Have we forgotten the debate over Pope Pius XII and the Nazis?

As more and more bishops deny Communion to pro-abortion politicians, more and more commentators are crying foul. They say it's wrong to mix religion and politics.

But we remember a different recent debate, in which commentators were making the opposite criticism of the Church: that it was too silent about what was happening in politics. In particular, in German politics in the 1930s and '40s.

What a difference a few years — and a new issue — makes.

Leave aside for a moment that Jeff Jacoby, writing in the Boston Globe in March 2000, was wrong about Pius XII's silence. For now, just follow Jacoby's logic:

“The stony silence of Pius XII, who spoke not a public word in defense of the Jews as millions were shipped to the death camps, is one of the worst moral failures in the Church's long history.”

Compare that with Ellen Goodman's column in the Boston Globe this past April. In it, she says the Pope shouldn't be allowed to meddle in politics and he should be ignored when he tries — even if Catholics believe that wide-scale, government-sanctioned killing is taking place, as they do in abortion.

“John Fitzgerald Kennedy addressed the anti-Catholic prejudice in a campaign speech in 1960 when he said famously, ‘I do not speak for my Church on public matters, and the Church does not speak for me.’ Back then, most Catholics were relieved to break down the stereotypes about them as people who followed orders from Rome and weren't allowed to think for themselves. But in 2004, it turns out, the conservatives in the Church are the ones demanding that politicians toe the line.”

Or, take another. James Carroll suggested in a Feb. 12, 2002, Boston Globe article that Catholic complacency causes it to avoid confronting the sinners in its ranks and that this failure has disastrous consequences.

“It is out of this conviction of Catholic exceptionalism that Church leaders, when faced with obvious failure, whether the ‘silence’ of Pius XII before the Holocaust or the abuse of children by priests, put such priority on ‘avoiding scandal’ — which really means covering up anything that might call the sinlessness of the ‘Church as such’ into question. If sins are nevertheless exposed, they are blamed on ‘members,’ leaving the blameless Church unchanged.”

Compare that with a Patricia O'Connell condemnation of an overbearing Church that won't let people call themselves Catholic regardless of what they are promoting. Her column ran May 19 in Business Week Online.

“PAPAL BULL. What are Catholics — and all Americans — to make of this increasing clerical activism in trying to shape their political decisions? The bad news is it shows that the Church — for centuries no stranger to abuse of power, muddled priorities and interfering where it shouldn't — seems to be at it again. The good news: Perhaps now the media will stop personalizing the matter vis-a-vis a presidential candidate and be forced to frame the issue in its proper context: Where is the line that separates church and state?”

The truth is, history shows that there are times when the Church should “meddle in politics” — where it will be accused of a moral failure if it doesn't.

Germany in 1933 was just such a time. When they recognized dark clouds gathering on the horizon, the German bishops didn't hesitate.

According to Jesuit Father Peter Gumpel, a longtime promoter of Pope Pius XII's canonization cause, the “German episcopate condemned the National Socialist movement repeatedly” before Adolf Hitler's rise to power.

“It prohibited Catholics from being associated with it or voting for” the Nazis, Father Gumpel said in 2000.

The Church's action had an effect — at least for a while. In the elections that brought Hitler to power that year, virtually all Catholics remained faithful to the Zentrum Christian party, which was well known for its opposition to the Nazis.

Today the circumstances are totally different. But we know that abortion is destroying lives — the lives of children and the lives of their mothers. It would be wrong for the bishops to stay silent in the face of forces so powerful and so deadly.