“Pius XII Did Help the Jews”

By William Doino, Jr. In the fall of 1987, during one of his many meetings with the Jewish community, Pope John Paul II gave an important speech on the Church and the Holocaust. Recalling “the strong, unequivocal efforts of the Popes against anti-Semitism and Nazism,” he cited Pius XI’s condemnation of Nazism as “an enemy of the Cross of Christ,” and went on to praise his successor, Pius XII: “And I am convinced that history will reveal ever more clearly and convincingly how deeply Pius XII felt the tragedy of the Jewish people, and how hard and effectively he worked to assist them during the Second World War.” A decade later, John Paul issued a document on the Holocaust, We Remember, which again noted Pius XII’s humanitarian acts, and soon thereafter praised Pius’s entire pontificate: “He was a great Pope.” Shortly before Christmas [on December 19, 2009], Pope Benedict XVI validated John Paul’s judgment by signing a decree declaring Pius XII “Venerable,” advancing his cause for sainthood. That decision has brought forth a flood of commentary, not all of it well-informed. Benedict’s decision is certainly debatable, but it was not, as some have suggested, rushed, much less deliberately “insensitive.” It was the end result of a well-thought out, conscientious process. In May of 2007, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints voted unanimously to recommend that the Church recognize Pius XII’s “heroic virtues.” They did so after considering 3,000 pages of documentation on every aspect of the life of Eugenio Pacelli, the birth name of Pius XII. Many wanted Benedict to declare Pius XII Venerable then, but he resisted, choosing instead to further study the controversy himself. For two years Benedict reviewed all the documentation, pro and con, consulted historical experts and Vatican archivists (who have access to every internal file on Pacelli), reviewed first-hand testimonials, and endorsed a threeday historical conference in Rome, which addressed and answered every major charge against the wartime pontiff. Only then did Pope Benedict finally act, believing Pius XII worthy of the honor. He is not alone in that view. As someone who has investigated and interviewed many people who personally knew Pius XII, what has always struck me most is how far apart Pius XII’s critics are from those who actually worked with him, and personally witnessed his actions. The anti-Nazi Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, priest-rescuers Henri de Lubac, Michel Riquet, and Pietro Palazzini, papal assistant John Patrick Carroll-Abbing, and American diplomat Harold Tittmann, among many others, have testified to the heroic, even saintly, qualities of Pacelli. They also bear witness to the fact that Pius XII, contrary to popular notion, did “speak out.” Palazzini, recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile, always credited Pius for inspiring his actions, and declared: “Under the pressure of events, although so very tragic, men rediscovered the Christian message, that is, the sense of reciprocal charity, according to which it is a duty to charge oneself with the salvation of others. To rediscover it, one voice was often raised among the din of arms: it was the voice of Pius XII.” Riquet’s testimony is equally strong: “Pius XII has spoken; Pius XII has condemned; Pius XII has acted….Throughout those years of horror, when we listened to Radio Vatican and to the Pope’s messages, we felt in communion with the Pope, in helping persecuted Jews and in fighting against Nazi violence.” (Le Figaro, January 4, 1964). Tittmann wrote

