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In Defense Of Pius XII

April 23, 2018 Frontpage No Comments

By MIKE MANNO

I’m a history buff. “Buff,” I said, not “expert.”
I’m interested in all kinds of history, obviously some more than others, but in a pinch any history will do. I remember as a kid my parents bought me a set of the World Book Encyclopedia. On rainy days I used to just pick one volume off the shelf and page through it, reading interesting articles. I read every single article on the presidents, the history of the Church, and the Revolutionary War, among other topics. That, of course, spurred other historical forays into libraries and later the Internet.
So I’m a History Channel “buff” and any other channels that cover historical persons or events. Two programs I always watch on Sundays — or TiVo if I’m out — are Legends and Lies on the Fox News Channel, which this year is on the Civil War, and Pope: The Most Powerful Man in History on CNN.
Each episode of the CNN series focuses on a specific era and the events that challenged the Popes of that time. And not only does each program address the issues and controversies that the Popes faced, but it also covers the excesses of the papacy, including the Renaissance Popes who are often better known for, well, shall we say worldly pleasures. Most of the programs thus far have seemed pretty even-handed, although there is a decided tilt to cast a shadow or two over the papacy by questioning motives and subtly undercutting the Church position.
Sunday, April 8 the program was on the World War II papacies of Pius XI, Achille Ratti, who reigned from 1922 to 1939, and Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli, who reigned from 1939 to 1958. I was especially interested to see CNN’s take on Pius XII since I was familiar with the 1999 book Hitler’s Pope by the English author John Cornwell and one of its rebuttals, the 2005 book The Myth of Hitler’s Pope by Rabbi David G. Dalin.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the controversy, Pius XII had been nearly universally recognized for his wartime work to save Jews from the Nazis, and, indeed, the record demonstrates that his efforts working behind the scenes helped many Jews to escape Hitler’s attempt to exterminate European Jewry.
During the war Pius was praised by both Time and The New York Times for his opposition to Nazi anti-Semitism. After the war Pius was recognized by the World Jewish Council for “the work of the Holy See in rescuing Jews from fascist and Nazi persecutions,” and was praised around the globe for his efforts on behalf of the Jews. And after his death Golda Meir said, “When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of the 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.”
Rabbi Dalin in his book reports that in 1955, on the tenth anniversary of the end of the war, among other accolades for Pius, the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra flew to Rome to give a special performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in the Vatican to express Israel’s gratitude for the help the Pope and the Church had given to the Jewish people. The Israeli Philharmonic, by the way, as a matter of policy, does not play the music of Richard Wagner, a known anti-Semite and Hitler’s favorite composer.
But there were naysayers who claimed that Pius should have taken a bolder stand against the Nazis and failed to condemn the Nazi genocide by name. Thus, according to the argument, Pius’s failure caused more harm than had he spoke out forcefully against Hitler and the Nazis. In 1963 a play by Rolf Hochhuth, The Deputy, A Christian Tragedy, rose the level of criticism by portraying the Pope as a hypocrite who remained silent about the Holocaust and thus opened a new debate on his wartime role.
Staunch defenders of the Pope, including prelates who worked with him, disputed the accusations by noting that Pius did speak out against the Nazis, but did so in diplomatic language so as not to exacerbate the problem. Pius, they say, worried that by speaking too boldly the Germans would turn up the heat on Jews as well as on the Church. Defenders, countering the claim by some that Pius’s “silence” was an affirmation of his anti-Semitism, note that his course of action was not occasioned by any anti-Semitism since the Nazis were also persecuting Catholics — in Dachau alone some 2,500 Catholic priests died.
So I was interested in how CNN would treat the matter. It didn’t take long to find out. The opening narration said it all: “Choices in the face of war leave an indelible mark on the papacy. When the world debates sainthood for one of the most controversial Popes in the modern era, history is forced to consider: Did the Catholic Church do enough?”
That may be a fair enough introduction, but immediately following that narration, a statement from Holocaust survivor, author, and human rights activist, Elie Wiesel, was put on the screen: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented.” A subtle suggestion to get you to think that on the Jewish question Pius might be siding with the Nazis.
CNN didn’t hold back. In one segment the program takes a look at the future Pope’s role in negotiating the Lateran Treaty with the Italian government of Benito Mussolini. The then apostolic nuncio to Germany, Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli, was Pope Pius XI’s chief negotiator, which ultimately led to his appointment as secretary of state. The treaty returned to the Church lands taken from the Papal States in 1870, with compensation, and recognized Vatican City as an independent state. According to the program, the treaty set a precedent: “The Church is willing to negotiate with dictators in exchange for sovereignty.”
Even though the Pope’s efforts to help Italian Jews, by sheltering them in religious houses, forging baptismal certificates, and dressing Jews in cassocks, saved an estimated 700,000, the program depicted Pius as a “polarizing figure,” and left the impression — at least on me — that somehow the horrors of the Holocaust might have been minimized if Pius had only been more assertive in his public statements.
Ironically, one of the commentators on the program was the author of the 2015 book Church of Spies, Mark Riebling. The book recounts the history of the Vatican’s wartime covert operations, which included acting as an intermediary between the Allies and those elements of the German war establishment who were plotting to kill Hitler.
The book disclosed that early in Pius’s papacy, German plotters against Hitler asked the Pope to tone down his rhetoric in defense of the Jews because it would make German Catholics more suspect and would dampen the efforts of the plotters since many were Catholic. Thus the Vatican, through information gathered from clergy and other Catholics, was able to secretly compile data that could be passed to the British.
But, of course, none of that made the cut.
Pius’s cause for canonization evoked some of the most pointed criticisms. Dr. Suzanne Brown-Fleming, a historian at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, opined that it was premature to move forward with the canonization until the records of Pius’s pontificate are open to scholars. Of course much is known and scholars have written about it — and there are tapes concerning the Hitler conspiracy. But, according to CNN, the Pius XII papacy is “dominated by questions.”
The program concluded, “But as the world debates canonization for the wartime Pope, we are forced to consider the holiness of his actions during one of the most turbulent time in world history.”
If he were alive today I don’t know what Pius would say. Perhaps “fake news” might come to mind.
By the way, Msgr. Pacelli was consecrated a bishop on May 13, 1917 — the date of the first apparition by our Lady to the children of Fatima. On November 1, 1950, Pius solemnly proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption.
Mary and fake news in the same column! I must be on a roll.

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