Washington Watch: Hitler's pope was no saint

The Vatican insists sainthood is based on Pius XII's 'Christian life,' not his historical record, but the two elements cannot be separated, critics insist.

pope Benedict in synagogue 311 (photo credit: AP)
pope Benedict in synagogue 311
(photo credit: AP)

Pope Benedict XVI's appearance at Rome's GreatSynagogue on Sunday did nothing to quell the controversy over plans toconfer sainthood on Pius XII, the wartime pontiff who has been calledHitler's pope. In fact, he may have made matters worse when just twodays earlier he took a further step in the process by declaring Pius's"heroic virtues."

Oneprominent Italian rabbi and a number of Holocaust survivors boycottedthe pope's visit in protest the beatification of Pius. RiccardoPacifici, the president of Rome's Jewish community, did attend anddeclared, "The silence of Pius XII before the Shoah still hurts becausesomething should have been done."

To this day, the Vatican has produced no hard evidence thatPius uttered a word or lifted a finger to help when, on October 16,1943, the Germans rounded up 1,021 Roman Jews and held them for twodays just across the Tiber from the Vatican before sending them toAuschwitz; only 17 returned after the war.

"The cries of the victims were met by Pius with silence," saidElan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of HolocaustSurvivors and Their Descendants.

Benedict told his audience on Sunday that the Churchhad aided Jews in a "hidden and discreet way" during the Holocaust, buthe offered no specifics about Pius's own involvement.

IF THERE is evidence it lies buried deep in the Vatican vaults.For a decade the Church has been promising to open its wartime recordsto scholars "soon," but the latest word is it will be at least anotherfive years. When some prewar archives were opened to a handpickedCatholic scholar, John Cornwell, to write a Vatican-sanctionedbiography of Pius, he was shocked by what he found.

Pius, who as Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, was thepapal nuncio in Germany in the 1920s, the Vatican's secretary of statein the 1930s and became pontiff in 1939. He drew the Church "intocomplicity with the darkest forces of the era," Cornwell wrote. Pius"was the ideal pope for Hitler's unspeakable plan. He was Hitler'spawn. He was Hitler's pope... [He was] not only an ideal pope for theNazis' Final Solution, but a hypocrite... to his everlasting shame andto the shame of the Catholic Church."

Tad Szulc, Pope John Paul II's biographer, called Pacelli "theFuhrer's best imaginable ally." Pacelli even betrayed Catholic leaderswho might have challenged Hitler and his extermination policies. "Heprevented Catholic protest in defense of Jews, even if they'd convertedto Christianity," Cornwell wrote. Pius also rebuffed a personal pleafrom president Franklin D. Roosevelt in late 1942 to publicly condemnHitler's extermination of the Jews and refused to meet the chief rabbiof Jerusalem, Isaac Herzog, who came to appeal for his help in savingJewish lives.

Although Israeli governments have largely avoided the dispute,calling it an issue between the Jewish people and the Vatican and not adiplomatic matter involving the two states, Deputy Premier SilvanShalom said he raised it Sunday when he was at the Rome synagogue, buthe gave no indication of any response.

Israel and the Vatican currently are involved in a dispute overChurch ownership of property in the country and its tax treatment.

Pius's defenders say he worked quietly and behind the scenes,and had he spoken out forcefully, it would have only made matters worsefor Jews and Catholics in Nazi-controlled countries. It is difficult toimagine how much worse conditions could have been for the Jews had heacted.

If Pius really was helpful, it should be easy enough to prove.The 65 years since the fall of the Nazis are enough time to sortthrough the archives for evidence of the pontiff's saintly efforts tohelp the Jews. The Vatican is the only country that has not opened itswartime archives to scholars, Steinberg said.

THE VATICAN'S failure to produce hard evidence that Pius didanything to help, however, should not detract from the heroism of manyindividual nuns, priests and other Catholics who risked their own livesto rescue thousands of Jews. If anything, their behavior demonstrateshow much the Vatican could have done. The continued refusal to openarchives lends credence to charges against the pope and undermines thecredibility of the Church.

Researchers also believe documents hidden deep in the Vaticancan shed light on information found in the US National Archivesindicating the pro-Nazi Croatian Ustasche delivered large quantities ofgold to the Vatican in exchange for help in the escape of high-rankingNazis. Other material discovered at the US archives indicate assetslooted by the Nazis and their allies from the Jews and others may havewound up in Vatican vaults, or at least evidence of where they went. USgovernment pleas to open the Vatican archives on that subject have beenrebuffed.

The Vatican's insistence there is no "smoking gun" is a"specious argument which turns the burden of proof on its head," saidSteinberg. "The known historical record confirms Pius's silence."

The Vatican insists sainthood is based on his "Christian life,"not his historical record, but popes have been important political anddiplomatic players, and the two elements cannot be separated, criticsinsist.

A driving force behind the canonization are Church conservatives opposed to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

Sunday was Benedict's third visit to a synagogue, an importantmove in healing relations between the Church and the Jews; hispredecessor, John Paul II, was only the first pontiff ever to make sucha visit when he went to the Rome synagogue in 1986.

The German-born Benedict, 82, was warmly received, but hisrelationship with the Jews has not been without problems. Just a yearago, he revoked the excommunication of four bishops of the anti-SemiticSociety of St. Pius X, including one notorious Holocaust denier.

Last year, the pope went to Israel and in a speech at YadVashem never mentioned Germany or the Nazis, as his predecessor haddone. Rabbi Yisrael Lau, a former Ashkenazi chief rabbi, urgedBenedict, "Don't make [Pius XII] holy," it will only "hurt... deeply"survivors "knowing that the man who could save, could do much more anddid not do it."