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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Michael Phayer on Pius XII

I'm still thinking about Pius XII's upcoming sainthood. Why am I like a dog with a bone when it comes to this subject? Maybe I'm just a frustrated want-to-be historian :)

The thing that's so historically tempting about the subject of what Pius did or did not do and what that meant is that it is so recent. There are still people living who were alive then, lots of documents still extant, etc. .... just a ton of info. For instance, you can read online a copy of Pius XII's 1942 Christmas message, THE INTERNAL ORDER OF STATES AND PEOPLE, (and you also can read about the message at Wikipedia). This Christmas message is often held up as the pope's great moment of speaking out publicly against the Holocaust. A New York Times editorial on his message (New York Times. 25 December 1942. "The Pope's Verdict." p. 16.) spoke of him as a lonely voice crying out against the Holocuast. I've read the Christmas message myself but I found it very vague - it's over 5000 words long but never once uses the words "Nazi" or "Jew". Even when something is documented, so much depends on interpretation.

Anyway, while looking up the Christmas message from Pius, I came across mention of historian and professor emeritus at Marquette University Michael Phayer who wrote The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930–1965. I saw that he had also written some articles about Pius for Commonweal magazine. Here is one of them from 2003 ......


Canonizing Pius XII: why did the pope help Nazis escape?

The past, a historian once ironically remarked, is unpredictable. Certainly, much of what happened in World War II falls into that category, including the saga of Pope Pius XII. Some historians view the record of his long papacy (1939-58) and wartime predicament sympathetically; others view his actions (or inactions) critically, if not harshly. The interpretations of nonhistorians vary even more widely, with some (John Cornwell, Hitler's Pope) accusing him of pursuing personal power at the expense of the Jews, while others (Ronald Rychlak, Hitler, the War, and the Pope) argue he did everything in his power to help them.

Adding to this particular confusion is the growing number of commentators who either want to promote or sidetrack Pius's cause for sainthood. While the interpretations of historians are supposed to depend on the careful evaluation of the facts, Pius's promoters and detractors don't necessarily play by these rules. Disagreeable facts are ignored by some and exaggerated by others. Unfortunately, the Vatican itself has indulged in such polemics. In We Remember, the 1998 statement on the church's role in the Holocaust, the Vatican claimed that Pius saved "hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives." It was an absurd statement. Historians have been able to document a limited number of cases in which the Vatican intervened on behalf of Jews and have identified other instances when an opportunity to do so was passed by.

Given the complexity of the issues and the extreme circumstances of the war, why are some of Pius's defenders now arguing that his response to the Holocaust was exemplary and even proof of his saintliness? Peter Gumpel, the German Jesuit priest shepherding Pius's cause for sainthood, has gone so far as to write that "no one of whatever station or organization did as much to help the Jews as did Pius XII." Yet judging by the evidence now available to historians, that statement is as preposterous as it is naive. Whatever one feels about the difficulty of the choices Pius faced, his record with regard to the Jews is mixed at best.

Still, Pius's promoters continue to grasp at straws. They have recently become excited about a newly released Vatican document, a report by then-Nuncio Eugenio Pacelli to the Vatican secretary of state which, they claim, shows that the future pope opposed Nazi anti-Semitism. To be sure, historians, like scientists, cannot remain committed to their theories when substantive new information casts doubt on them. If this interpretation of the newly found Pacelli letter is accurate, it would force historians critical of Pius (for example, David Ketzer, The Popes against the Jews) to rethink their claims about the role Vatican anti-Semitism played in the Holocaust. (Actually, the report was merely Pacelli's notification to the Vatican that Munich's Cardinal Michael Faulhaber had mentioned the Jews sympathetically in a sermon given soon after the November 1923 Nazi disturbances in Bavaria. It was not Pacelli but the cardinal who had spoken compassionately about the Jews; still, it is clear that Pacelli approved of the cardinal.)

One of the things historians look for, and try to explain, is change or inconsistency in a person's behavior. Most historians agree that Pius's single most pressing political concern, as a Vatican diplomat and as pope, was with how to stop the spread of Russian Bolshevism and atheistic communism. Yet even here the record is not entirely consistent. For in the middle years of the war, Pius's fear of communism took second place to concern over the physical fate of the Vatican and the city of Rome. The possibility that Rome would be destroyed, by either the Nazis or by Allied bombing, shaped many of his actions.

