Pope Pius XII: Ready for Sainthood?

In the closing days of December 2009, Pope Benedict XVI signed a decree of “heroic virtues” of Pope Pius XII, which places him on the path to sainthood. This decision has caused a worldwide uproar among Jews, dissident Catholics, and others who believe that Pius was silent, or worse yet, complicit, in the Holocaust.

In the first two decades following World War II, there was certainly no public perception, among Jews, Catholics, or anyone else that Pius had been silent to a fault during the Holocaust, much less that he was “Hitler’s Pope.” Prominent Jewish leaders such as the first Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, as well as Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog of Palestine praised Pius. TIME Magazine reported in 1953 that Pius was “to Romans and to much of the world, something of a living and familiar saint.” It was widely known that Pius XII, to a greater extent than many secular heads of state, opposed the designs of the Third Reich. When Pius was able to speak to the world, as he did on Christmas in 1942, there was no question as to where he stood on the tragedies unfolding worldwide.

With what army he was supposed to have overthrown Hitler and shut down the concentration camps, his critics have yet to say. What seems likely is that the sort of belligerence that many seem to insist that Pius should have directed towards Hitler would have only had the effect of hastening the mass murders of Jews and Christians (who were also frequently imprisoned in the concentration camps). It is also safe to say that until the mid-1960’s, no one expected Pius to have single-handedly put a stop to the Holocaust, and that many acknowledged that which he did do to shelter Jews from Nazi persecution.

What has happened to Pius’ memory since the mid 1960’s reads like a chapter out of George Orwell’s 1984, with once commonly accepted facts about the late, great Pontiff disappearing down the memory hole, replaced with a historical narrative based on fiction (quite literally, a play called “The Deputy”) and rumors instigated by the Soviet KGB. Mark Twain once said that a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth puts its shoes on. This one traveled fast, and endured for decades.

Fortunately, the efforts of Pius’ defenders, for a while few in number, have begun to pay off. Scholars and writers such as Sister Margherita Marchione never relented in their defense of Pius’ wartime record. Now even Jewish rabbis are defending Pius. Because of this, a legitimate shadow of doubt has been cast over “the myth of Hitler’s pope.” But a positive appraisal Pius is not yet entirely acceptable either, as evidenced by the reaction of Jews and some liberal Catholics to the recent decree.

Some are complaining that the Vatican has yet to provide access to all of the documents of Pius XII’s pontificate. The Vatican has responded by insisting that, in the first place, there are tens of thousands of documents that still need to be retrieved and organized, a process that can take several years. In the second place, the Vatican has in fact made many documents from the period available for anyone to study, but apparently they are only collecting dust. In November of 2008, Cardinal Tracisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State, said in a public address on this matter, with justifiable frustration:

Prefigured thus in the first Encyclical of Pope Pacelli were not only the horrors of war, but also the enormous work of charity that the Church was to set in motion towards all, without distinction, in the years of the conflict. Proof of this is to be found, among others, in the collection, instituted at the wish of Pius XII immediately after the beginning of the conflict. The collection of three and a half million documents in the Vatican Information Office regarding prisoners of war is a resource of the Vatican Archives, that covers the years up to 1947, which is completely open, but nevertheless hardly used. It seems in fact that it is enough to open up an archive, an opening possibly demanded with great clamour, for its documents to be totally disregarded: evidently history interests many only insofar as it can be used as a weapon.

Others, however, have accepted that Pius XII was most likely not complicit in the Holocaust. They concede that his defenders have successfully established a measure of reasonable doubt regarding the worst calumnies leveled against him. But, they assert, it is not enough to defend; in order for a person to become a saint, a positive case must be put forward. In the case of Pius XII, they believe that no such case has been presented, and so they ask, “why should Pius XII become a saint, even if he didn’t do the terrible things he was alleged to have done?” This is the question asked by John Allen Jr. at the National Catholic Reporter, Father Raymond J. de Souza at the National Post, and others.

It might be bad form to answer a question with a question, but in this case I can’t resist; why is it that these “Pius skeptics” (distinct from whom I will call “Pius deniers”) have not acquainted themselves with the historical record, or for that matter, what Pope Benedict has said about him? Presumably neither the Pope nor the Congregation for the Causes of Saints is in the business of arbitrarily designating historical figures for sainthood.

The main point, however, is this: to read through the various defenses put forward is to acquire a picture of a Pontiff who, under extremely difficult circumstances, and at a risk to himself and those directly under his care, helped thousands (some say as many as 860,000) escape persecution and extermination.

