Why the Pius XII Breakthrough Will Be Ignored

The denigration of Pope Pius XII is one of the most shameful episodes of contemporary anti-Catholicism.

In the past decade alone, there has been a torrent of books and articles — some by dissident Catholics whose real target is Pope John Paul II — attacking Pius for his alleged silence and inaction during the Holocaust. These indictments of Pius have been ably refuted not only by Catholic apologists but also by Jewish historians such as Pinchas Lapide, Martin Gilbert and reputable non-Jewish scholars such as Owen Chadwick and Anthony Rhodes.

But, for some reason, it is the anti-Pius diatribes of Daniel Goldhagen, James Carroll and John Cornwell — none of whom are scholars, all of whom are anti-Catholic — that hold the media's attention. To even dip into Cornwell's Hitler's Pope or Goldhagen's A Moral Reckoning is to find oneself in a kangaroo court where the voluminous evidence in Pius' favor is suppressed and the most flagrant nonsense is solemnly presented as established fact.

The simple truth is that Pius was responsible for saving more Jewish lives during World War II than any other individual. Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg are rightly celebrated for rescuing thousands of Jews, but Pius saved many more. And as for his endlessly discussed “silence”: What was to be gained by mounting a soapbox and publicly denouncing the Nazi treatment of the Jews?

In 1942, the Catholic hierarchy of Amsterdam did just that: It spoke out vigorously against the Nazi persecution of the Jews. The Nazi response was a redoubling of roundups and deportations. By the end of the war, 90% of the Jews in Amsterdam were liquidated. No one spoke out more explicitly against the Holocaust than the Dutch bishops, and no country had a higher percentage of Jews murdered.

So, Jewish relief officials and the International Red Cross were only being logical when they agreed that public speeches by the Pope against the Nazis would not have the slightest effect on Hitler and would seriously jeopardize the lives of thousands of Jews who were being hidden in convents, monasteries and the Vatican.

As the Jewish Anti-Defamation League concluded years later, in response to the scurrilous portrait of Pius XII in Rolf Hochhuth's 1963 play The Deputy, a public protest by the Pope “would have provoked the Nazis to brutal retaliation and would have substantially thwarted further Catholic action on behalf of the Jews.”

It is seldom mentioned that Jewish organizations in America were also relatively quiet about Hitler's treatment of the Jews. The American Jewish Congress and B'nai B'rith discouraged public protests by American Jews and declined to make a public issue of the Roosevelt administration's refusal to allow more than a handful of Jewish refugees into the United States. There were prudential reasons for this restraint — for example, the fear of stirring up anti-Semitism. But this “silence” nonetheless escapes the moral scrutiny of The New York Times, which itself did not spend a lot of newsprint on the destruction of European Jewry until it was history.

One Jewish leader has said: “All of us — leaders and members of the community — failed the test; as one who dealt with the rescue and defense of Jews in the Holocaust period, I stand here and confess: We all failed.”

I don't bring up these facts to disparage anyone but simply to make the point that the criticisms of Pius are a misguided exercise in selective indignation. Many could have done more to save Jewish lives and didn't. Almost everyone of consequence (including many Zionists in Palestine) seems to have had higher priorities than saving Jewish lives.

But there is considerable delicacy in the media about mentioning anyone's failures with regard to the Holocaust — always with the exception of Pius. Franklin Roosevelt, in particular, has been given a free pass, despite policies that were the reverse of helpful to the Jews. It almost seems as though Pius is being singled out to distract attention from the omissions of others.

But the more documents that are published, the more Pius appears as his defenders have always portrayed him.

Just recently, two diplomatic documents, which had been sitting quietly in an archive at Harvard University, have been discovered by a Jesuit researcher that put to rest the charge that Pius was a secret Nazi sympathizer. Anyone who has studied the matter already knows that he despised the Nazis and all their works, but it is good to have these new reminders.

One document is a private memo written in April 1938 from Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, soon to be Pius XII, in which he says that compromise with the Nazis is “out of the question.” The other is a report by an American diplomat relating that in 1937 Cardinal Pacelli called Hitler “a fundamentally wicked person” and “an untrustworthy scoundrel.”

Pius' most determined critics will probably pay no attention to this new evidence. But their campaign of detraction is looking weaker all the time.

George Sim Johnston writes from New York.