It would have been remarkable for Pius XII, or any World War II leader, to make the "right" decision in each and every case. Roosevelt and Churchill were great leaders, but like most persons they made many mistakes. Neither, for example, acted in any direct way to end the Holocaust, and they, unlike Pius, had air power at their command that was capable of bombing Auschwitz. Like other wartime leaders, Pius was faced with tortuous choices. For instance, Catholic Poles were furious when he personally refused to speak out, after Vatican Radio had initially done so, against the atrocities perpetrated on Poles by the Germans. Just-released documents indicate that prior to the war the Vatican took note of Germany's anti-Semitism. When Pacelli served as his predecessor's secretary of state, the Vatican had consistently intervened in German affairs. Practical circumstances, the war, led him as pope to alter the course in both instances.

Presumably Pius could have been more outspoken about events in Italy. Just before the roundup of Rome's Jews, Pius offered to lend, at most generous terms, any amount of gold the Jews needed for ransom. Yet when the Jews of Rome were seized in October 1943, Pius said nothing. Why? In 1944, Pius wrote Berlin's Bishop Preysing that he had been deeply saddened by what was happening to the Jews, but that he could not have spoken out for fear the Germans would destroy Rome. If that were to happen, he believed, the faith of Catholics around the world would be weakened. Was this the right decision? I think not. Was it immoral not to speak out? Hardly; Pius had practical reasons for not speaking out--danger to himself and to the Vatican, danger to the thousands of Jews still in hiding in the city, and danger of a Communist uprising in Rome. Which reason was uppermost in his mind we will most likely never know.

Yet there is one important Holocaust-related matter where I think Pius clearly did act at variance with traditional Catholic teaching about justice and how the ends must never justify the means. I am referring to Pius's role in assisting Fascist war criminals to escape to South America. By and large, Pius's advocates have played the ostrich when it comes to the Vatican's "ratline." Denying Pius's complicity in the church's smuggling of Nazi and Croatian Fascists out of Europe flies in the face of incontrovertible evidence. Uki Goni's The Real Odessa (Granta Books, 2002, second edition) provides the conclusive documentation. Using previously unavailable material from the Public Record Office in England and from the U.S. National Archives and Record Administration, Goni clearly demonstrates that Pius knew that ecclesiastical institutions in Rome were hiding war criminals. "The British that the pope secretly pleaded with Washington and London on behalf of notorious criminals and Nazi collaborators," Goni writes. Why did Pius help these murderers escape justice? Because he was convinced they would carry on the fight against communism elsewhere. It turns out that Pope Pius was one of the first cold-war warriors.

In fact, the ratline conforms to a pattern of Vatican postwar action. Pius sought clemency for Arthur Greiser, who had murdered thousands of Polish Catholics and Jews (the Poles executed him anyway); and for Otto Ohlendorf, head of one of the notorious Nazi mobile killing squads (U.S. Military Governor General Lucius Clay rejected the pope's appeal, saying that Ohlendorf was guilty of specific, heinous crimes); and for other mass murderers. After the war, the U.S. State Department complained that the Vatican was uncooperative in expelling suspected war criminals from Vatican City. The Vatican knew that Croatian Fascists brought looted gold with them from Yugoslavia after the war, but did not report this to the Tripartite Commission for the Restitution of Monetary Gold.

What do these jarring facts tell us about Pius? Why would the leader of a church that supported the state's right to use capital punishment plead for the lives of mass murderers? If Pius was so saddened about Europe's Jews--as he wrote Bishop Preysing in 1944--why did he later help their killers escape? Why have advocates for Pius's canonization failed to address the ratline issue? Wouldn't it be better for them to admit the facts and then place these failings in the full context of Eugenio Pacelli's life? Perhaps his advocates can make an argument that, because of the Communist threat, the ratline does not disqualify Pius from sainthood. That argument has yet to be made, however.



Blogger Mike L said...

Susannah picked up "The Myth of Hitler's Pope" by Rabbi Dalin which is a defense of Pius XII. After reading that and looking at some of the stuff available on the internet I come to the conclusion that it is pretty dang difficult to find truth in these situations, and how difficult it can be to check claims.

How things can be twisted is fascinating. In one section Dalin talks about how the popes helped the Jews in the Roman Ghetto, all of which is probably true. However he nicely skips over the fact that it was the popes that imposed the rules and finally the ghetto. And then I have to act what does this have to do with Pius XII specifically? While Phayer says that Pius XII remained silent, Dalin list many supposedly private communications from Pius asking for the protection of Jews such as asking convents to hide children, and in one case releasing the nuns from cloisture so that they could take in a young boy. I don't think Dalin is making this up, but maybe it is from sources that Phayer finds doubtful.