Pierre Belt’s book, Pius XII and the Second World War, based on an examination of Vatican archives, contains numerous examples of Pius’ efforts to counter the persecution of all “non-Aryan” peoples by the Nazis, including Jews. From the very beginning Pius was moved to act on their behalf, working to establish relief for those forced to flee from Nazi Europe to other countries. He made use of every building he had authority over to provide shelter and refuge to Jews fleeing their Nazi oppressors. He wrote encyclicals and made public announcements condemning the war as well as the doctrines of those who began it, doctrines of racial/national superiority and totalitarian government. When few in Europe would dare speak out against the Third Reich, he did.

He did all of this after having tried, desperately and in vain, to prevent the war from beginning in the first place through diplomatic efforts.

Less important to some of his left-wing critics, Pius also deserves credit for severely condemning and opposing the terrible persecution of Christians all over the world by violent anti-clerical regimes, particularly in Mexico and Spain. During what was a dark time not only for Jews, but for millions Christians faced with communist persecution, Pius XII inspired hope and fought tirelessly on behalf of his flock. After the war, he played an instrumental role in reestablishing peace among the nations.

All of this is to say that the defense of Pius XII is precisely that he was a good Pope, and a good human being. This is evident to Pope Benedict, who has spoken highly of Pius XII in public on many occasions. Those of us who have followed the “Pius Wars” in general and Benedict’s public statements in particular, therefore, are not surprised by this development. The Holy Father paints a picture of an utterly dedicated servant, whose culture and intellect contributed to the development of the Church in many vital areas, from science to missionary work and beyond.

But what is more surprising is that the skeptics don’t realize that Pius XII has been considered a candidate for sainthood since 1965. Cardinal Bertone, in the aforementioned public address, quoted the words of Pope Paul VI:

“In this way the desire which has been expressed by innumerable voices in regard to both [Pius XII and John XXIII], will be met; in this way the wealth of their spiritual heritage will be assured to history; in this way it will be certain that no motive, other than the reverence for holy truth and thus the glory of God and the building of His Church, shall reconstruct their authentic and dear figures for our veneration and that of the generations to come”.

Thus it is both easy and difficult to answer the questions of Mr. Allen and Father de Souza. It is easy in that there is an abundance of material that attests to Pius’ goodness when it would have been easier, and perhaps safer, to be the indifferent Pontiff he was falsely accused of being. It is difficult for the same reason. There is a lot of material to sift through.

I’m not sure what it is the Pius skeptics are looking for. But given what we do know about Pius XII, about how he conducted himself during the greatest crisis of the 20th century, I see no reason why anyone who rejects the KGB-initiated calumny against him should object to a mere recognition of his “heroic virtues”, which have been amply demonstrated.

12 Responses to Pope Pius XII: Ready for Sainthood?

  • Bravo!

  • I don’t believe that Pius XII failed to oppose Hitler in the manner appropriate to his office. But the happenings in France and Yugoslavia raise some concerns for me.

    There’s a perception that the bishops of Vichy France supported the government. They may have done quite a bit to help the Jews behind the scenes, but who hasn’t made that claim about himself in revisionist postwar France? The leaders of the Church didn’t oppose the pro-Nazi government overtly.

    In parts of the former Yugoslavia, Catholics (even churchmen) appear to have been active participants in war crimes. There were hundreds of thousands of deaths – if memory serves, a proportionately worse genocide than anywhere else in Europe.

    How much of this could a stronger-voiced pope have changed? I don’t know. A pope isn’t entirely responsible for the actions of bad Catholics, even bad bishops, and Pius XII may well have had his hands full. But to the extent that the canonization of a pope is a referendum on his papacy, we have to be careful to avoid defensiveness, and ask unpleasant questions.

  • Well said, Pinky. We must be careful to avoid defensiveness and to ask unpleasant questions.

    The real question is, with considerably more limited lines of communication than we experience today in relative peacetime, how much did Pius XII even know about events in Vichy France or Yugoslavia? The Franciscans, I believe, accused of collaborating in the deaths of Yugoslavian Jews probably did not include such details in their daily correspondence with the Pontiff.

    Moreover, in keeping with the principle of subsidiarity, it is reasonable to assume that the Holy Father left – given doubts – the management of the Church in France to the bishops of France. He could not have been unaware that some of them (but could he know exactly which?) were antisemitic or collaborationist, but his recourse was limited while they were in enemy-controlled territory.

  • Anything out of the balkans always take with a mountain of salt. Example: opinions about Blessed Aloysius Cardinal Stepinac of Croatia.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aloysius_Stepinac

    http://www.croatianhistory.net/etf/jews.html

    http://libcom.org/library/role-catholic-church-yugoslavias-holocaust-se-n-mac-math-na-1941-1945

    Combine boiling ethnic hatreds that go back over a thousand years, add in communism, fascism and massacres on all sides, season with wholesale falsification of historical records, and you have a perfect storm of a man created fog over what occurred in world war II in Yugoslavia. Trust nothing at face value when it comes to this historical Gordian’s knot.

