Pope Pius XII Misunderstood by The Protest Generation
After the recent publication of John Cornwell's Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, we witness yet another spate of editorials, book reviews and essays on Pius XII's policies before and after World War II. Beginning with Rolf Hochhuth's 1964 play The Deputy, we have had almost constant popular and academic discussion of this topic. The very title of Cornwell's book seems slanderous, implying that Pope Pacelli was at Hitler's beck and call.
Cornwell claims that he has found the “secret” history of a sordid relationship. Generally, such provocative books gain much initial fanfare. Meanwhile, scholars patiently sift the facts, put them into a much less sensational context, and correct the exaggerations of judgments or facts on which they are based. When this corrective work is completed, the published results are rarely seen by those most ready to believe the initial new “secret” history.
Is there some general context in which ordinary Catholics might place these recurring accusations, which make this good pope sound responsible for the plight — the horror — of the Jews during World War II? Are there any principles or observations to keep in mind when reading the latest sensational “documentation” that claims to reveal this pope as a willing ally — or unwilling dupe — of a bloody century's most infamous genocidal killer?
The Church itself has sought to publish as fully as possible the complete records of the times. It has nothing to hide, even though opinions differ on what ought to have been done. Yet we continue to hear rumors of “secret” files that the Vatican is desperately trying to keep under wraps.
It is not effective to simply deny outright this sort of accusation. After all, the charges are based on hearsay and rumors, which have a way of taking on a life of their own. And, if indeed there are “secret” documents sealed away somewhere, and if the Vatican is as sly as its detractors claim, then how are we, the simple faithful, to get to the bottom of the matter?
A good place to start might be with the hard evidence. During and immediately after World War II, Pius XII was looked upon as someone who did much to help thousands of individual Jews, though he did so in his characteristic cautious and quiet way. Many Jewish leaders in the period immediately following the War acknowledged this fact. If we ask, “Could he have done more?”, it would be the same as asking Roosevelt or Churchill if either of them could have done more.
All three, no doubt, would have replied, “Yes, of course, we could and should have done more.” They are only guilty of doing what seemed prudent and feasible at the time the events were unfolding. In hindsight, we know many things that they did not know, or know well; this includes the broad the scope of the Nazi campaign against the Jews.
The real question this simple fact raises for me is, why did the accusations against Pius XII not come up until years after the War?
As I wrote in a 1968 essay, the real and only problem here has to do with the thesis, made first by the Hochhuth play, that Pius XII was at fault because he did not “publicize” the Holocaust and demand world attention to it.
Since the 1960's, we have come to believe that rhetoric, not effectiveness, is the first thing we should look to in these kinds of circumstances. We imbue vocal protest with almost mystical qualities, as though talking loudly enough and often enough can solve all problems.
Thus history's second-guessers argue that the Pope should have sacrificed prudence. Even at the cost of his life or the lives of numerous others, especially Catholics for whom he had direct concern, he should have thrown caution to the wind and vociferously condemned Hitler. All of this is very high sounding. It is always at the heart of the accusation that Cornwell and Hochhuth and others have made. But is it a valid supposition?
We know that the quiet efforts of Pius XII did save a significant number of Jews who otherwise would have been lost. We know, too, that when the Dutch bishops did publicly protest, Nazi policy was immediate: They put to death Dutch Jews who had converted to Catholicism. Pius XII, in other words, had to ask himself whether raising his voice to “shame” Hitler on the world stage might only have made things worse. He was forced to choose between lesser and greater evils. Only if we consider that Hitler, like Stalin, might have killed twenty million instead of six, awful as the latter is, can we see the problem.
In the midst of highly volatile circumstances, Piux XII chose a course that was cautious, prudent, agonizing and brave. He discerned, no doubt through deep prayer, that vocal protest would not stop Hitler — and it could well increase his fury and, thus, his killing.
What seems evident in all of this is that both the papacy and Israel, with their mysteriously intertwined destinies, are kept before our eyes by constant ruminations on what might have been.
Father James Schall is a professor of government at Georgetown University.
- October 17-23, 1999