of Pius : “I do not for one moment overlook his great spiritual qualities. Whether near him, or away from him, one was always conscious of them....Very possibly the future will rate him a saint.” His words now look prophetic. In the wake of Benedict’s decree, some have tried to qualify his announcement, pointing to the subsequent Vatican statement making an alleged distinction between the personal sanctity of Pius XII and his muchdebated historical choices. But a careful reading of that statement, issued by Father Federico Lombardi, includes this key line: “Naturally, such evaluation takes account of the circumstances in which the person lived, and hence it is necessary to examine the question from a historical standpoint, but the evaluation essentially concerns the witness of Christian life.” (emphasis added). In other words, being a saint primarily involves one’s personal spirituality, fortitude, charity, and commitment to Christ—qualities Pius demonstrated in abundance -- but also includes one’s historical judgments and acts. This is particularly true of Pius’s wartime actions--and there is plenty of history to support them. Pius XII’s first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus, issued soon after the War began, is a searing condemnation of racism and totalitarianism, and was hailed by the Allies—even as it infuriated the Nazis. It specifically quotes St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians (3:10-11), stressing the unity of the human family, “where there is neither Gentile nor Jew.” In early 1940, Pius XII personally confronted German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, garnering this headline from the New York Times: “Pope is Emphatic about Just Peace: Jews Rights Defended.” (March 14, 1940). Pius’s allocutions condemning race-based murder—particularly his 1942 Christmas address and June 2, 1943 speech to the College of Cardinals--provoked the Nazis to brand him a “mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals,” and censor his words in occupied lands. Those who secretly distributed Pius XII’s speeches were arrested and sometimes even executed. The oft-heard charge that Pius XII was “silent” during the Holocaust is disproven by both his friends and enemies alike. The importance of Vatican Radio in fighting the Holocaust cannot be overestimated. This courageous station-sanctioned and sustained by Pius XII--helped break the news of Nazi crimes in Poland, highlighting “the unimpeachable testimony of eye-witnesses” who revealed how “Jews and Poles are being herded into separate ‘ghettoes,’ hermetically sealed….” (Broadcast, January 21, 1940). The Palestine Post reported: “In their sermons, Catholic priests have cited the warning by the Vatican Radio that anyone furthering the persecution of Jews is an accomplice to murder.” (September 20, 1942). And these striking words came forth from the same Vatican station: “He who makes a distinction between Jews and other men is unfaithful to God and is in conflict with God’s commands.” (New York Times, June 27, 1943). Controversy continues to surround Pius XII’s reaction to the Nazi round-up of Rome’s Jews, but Michael Tagliacozzo, the leading authority on the raid, and himself a survivor of it, has affirmed that Pius XII “was the only one who intervened to impede the deportation of Jews on October 16, 1943, and he did very much to hide and save thousands of us. It was no small matter that he ordered the opening of cloistered convents. Without him, many of our own would not be alive.” On March 12, 1945, Vatican Radio recounted what was well-known of Pius XII at the time, even if it is denied or forgotten today: “During the occupation of Rome, between 8th September, 1943 and 5th June, 1944, he gave shelter in 120 institutes for women and 60 institutes for men, as well as in other houses and churches of Rome, to more than 5,200 Jews who were thus able to live free from fear and misery. As a father to his children, the Pope has, in these long years of war, devoted himself with untiring care….”

New evidence has also emerged in recent years—private letters from Pius XII, measures he took to protect Jews and others at Castel Gandolfo, videotaped testimony of his subordinates , who acted on his explicit instruction to rescue those threatened with death; religious diaries revealing his support for Rome’s persecuted Jews and revelations about Pius XII’s efforts to overthrow Hitler—causing a positive shift in his reputation. Today, historians of the rank of Sir Martin Gilbert and Michael Burleigh defend him; and Pius is the subject of an authoritative biography by Andrea Tornielli which re-establishes his good name and character. Among Pius XII’s most impressive (but least known) achievements are the establishment of the Pontifical Relief Commission, and the Vatican Information Office. The first distributed massive amounts of food, medicine and clothes to people of all creeds and nationalities, throughout war-torn Europe; the second fielded millions of wartime inquiries, on prisoners of war and other missing or displaced people, helping reunite countless families. In 2004, the Vatican released over 1,500 pages of documentation on this extraordinary agency, showing the depth and breath of Pius XII’s creation.

The mainstream media, often uninformed about Catholic history, and particularly about Pius XII, has not been very helpful in getting this information out. Worse, they have little awareness of the Communist backround of the post-War campaign against Pius XII; and are easily taken in by authors alleging “new” or “explosive” information about Pius XII—freely publishing the wildest accusations, but rarely the subsequent refutations and corrections. The Vatican has already released a huge amount of important wartime archives (largely unread, alas); but because some still remain to be catalogued and released, many people, including some who support the cause of Pius XII, think it might be best to wait for their final publication before moving ahead with the next stage of Pius XII’s sainthood cause. It is not an unreasonable request, especially since the pope and Vatican are fully confident that the remaining archives will only enhance Pius XII’s reputation. As Benedict prepares to visit a Roman synagogue on January 17th [which he did, back in early 2010], he should be aware that the issue of Pius XII is bound to come up, and be mindful of the sensitivities involved. At the same time, he should not shy away from his support for Pius XII, as there are many people of conscience and integrity who agree with him—and not just Catholics. In 1946, in the wake of the Holocaust, the Conference on Jewish Relations published a well-researched book, Essays on Antisemitism, pulling no punches on how that evil prejudice has infected civilization, including certain Christians, who betrayed the teachings of their faith. It is all the more remarkable, then, that the book’s editor, Professor Koppel Pinson, considering the papacy’s wartime record, went out of his way to make this statement: “We may agree or disagree with the general lines of political policy of the Vatican. But this much is undisputed fact: never has the papacy spoken in such unmistakable terms against racialism and antiSemitism as in the words and deeds of the present pope, Pius XII, and his predecessor Pius XI.” Invoke history to assess Pius XII by all means, but first consult it, before passing judgment.

Authors Note: William Doino, Jr. writes for Inside the Vatican magazine; and is a contributor to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII (Lexington Books).

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