Renewed efforts to canonize Holocaust-era pope Pius XII have reopened the debate over the controversial pontiff's role during the war.
Efforts to canonize Pope Pius XII as a saint of the Catholic Church are in high gear. The pope who reigned during the Holocaust, whose detractors have called him "Hitler's Pope" and defenders say used his moral and political influence to save thousands of Jews, is once again dominating conversations in the Vatican.
In recent weeks, both supporters and critics have increased their activities relating to the plan to declare the former pope a saint. While Jewish organizations and figures have called on Pope Benedictus XVI to stop the move, conservative circles in the Vatican have been spreading information intended to revive the canonization process. It is possible that this renewed activity is connected to Benedictus XVI's election to the Holy See. The pope had once been viewed as a representative of conservative streams in the church and the assumption is that he would be open to Pius XII's sanctification. At the same time, Jewish circles hope that Benedictus XVI, as a person of German origin, will be sensitive to a Holocaust-related issue and be careful not to offend the Jewish community.
Many Jewish leaders see this as an internal Christian affair in which Jews have neither the authority nor the duty of intervening. All the same, since the debate over Pius XII primarily revolves around his attitude toward the Holocaust, the Jews have the right, and perhaps even the duty, to voice their opinion, particularly given the Catholic Church's historical role in persecuting the Jews.
The Pius XII and Holocaust affair first made headlines in 1963 when Rolf Hochhuth's play, "The Deputy," was performed in Europe. In the play, a young clergyman implores the pope to intervene on behalf of the Jews during the Holocaust, but he is dismissed coldly. Dozens of research projects, articles and books, written by Jews and non-Jews, were published on the heels of the play. All the works - from Saul Friedlander's book, "Pius XII and the Third Reich" to John Cornwell's "Hitler's Pope" - ostensibly prove that the pope had supported the Nazis. Pius XII's decision to shelve an edict issued by his predecessor, Pius XI, which supposedly condemns Fascism and Nazism, is likewise proof of his attitude. But books and articles have also been published in defense of Pius XII, most of them written by Catholic clergymen, but some by rabbis and Jewish authors.
Under his very windows
One of the most lethal attacks on the silence of the pontiff during the Holocaust came from Susan Zuccotti, whose book "Under His Very Windows" was published in 2002. In her book, Zuccotti examines the pope's silence even as the Italians began arresting the Jews of Rome. The Vatican intervened only in cases where a Jewish man was married to a Christian woman and had himself converted to Christianity. Additional studies reveal that Pius XII also did not protest when the Nazis banished 1,000 Italian Jews to the extermination camps. However, he did take real steps before the start of World War II to help some 3,000 Jews who converted to Christianity from different parts of Europe obtain immigration visas to Brazil.
Pius XII was born Eugenio Pacelli. He was suspected of being pro-German even before the outbreak of World War II. Before his election to the papacy, he served as cardinal secretary of state in the Vatican and in this capacity, signed an agreement with Hitler in 1933 according to which the Nazis would not intervene in the church's internal affairs in Germany. In return, the church would refrain from intervening in the Nazi regime.
The defense of Pius XII comes from members of the Catholic Church, but a few Jews have also chimed in, most notably Rabbi David Dalin, whose book "The Myth of Hitler's Pope" refutes the attacks on the pontiff.
The defenders' main contention is that the pope carried out all his actions secretly because he feared that openly criticizing the Nazis would only worsen the situation of the Jews and Catholics in occupied Europe. Other historians confirm that the pontiff did act secretly, but that he did so only after 1942, when the Americans warned that those who had participated in the persecution of the Jews would face punishment, and when it became clear to the Vatican that the Allies would win the war.
A virulent attack on Pius' detractors was published a few weeks ago by Peter Gumpel, a Jesuit priest who is in charge of the canonization process. In an interview with the Polish Catholic weekly, Niedziela, the priest explains that at the special committee meetings that ended in Rome in May 2007, all those in attendance "expressed a favorable opinion" about the 6,000-page report on the "saintly acts" of Pius XII. If incumbent pope Benedictus XVI gives his approval, they will begin to analyze the miracles attributed to Pius XII. At least three miracles are required for the pontiff to be canonized. Until now, none has been made public.
The reporter who interviewed Gumpel asked: "What interest do Jewish groups with influence and authorities in the State of Israel have in disseminating slander about Pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church?" Gumpel's response: "Certain Jewish circles feel hostility toward the Catholic Church and toward Christianity in general. Ultra-Orthodox Jews share our fears. I recently met an ultra-Orthodox leader who represents some 8,000 rabbis in the United states and Canada, and he gave me an extremely important declaration in writing. It states that ultra-Orthodox Jews are not of the same opinion as their brethren of the same religion who interfere in the internal affairs of the church. We have done out utmost to improve relations with the Jews, but the other side also must make such efforts."
Later in the interview, thick with anti-Semitic overtones, Gumpel was asked how it was possible to explain that the world media shows such a critical attitude toward Pius XII. He responded: "A large part of the world media is in the hands of people who are hostile to the church. Let us not distract ourselves with illusions. Everyone is afraid of being described as being anti-Semitic."
He knew about the extermination
From what is known today about Pius XII, it is difficult to describe him as a supporter of the Jews. Despite repeated demands by historians and Jewish organizations, the Vatican has published only a small portion of its archival materials from the World War II period. Therefore, on both sides of the scale, there are only partial testimonies to the acts and the omissions of the pontiff.
There is no doubt that from the reports of church representatives in occupied Europe, the pope knew full well what was happening to the Jews at the hands of the Germans and their various puppet governments. Some of these governments defined themselves as Catholic, such as those in Croatia and Slovakia, which were headed by Catholic priests. It is also clear that most of the acts of intervention mentioned in the pontiff's defense were made on behalf of Jews who had converted to Christianity.
The pope's problematic attitude continued even after the victory of the Allies. A monastery where two Jewish brothers had been hidden and baptized during the war refused to return the boys to their family on the grounds that they were now Christians. A letter sent by the Vatican in the name of the pope to the heads of Catholic churches in Europe was published in the wake of this story. The letter instructed the churches not to return children who had been hidden and baptized to their Jewish parents. It is also known that the Vatican assisted many Nazi war criminals in escaping from Europe to South America after the war.
On the other hand, it is also well-documented that Catholic monasteries all over occupied Europe hid thousands of Jews, mainly children, and it is difficult to assume that many would have done so had the pope expressed his opposition. There also has been discussion that Pius XII tried to conscript several dozen Jewish youths to the Vatican guards ("the Swiss Guard") to save their lives but that the Germans prevented this.
In the last year of the war, when the Russians were already advancing in the direction of Hungary, Pius XII was among the world leaders who tried to pressure Admiral Miklos Horthy to stop the expulsion of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. (The expulsions stopped on July 9, 1944 after more than 400,000 Jews had already been expelled). It is also known that as early as 1942, Pius XII had advised the German and Hungarian cardinals to condemn the murder of the Jews. In the long run, it will be to their political advantage if this is recorded in their favor, the messages stated.
It is doubtful whether it is possible to decide one way or the other on this matter as long as the Vatican denies access to all the documents in its archives from the period of the war.
The fate of these archives will also serve as a sign of how Benedictus XVI will act during his tenure as pope, and not merely on the issue of the Jews and Pius XII.