  • Well, apparently the Jews who have been vocal about this, and the liberal Catholics, aren’t interested in what took place in the Balkans. Pius’ big crime was anti-Semitism, in their view.

    You see, in this narrative of lies, Eugenio Pacelli was an anti-Semite from the very beginning of his career (they base this on one remark that only a modern-day PC fascist would automatically pass sentence on). Thus when he became Pius XII, he wasn’t going to do anything to help the Jews. But Pacelli was only a symptom of the Church’s 2000 year history of anti-Semitism – the whole Church is to blame for what happened to the Jews, and should apologize until the end of time.

    It’s pure garbage.

    Millions of Christians were murdered by communism and Nazism, I daresay more than Jews were by Nazism alone. Christians and Jews would do well to focus on their common foe, atheistic materialism. JPII has said enough, Benedict has said enough, the Evangelicals love Israel – this constant hounding of the Church to accept a historical narrative that everyone knows is false, that runs contrary to every shred of real evidence we have about the life of Pius XII, that has now been revealed to be a KGB hoax, is really getting ridiculous.

    The Vatican never made agreement on Pius XII a condition for improving relations with Jews, yet so many Jewish organizations wish to make it a condition for themselves. Why? Obviously there is enough evidence for people of good will to disagree.

    I support the Papacy in this regard. Let the Jews have a tantrum over this. Our obligation is to historical truth. Historical truth is of far greater value than cordial relations with people who insist that we abandon what we have a reasonable belief to be true. Historical truth is of greater value than “ecumenism.” I’m not kidding when I say the history of Pius XII reads like something out of 1984. We absolutely must stand firm on this matter, not just for his memory or for the Church, but because it is true.

    Which isn’t to say I’m closed off to any further evidence that might emerge… but it will have to be both significant and verifiable.

  • Right Christopher, and I linked to Rabbi Dalin’s book in the piece.

    It’s just the majority of Jews who speak to the media, who chair the various organizations such as the ADL, etc.

    And wow, that is a great site you have there! Next time I write anything on Pius, I will be making use of it. Good work.

  • It just occurred to me that I pulled a “have you stopped beating your wife” move by implying that this article was defensive. It puts Joe in the position of having to say no, I’m not being defensive, which sounds defensive. Sorry.

  • Popes are darned if they do and darned if they don’t. Look at it today where some of us say the Pope isn’t strong enough in condemning pro-abortion politicians while others say he’s a right wing fanatic. Or slavery.

    There are three or four key points, in my view, regarding Pius XII (by the way, my dad was bad at school the day he died, and the nuns told him he killed the Pope). These three things just show how much “procedure” he violated, and how much personal virtue he showed, in helping the Jews:

    1. The fact that he not only housed Jewish refugees in the papal palace at the Vatican, but he had the heat and a/c turned off in his papal apartment to show solidarity with them.
    2. The fact that he ordered cloistered Orders to suspend their Rules to allow refugees in their monasteries.
    3. The fact that he paid for transport for thousands of Jews to get to the US, but the US turned them away.

    Also, Pius XII personally authorized the Holy Office’s use as a network for helping Allies and Jews both in intelligence gathering *and* escaping the Nazis, but the priest who ran the Office (the hero of _Scarlet and the Black_) gets all the credit.

    This whole thing started because Secretary Dulles, the Cardinal’s father, came to him and asked him to publicly denounce the Holocaust on the radio–at a time when most governments officially denied the Holocaust was happening. Pius said that the Allies were in no place to be pointing fingers about the Holcoaust, since the US, UK and USSR were engaging in similar atrocities. *This* is the kernel of “Hitler’s Pope”–the fact that the was willing to condemn all the secular governemnts equally.

  • An increasing consensus among scholars of World War II, a few hack journalists and angry Catholics aside, is very much that Pius XII worked vigorously to alleviate the situation of European Jewry. I direct you to particular to the extensive work of Sir Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill, a professor at Oxford who lectures in Israeli history and WWII, a member of the Queen’s Privy Council, ardent writer of rebuttals of holocaust denial, and himself Jewish. I also ask you to consider Yad Vashem, at which a tree was planted in honor of Pius XII by the Israeli government.

  • Let the ignorant Jews have a tantrum would be more accurate.

    Because when Abe Foxman starts to howl, you know the ignorants come out in force.

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