undisclosed secret channel set up directly with Hitler, through a Nazi who was the great-grandson of Queen Victoria and who was married to the daughter of the king of Italy; how Pius, who never even once spoke out against the genocide of the Jews – not once! – suddenly found his voice to protest to president Roosevelt himself about the Allied bombing of churches in Rome. But there is no need to further excoriate Pius, since it is the Church that should be doing so and not the Jews.

The Catholic Church must come to terms not just with the moral failings and silence of Pius XII, but with his outright and well documented collaboration with the Nazis. From his reprehensible concordat with Hitler in 1933 that legitimized the Nazi ogre before the eyes of the world, to Pius’s decision to destroy every last copy of his predecessor Pius XI’s planned encyclical Humani Generis Unitas (The Unity of the Human Race) which condemned Nazi antisemitism outright. Sadly for the Jews and for the world, Pope Pius XI died days before its planned publication in February 1939. His successor, Hitler’s pope, made sure it would never see the light of day.

When I had the privilege of papal audiences at the Vatican, we were taken to the Vatican grotto where the popes are buried. Many pilgrims were praying at the tomb of John Paul II, the first pope ever to visit a synagogue. Prior to becoming pope he was, of course, the cardinal archbishop of Krakow.

I thought to myself that John Paul must have felt personal animus to Pius XII, seeing that the pope was utterly silent even as Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 and bombed Warsaw to oblivion. The Poles begged the pope to speak out, but Hitler’s pope was characteristically silent.

But then, across the grotto, I saw another tomb. It was that of Pius XII. I immediately felt a palpable sense of evil as I approached. I could not believe that this coward and antisemite was allowed to be buried near a moral giant like John Paul. The tomb of Pius XII disgraces and stains the Vatican.

Francis is a great man, a great friend to the Jewish people, but an unfair critic of Israel. He was also notably silent amid Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and decided, until recently, to remain on the fence.

Francis has his own controversy, dating back to the brutal Argentinean military dictatorship in Argentina in the 1970s and early ’80s when he served as head of the Jesuit order there. He has been accused of silence when two of his priests, Orland Yorio and Franz Jalics, were tortured and murdered for missionary work they conducted in the slums. Cardinal Bergoglio was accused of silence during this horrible period and of withdrawing Jesuit protection for the two priests, thereby giving the military a green light to move against them. Francis has maintained that he was unfairly slandered and that, to the contrary, he did everything in his power behind the scenes to save their lives.

Now, Francis can show he is serious about a churchman’s responsibility to speak up in the face of evil and about accepting responsibility for the Church’s past antisemitism by ordering that Pius XII be exhumed from the Vatican and buried outside of Rome.

And there he should lie, alone and unvisited, showing all the world that the price of collaboration with evil and silence at the center of genocide is being labeled an unholy anathema and being condemned to eternal banishment.

The writer, “America’s rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the author of Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.