At lest one contention, that Pius told the convents not to return children to their parents seems to be at best a forgery, and in fact Pius did tell them to return the children.

In the end, I think that much of the attack on or defense of Pius is part of the "liberal/conservative" battle going on in religious circles where things are all evil or all wonderful with nothing in between.

In the end I don't think that Pius was particularly heroic, but then being a hero and causing hundreds of thousands of deaths doesn't fit my ideal of the proper thing to do.

Perhaps we are all thrown off base by thinking that the persecution of the Jews was his major interest. Phayer didn't quite say it, but I wonder if the driving force behind Pius XII's actions was fighting the threat of atheistic communism. This would explain a lot.

The lesson learned from all of this is that books, papers, etc. have to be read critically and with care, and you also have to know where the author is coming from and what his purpose is.

Sigh, part of my believe that you can lie like mad while telling the absolute truth.


Mike L

9:25 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Mike,

Yes, that's just what I was thinking too - how hard it is, even with a common knowledge of some facts, to come to a consesus on what those facts mean. In the case of Pius, it's seems especially confusing, to me anyway.

At lest one contention, that Pius told the convents not to return children to their parents seems to be at best a forgery, and in fact Pius did tell them to return the children.

I had just been reading about Pius ad the Jewish children in the news not long ago .... there's even a Wikipedia page about it - Jewish orphans controversy. I also saw an article about it at the History News Network - Pope Pius XII And The Saving Of Jewish Children, which has n part ....

In October 1946, just a year after the defeat of the Nazis, the Vatican weighed in on one of the most painful episodes of the postwar era: the refusal to allow Jewish children who had been sheltered by Catholics during the war to return to their own families and communities.

A newly disclosed directive on the this subject provides written confirmation of well-known church policy and practices at the time, particularly toward Jewish children who had been baptized, often to save them from perishing at the hands of the Nazis. Its tone is cold and impersonal, and it makes no mention of the horrors of the Holocaust ....

12:52 PM  
Blogger Mike L said...

There are apparently some very strange things about this document that make me believe that either it is not genuine, or that there is more to it than what we have seen. If it was in reference to children whose parents were dead, then I might believe it. On the other hand I believe that every child whose parent requested its return was returned.

In searching the internet for information I came on some of the reports of psychological damage done to the children that were hidden, and it is pretty painful. Many of them seem to have lost a great deal of their ability to feel emotions. Even when children were reunited with their parents all sides seem to have suffered from emotional problems.

The fact that thousands were saved has to over rule the later problems, but it certainly was not an ideal situation.

As for the report, I find it strange that the finder would want to remain anonymous, although I believe the person is now known. I also find it strange that there is no tie to the Vatican: no signature, not Vatican paper, no trace back, and no idea of how it got to the French Church, and never shows up at any other church. I think it is something that you can chose to believe or not believe depending on whether you are against Pius or for him, or maybe in the "liberal" or "conservative" group. Like many things, it may in the future prove possible to confirm it came from Pius, it will never be possible to prove it didn't unless someone admits to fraud.

There is the problem of the Vatican Archives being closed, but it does seem that the problem is one of archiving them. Here again you have the word of the Vatican against those that claim they are withholding information. I may not trust the Vatican, but then I don't trust the claims of those that "think they know" what is going on.

Can't we have a nice clean argument about whether Tiger Woods or some other Hollywood star :)?

4:27 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Can't we have a nice clean argument about whether Tiger Woods or some other Hollywood star :)?

Heh :)

I know - the more I read about Pius and the Holocaust, the less I seem to know.

I remembered I had seen something in the news about the Jewish orphans. Maybe this was the story ... Yad L’Achim: Letter To Pope Benedict

I saw a post today about all this at America magazine's blog - I guess it's not going away any time soon.

8:37 PM  
Anonymous T Crosthwaite said...

The Vatican’s relations with Fascism and Nazism has many facets, some of which have been mentioned above.

Those interested in looking at another of these facets would find the following article informative:

The Vatican and Fascism: Remembering the 1929 Lateran Accords

It contains lengthy quotes from a 1929 publication of some of the main participants , thus giving their contemporaneous - rather than later revised - views. Also many Articles in the Lateran Agreements which indicates - without embellishment - the nature of those agreements.

8:10 PM  

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