VATICAN CITY—Taking the offensive, the Vatican has sharply rejected charges that Pope Pius XII ignored the plight of the Jews during World War II because he was antiSemitic and supported Nazi Germany as a bulwark against the Soviet Union and communism.
Jesuit Father Pierre Blet, the Vatican's leading historian of the period, said the documents on which British journalist John Cornwell based the charges in his controversial new book “are certainly authentic.
“But, the conclusions that he drew from them are laughable as history. You can see that the author is not a historian.”
Father Blet spoke at a Vatican news conference called to present Pius XII and the Second World War According to the Archives of the Vatican, his one-volume summary of a 12-volume study published between 1965 and 1981.
Although the book, published originally in France in 1997, was not issued in direct response to Cornwell, it served as evidence for the Vatican's defense of the Pope.
Cornwell cites two letters as proof of Pius XII's anti-Semitism. One recommends the Vatican reject a request for palms to be used in a Jewish religious service and the other describes a Bolshevik revolutionary as “a Jew, pale, dirty with vacant eyes, hoarse voice, vulgar, repulsive, with a face that is both intelligent and sly.”
Father Blet and Cardinal Pio Laghi, former papal nuncio in Washington, said both letters must be viewed in the context of their time, long before the Second Vatican Council opened the way to dialogue between Catholics and Jews.
Father Blet noted that, although Pius XII signed the second letter, he did not write it. Cornwell described the letter as having lain in the Vatican archive “like a time bomb until now”; in fact, the letter was known and published in a 1992 study of Vatican-German diplomacy.
Asked point-blank if the Pope was anti-Semitic, Father Blet replied: “He certainly was not. He helped the Jews.”
Was Pius XII, who had served as papal nuncio to Germany, a Nazi sympathizer?
“You must not confuse philo-Nazism with sympathy for the German regime. There is no doubt that Pius XII liked Germans, but saying he was a Nazi sympathizer is something else.”
A native of France, Father Blet is the only surviving member of a team of four Jesuit historians named by Pope Paul VI in 1964 to sort through and publish documents stored in hundreds of cartons in the Vatican archives.
Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli was elected pope March 2, 1939, taking the name Pius XII.
Father Blet argued that, as pope, Pius XII “had limited means at his disposal” but sought, through his own representative in Berlin and through Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, to persuade Hitler not to attack Poland.
The Pope then joined forces with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in another fruitless attempt to dissuade Mussolini from joining forces with Hitler, Father Blet said.
Later, he said, Pius XII agreed to Roosevelt's request that the Vatican convince U.S. Catholics the Church's opposition to communism should “not impede coming to the aid of Soviet Russia in war with Germany.” The Pope's cooperation on this point flies in the face of Cornwell's theory that Pius XII was obsessed by communism.
Pius XII used guarded terms to speak about Nazi persecution of the Jews in his 1942 Christmas message, referring to “people destined to die only because of their ancestry.” In a speech to the cardinals on June 2, 1943, he said some groups were “destined, even without fault on their part, to the threat of extermination.”
But Father Blet said the Pope chose to comply with the pleas of German and Polish bishops for “prudence” for fear of Nazi reprisals against Catholics as well as Jews.
“Every word I say which is addressed to authorities has to be seriously thought out and measured in the interest of those very people who are suffering so as not to involuntarily make their situation even graver,” the Pope told the cardinals in his 1943 speech.
In addition, Father Blet said, there was no evidence to prove the existence of “the gas chambers of which there were whispers” in 1943. “You have to distinguish between the general persecution of the Jews, which was known, and the extermination plan. There was no proof of this.”
The Pope's silence, however, “covered secret action through [Vatican diplomats and local bishops] to try to impede the deportations.
“The results of this action appear in the requests for new interventions and the testimony of gratitude toward Pius XII from associations and some of the leading Jewish personalities during the conflict and after the war ended.”
Father Blet noted Israeli historian Pinchas Lapide estimated that Pius XII's actions saved the lives of 850,000 Jews.
Further Vatican objections to the Cornwell book were published in an unsigned article in the Oct. 12 edition of the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano. The lack of a signature implies that the piece represents the thinking at the highest levels of the Vatican.
The article noted that Cornwell has no academic degree in history, law or theology, all of which figure largely in his book.
Cornwell said he was the first researcher to be granted access to the archive of the Secretariat of State. The Vatican said this was “completely false,” and that numerous scholars have seen documents from the archive. It said Cornwell had consulted only two series of documents regarding Bavaria and Austria between 1913 and 1921; documents from 1922 onward remain closed to the public, the Vatican said.
Cornwell wrote that he worked in the archives “for months on end,” but the Vatican said he was there only for a three-week period in 1997, often for very brief visits.
Cardinal Laghi acknowledged the existence of unoffiial pressure on the Vatican from the Israeli Embassy to suspend Pope Pacelli's cause for beatification.
Meanwhile, ZENIT, the Rome-based wire service, reported that Pius XII's cause for beatification has not been postponed due to ongoing criticism of the late pope by Jewish groups. Historian Peter Gumpel, relator of the cause, said: “I am authorized to state that [any talk of postponement] has no foundation.
“The cause for beatification of Pius XII is proceeding normally and rapidly.”