On Sunday, April 3, the Washington Post's Parade magazine printed an interview with Pope John Paul II. Tad Szulc, the author, seemed to focus on Catholic-Jewish relations. While praising the popes since John XXIII, he seemed to accuse Pope Pius XII of remaining silent about the holocaust during World War II.
To begin to understand Pius XII's actions during the World War II, we must remember the world in which he lived. Hitler had assumed control of Germany in 1933. In July of that same year, he began not only persecuting Jews but also Christians. He infiltrated the German Evangelical Federation (the Lutheran Church), removing leaders who were opposed to his agenda. Many of these ministers died in concentration camps or prisons, like the famous Deitrich Bonhoffer.
The persecution was even more intense for the Catholic Church. Gestapo agents attended Mass and listened to every homily preached, prepared to arrest any priest attacking or criticizing the regime. Chanceries were searched for any "incriminating" documents. Communication with Rome was limited. Nazi propaganda represented the Church as unpatriotic and hoarding wealth with clerics portrayed as idle and avaricious. By 1940, all Catholic schools had been closed, and religious instruction confined to the Church itself or at home. Meanwhile, anti-Christian teaching was imparted in the public schools.
Please note that the first concentration camp was established in 1933 at Dacchau, outside of Munich; this camp was not so much an "extermination camp" as one for the political prisoners, including priests. At Dacchau alone, 2,700 priests were imprisoned (of which 1,000 died), and were subject to the most awful tortures, including the medical experiments of Dr. Rascher.
Such persecution was not confined to Germany. The Church in Poland also suffered severely. During the first four months of occupation following the September 1939 invasion, 700 priests were shot and 3,000 were sent to concentration camps (of which 2,600 died). By the end of the war, 3 million Polish Catholics had been killed in concentration camps. How many other Catholics — priests, religious, and laity — in other countries died for the faith during the Nazi era?
Pope Pius XI, who had condemned Nazism in his 1937 encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge, died in February 1939, and Pope Pius XII followed him as the successor of St. Peter on March 12. Think of the world — and the Church — Pope Pius XII had inherited.
To make matters worse, by 1940 Hitler controlled Europe and Northern Africa, and was planning the invasion of Britain. The Vatican, officially a neutral country, was isolated. Hitler had plans to depose Pius XII, appoint his own "puppet" pope, and move the Vatican administration to Germany, plans which would have been executed if the war would have gone in the Nazi's favor. Who then was to come to the aid of the Vatican? Pius XII, who had to insure the survival of the Church, was very much alone.
Nevertheless, Pius XII spoke out. After the invasion of Poland in September l939, he denounced the aggression of the Nazis and proposed a peace plan. In 1940, he called for the triumph over hatred, mistrust, and the spirit of "cold egoism." The following year, he pleaded for the rights of small nations and national minorities, and condemned total warfare and religious persecution. In his Christmas message of 1942, he specifically denounced the extermination of the Jews: The New York Times praised this message, writing, "This Christmas more than ever Pope Pius XII is a lonely voice crying out in the silence of a continent. The pulpit whence he speaks is more than ever like the Rock in which the Church was founded, a tiny island lashed and surrounded by a sea of war... When a leader hound impartially to nations on both sides condemns as heresy the new form of national state which subordinates everything to itself; when he declares that whoever wants peace must protect against 'arbitrary attacks' the 'juridical safety of individual'; when he assails violent occupation of territory, the exile and persecution of human beings for no reason other than race or political opinion; when he says that people must fight for a just and decent peace, a 'total peace'— the 'impartial' judgment is like a verdict in our high court of justice."
Besides these worldwide pleas for peace, the Vatican persistently issued communications to protest to Hitler which were attested to by Von Ribbentrop at the Nuremburg war trials, who said, "I do not recollect [how many] at the moment, but I know we had a whole deskful of protests from the Vatican. There were very many we did not even read or reply to."
Pope Pius XII also acted. According to Israeli archives, papal relief programs saved at least 860,000 Jews, more than any other agency or organization. His Holiness also allowed the Vatican diplomatic corps, which were protected by diplomatic immunity, to carry messages between the allied powers. Vatican Information Services also sent over 5 million messages for soldiers.
During the Nazi occupation of Rome (September 1943 to June 1944), Pius XII helped to raise the Gestapo's demand of 50 kilos of gold of the Jewish community for "their safety" ; unfortunately, the payment did not prevent the eventual round-up of Jews.
He also lifted cloister restrictions, allowing religious houses to offer refuge for Jews. He allowed the issuance of false baptismal certificates to Jews. These deeds do not even include the general relief efforts and distribution of food coordinated by the Vatican for the city of Rome.
We must remember that any defiance of the Nazi regime meant immediate and severe retaliation. Jean Bernard, Bishop of Luxembourg, who has detained at Dacchau, later wrote, "The detained priests trembled every time news reached us of some protest by a religious authority, but particularly by the Vatican. We all had the impression that our warders made us atone heavily for the fury these protests evoked."
Cardinal Sapieha, Archbishop of Krakow, wrote to Pius XII in 1942, "We must deplore that we cannot communicate Your Holiness' letter to the faithful, for that would provide a pretext for fresh persecution. We already have many who are victims because they were suspected of being in secret communication with the Apostolic See." Pius XII was burdened with speaking the truth while safeguarding the survival of the Church.
When Pope Pius XII died on October 9, 1958, Golda Meir, then Israeli delegate to the United Nations, sent official condolences: "When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the pope was raised for the victims. The life of our times was enriched by a voice speaking out on the great moral truths above the tumult of daily conflict. We mourn a great servant of peace."
Dr. Raphael Cantoni, a leader in Italy's Jewish Assistance Committee added, "The Church and the papacy have saved Jews as much and insofar as they could Christians. Six million of my co-religionists have been murdered by the Nazis... but there would have been many more victims had it not been for the efficacious intervention of Pius XII."
With all of the talk of Oscar Schindler and "Schindler's List," someone ought to make a movie about Pius XII and his courageous efforts.
Saunders, Rev. William. "Did Pius XII Remain Silent?" Arlington Catholic Herald.
This article is reprinted with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald.
Father William Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope parish in Potomac Falls, Virginia. He is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. The above article is a "Straight Answers" column he wrote for the Arlington Catholic Herald. Father Saunders is the author of Straight Answers, a book based on 100 of his columns, and Straight Answers II.Copyright © 2003 Arlington Catholic Herald
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