Essay: In comparison Pius XII <I>was</I> a saint

Unlike other Catholic clergy, he didn't let his anti-Semitism determine his wartime decisions.

Pope Pius XII 88 (photo credit: )
Pope Pius XII 88
(photo credit: )
On May 26 1955, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra gave a private performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony for Pope Pius XII as what the official Vatican daily, L'Osservatore Romano, called "a mark of recognition and gratitude for the immense work of human assistance carried out by His Holiness to save a large number of Jews during the Second World War." Not everyone in Israel agreed. A series of newspaper articles in June and early July accused Pius of in fact keeping silent in the face of the Holocaust and refusing to lift a finger to spare Europe's Jews. On July 17, L'Osservatore Romano refuted these charges, claiming that the Pope's "polemical denigration" in the Israeli press "proceeds from a motive which has nothing to do with the recent past but rather serves to sustain present resentments" - namely, what the then Irish ambassador to the Holy See described as "his unalterable opposition to the absorption of [West] Jerusalem into the State of Israel."  A comparison of the 1955 press cuttings with the articles, op-eds and letters recently published in Israeli newspapers in response to the war of words between the Vatican and Jerusalem over Pius XII's impending beatification demonstrates how little this debate has moved on in the past 50 years. Then as now, Pius XII's defenders argued plausibly, if not always persuasively, that he did as much as he could within the situational constraints, for instance speaking out against Nazism in his first encyclical, Summi pontificatus, in 1939, and against anti-Semitism (admittedly obliquely) in statements such as his 1942 Christmas allocution, and eschewing what would have amounted to useless rhetorical grandstanding in favor of discreet intervention and secret initiatives which saved an estimated 800,000 Jews. Then as now, his detractors offered convincing, if not always compelling, point-by-point rebuttals, insisting instead that, in the words of Diaspora Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog, "the Pope kept silent during the Holocaust - and perhaps even worse" on account of either moral cowardice and personal timidity, solicitude for German Catholic interests, or a tacit support for Nazism over the "greater evil" of Communism. Then as now, neither side seems any closer to nailing its case. IN AN effort to overcome this stalemate and seize the initiative in what has been dubbed "The Pius War," recent critics of Vatican policy such as Gary Wills, John Cornwell, James Carroll and Daniel Goldhagen have focused attention on the issue perhaps most damning from a modern perspective - Pius XII's undoubted anti-Semitism - arguing that what Cornwell calls Pius's "secret antipathy" toward Jews helps explain his lack of action on their behalf. Yet the fact is that, however abhorrent, Pius XII's anti-Semitism was utterly unremarkable for a churchman of his time, and was certainly no deeper than that of Pius XI, against whom he is most frequently unfavorably compared regarding his response to Nazism. For example, in 1919 the future Pius XI reported from Poland that the Jews were "perhaps the strongest and most evil influence" there, while 13 years later as pope, he told Mussolini that the Jews of central and eastern Europe posed a threat to Christian society. Even the unpromulgated encyclical, Humani generis unitas, drafted by Jesuit theologians as Pius XI's definitive condemnation of anti-Semitism, warned of "the spiritual dangers to which contact with Jews can expose souls" and stated that Judaism formed an "authentic basis for the social separation of the Jews from the rest of humanity." PIUS XII's anti-Semitism is certainly a stain on his record. But there is simply no evidence that it played any part in determining his wartime decisions. In this, he contrasts starkly with other Catholic authorities whose anti-Semitic ethos led them to directly help the Nazi cause. For instance, a majority of Slovak bishops initially justified the deportations of Jews as necessary "to stymie [their] nefarious influence." In Croatia (where 50% of Ustache concentration camp commanders were priests), high-ranking prelates presented the "liberation of the world from the Jews [as] a movement for the renewal of human dignity," while in Lithuania, the hierarchy explicitly instructed the Catholic clergy not to assist the Jews in any way during the Einsatzgruppen killing campaign. Elements of the Polish, Slovenian and Hungarian hierarchies also deliberately fanned anti-Semitism's flames even as their Jewish compatriots were being slaughtered. Here in Ireland, the Catholic Church's endemic anti-Semitism had more indirect, yet still devastating, consequences. Irish Catholicism had, throughout the 1920s and 1930s, published and preached against the Jews as a deicidal nation which had endured for 2,000 years as "the worm in the rose" of Christendom. And in a country where notions of Irishness and Catholicism were inextricably entwined, the Jews, as enemies of the Church, were by definition enemies of the State, and so religious and non-religious anti-Semitic motifs were synthesized to create one national anti-Jewish ideology. So "Jewish finance" was characterized as a means of enslaving the Irish Catholic nation while Freemasonry and Communism were presented as Jewish-driven vehicles for what Ireland's leading anti-Semitic ideologue Fr. Denis Fahey (most of whose books were prefaced and approved by prominent members of the Irish hierarchy) called "the destruction of Catholic civilization through the perversion of hearts." Thus Ireland's Rome-based Catholic clergy could warn the Irish ambassador to the Holy See in 1946 that Jewish influence was not just "anti-Christian [but] anti-national and detrimental to the revival of an Irish cultural and religious civilization" - an attitude which may partly explain the Irish colleges' apparent refusal to shelter Jews during the round-up of Roman Jews three years earlier, even as 4,500 were being hidden in other Catholic institutions, 10% of them in the Vatican itself. The Irish government's response to the increasingly desperate pleas of the chief rabbi of Mandated Palestine and former Irish chief rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog (ironically, one of Pius XII's first defenders) to use its influence to rescue small groups of French and Hungarian Jews was, in the words of historian Shulamit Eliash, "tepid and unenthusiastic." And, mindful of the "numerous protests regarding the number of alien Jews who [had] established themselves" in Ireland, the Ministry of Justice (which had the final say on refugee visas) implemented throughout the Nazi era an immigration policy which explicitly excluded those with what were termed "non-Aryan affiliations." So while just one Irish Jew actually perished in the Holocaust, one wonders how many of her Continental co-religionists died as a result of Ireland's institutionalization of societal anti-Semitism, which resulted in fewer than 70 Jewish admissions between 1933 and 1945. These, the real anti-Semitic sins of Catholic Europe, have all been obscured by the Pius XII sideshow - a sterile debate which will never be resolved even if the Vatican opens all its wartime archives. For, if documents exist there exonerating Pius of the charges against him, they would have long ago been released, while any evidence supporting the claim that he was, in Deborah Dwork's words, "the canonical example of tacit collusion and collaboration" with the Nazis will have long ago been removed. It is, then, surely time to let the matter rest.  The writer is a freelance journalist, writing mainly on Irish and Middle Eastern affairs. He is currently preparing a book on the history of Irish-Israeli relations.