What Are We to Make of Pope Pius XII?


Mr. O’Shea is an Australian historian and educator. His research has focussed on Pope Pius XII and Catholic responses to the Holocaust. O’Shea is a founding member of the Australian Institute of Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He is the Senior Religious Education Coordinator at St Patrick’s College, Strathfield. He lives in Sydney. His latest book is: A Cross too Heavy: Eugenio Pacelli, Politics and the Jews of Europe 1917-1943.

There have been few problems within contemporary Catholicism that arouse such passions as the subject of Eugenio Pacelli, known to history as Pope Pius XII (1876-1958). Pacelli has been the center of a storm since 1963. In that year Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy opened in Germany. His scathing summation of Pacelli opened the way for a re-evaluation of the role of the man who had been widely credited with the saving of thousands of Jewish lives. The ‘saviour’ of Europe’s Jews was demonized for remaining silent and passive as the trains rolled east.

Within five years of his death, critical study of the man began in academic circles. It coincided with the first major studies of the Holocaust. Questions were raised over the role of the Pope and inconsistencies emerged between the received and popular histories and evidence discovered in archives, document centers and libraries. For the majority of these historians, research was limited to the war years. Few scholars, including Vatican historians, have researched the whole picture of the life of Eugenio Pacelli and fewer still have taken into account the formative years prior to his appointment in 1917 as Nuncio to Munich.

To understand Eugenio Pacelli and to attempt a judgement based on the historical data we must place the entire discourse firmly within a foundation study of Christian anti-Judaism and its intrinsically related mutation, antisemitism. The roots of the Holocaust lay deep in the soft underbelly of Christian culture. Auschwitz would not have been possible without the centuries of Christian cultural antithesis towards Judaism. The pseudo-science of racism grew out of the fractured Christian commonwealth. And while “scientific” biological racism openly repudiated revealed religion in its theory, many of its practitioners remained within the Church, apparently experiencing little difficulty in reconciling love of the Jewish Jesus with loathing of Jews.

Further, the relationship between the Vatican and the socio-political movement of Modernism must be explored again along with the ever-present spectre of Bolshevism. Pacelli was in Munich in 1919 during the short-lived Bavarian Soviet. What he witnessed there left him with an indelible hatred of communism. The politics of the right may well have been reprehensible, but the politics of the left were nothing short of diabolical. Pacelli developed a life-long distrust of atheistic communism that evolved into veritable paranoia in his later life.

The litmus test of Pius XII's vision of the Church came during the war years. He had shown himself an able and highly skilled diplomat who steered the Church through several decades of difficult territory as Nuncio in Germany and then as Secretary of State as testified to in the recently opened German archives of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. An ever-growing gulf yawned between the theology of the Church and the practical application of political realities. For Pacelli, the interests of the Church could never be compromised.

Of all the events that took place between 1939 and the end of the war, it was the Rome aktion of October 1943 that demonstrates most clearly the dreadful predicament of Pius XII and the Holocaust. The familiar pattern of extortion, exclusion, and evacuation and transport all happened virtually under Pius’ window. There is no way he could not have known what was happening. In fact, there is ample evidence to tell us he knew exactly what was happening. There is also ample evidence that points to the Pope being actively aware of, and actively involved in, encouraging and supporting rescue.

The Pope’s defenders claim that had he spoken out more precisely than he did, he would have caused greater suffering to the Jews and to Catholics. They weaken the Pope’s case by making next to no mention of ecclesiastical protests made by French Catholic bishops who preached publicly against anti-Jewish actions. In the same way, they gloss over the atrocities supported by Catholic regimes in Croatia and Slovakia. The Pope’s critics retort by saying that the fate of the Jews of Europe was more than well known by October 1943 – transported Jews never returned. As for worse treatment of Catholics, Pius knew from the reports of German bishops that there were few German Catholics prepared to die for their faith, let alone stand up and die for the Jews. Catholics in the rest of Occupied Europe gave no indication of a willingness to die for the faith. The majority of Europe’s Jews could not rely on Europe’s Catholics for rescue or help – Pius knew this and suffered because of it. But was this sufficient reason for him to refrain from direct comment on the greatest killing in human history? The answer, as much as I can judge, is “no.”

The truth is stark. Pius did not speak out because at some point he made the choice not to. He believed he had done all he could. On an intellectual level, he sympathized with those who suffered. On an emotional level, he sympathized with fellow-Catholics maltreated for their faith – a faith he shared along with a worldview in common. But on an emotional level with Jews, I believe he felt distressed (sometimes to the point of tears) but he felt compelled to remain publicly neutral and discrete – not because he did not care about them, but rather they could not be allowed to distract him and the official Church from the strategies of Catholic preservation, which included supporting the rescue of Jews, and international politics. Did this excuse him from the Christian moral duty to help his Jewish neighbor? The answer must be “no.”

Jews were outside Pacelli’s vision of the Church. They had a place in the Christian dispensation, but a marginal one that bordered between contempt and conversion. When faced with the “flesh and blood” reality of the Holocaust, the academic Pius XII was forced to make choices. Jews in danger, baptised or not, needed the help of Catholics – it was a moral imperative, but always a muted one. Jews would always be "lesser victims."

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