There have been easier times to be the pope. I don’t mean now, with the relatively gentle divisions between conservative and reformer, but during the Second World War, when the irrational became the norm, and genocidal madness dominated Europe. Eugenio Pacelli had been elected to the papacy in March 1939 and as Pius XII remained pontiff until 1958. The times demanded a man of strength and resolve, whereas Pacelli was a diplomat and a compromiser.
Those attributes, rather than any extremes of personality or policy, characterize his reign. But because he led the Roman Catholic Church during the Holocaust and eventual Nazi occupation of his country, such anodyne skills were simply inadequate.
It’s been genuinely difficult to gain a firm and fair understanding of where he stood when faced with tangible evil. Immediately after the war, Pius was regarded as a friend of the Allies and a rescuer of the Jewish people. That portrait changed dramatically in 1963 with Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy, in which the writer claimed that Rome not only ignored the suffering of the Jewish people, but tacitly and sometimes explicitly supported the Nazis.
In 1999 came British author John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, the title indicating the arguments of the book. Six years later there was a counterblast in The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: How Pope Pius XII Rescued Jews from the Nazis. The author was David G. Dalin, who is not only Jewish but a rabbi. This back and forth continues even today.
In 2020 Pope Francis ordered previously secret documents concerning Pius and the Holocaust to be released to academics, and they recently became available to the general public. What began to be discovered two years ago is that Pope Pius XII was neither as grim as his critics claim, nor as noble as his defenders maintain. As a Cardinal, he had drafted an encyclical condemning Nazi racism and had it read from every pulpit, and as Pope he employed Vatican assets to ransom some Jewish families held by the Nazis. There were even Roman Jews hidden in the papal palace of Castel Gondolfo. Pius saved individual Italian Jews, worked on behalf of Jewish people who had converted to Catholicism or were married to Catholics, and wasn’t a friend to National Socialism.
While a friend of the Jewish people, the problem is that Pius was not a significant enemy of the Nazis. His considerable intelligence sources—some of them strongly anti-Nazi—had informed him of the extent and barbarity of the extermination of the Jews. But at no time did Pius explicitly condemn the Holocaust. He had, after all, previously been the Vatican’s ambassador to Germany and knew the beliefs of the Nazis.
As to the often-made argument and defence that any public condemnation would have been impossible, or led to further suffering, the question has to be asked—further suffering for whom? 1.5million children were murdered in death camps! It was also during the Pius XII pontificate that the Church issued the Decree against Communism, declaring that any Catholic who became a Communist was an apostate and to be excommunicated. This was after the war but at the height of Stalinism. Had Pius learned a lesson, or was Communism viewed with far more distaste than Nazism?
My father’s family wasn’t Italian but eastern European. They died in large numbers in the Holocaust, and in western Ukraine many of the Nazi fellow travelers, and fellow murderers, were Catholic, as were Holocaust facilitators all over Europe. Jozef Tiso was a Catholic priest, Slovak leader, and known obsessive anti-semite. Imagine what would have happened if they’d been held fully accountable by the papacy, even threatened with excommunication? The countless Catholics who were resisting Nazism, and risking their lives to save their Jewish neighbours, I’m sure would have appreciated the support.
The King of Morocco requested yellow stars for himself and his family when told that Moroccan Jews would have to wear them. The Dutch Carmelite priest Titus Brandsma publicly opposed Nazism, rescued Dutch Jews and Allied airmen, and was eventually murdered by the Nazis for his resistance. He was canonized by Pope Francis earlier this year. There are many such heroes.
More could and should have been done, and the obscenities of the Holocaust perhaps been limited or even halted. Millions still cry out for justice, as does the Jewish Jesus.