From the beginning of his papacy in 1939 until well after his death in 1958, Pope Pius XII was honored with unfeigned warmth by Jewish leaders around the world. Golda Meir was uncommonly effusive in her praise of him. Trees were planted in Israel in his honor. In 1955, the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra flew to the Vatican to give a special concert to show the nation’s gratitude. In 1940, Albert Einstein wrote a tribute in Time. At his death, tributes were universal and eloquent, especially by those Jewish groups closest to his efforts. A later generation, in contrast, has been exceedingly harsh. Why this stunning reversal? Whose interests are served? As it turns out, the spectrum of those who benefit by denigrating Pius XII is very broad.
The reversal might be said to have begun in April 1945. The instant Hitler fell, the propaganda machine of Stalinist communism turned full-bore on Pius XII, then on the Catholic bishops and priests of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, France, and Italy. The strategic aim was to prepare the way for Communist governments in the Slavic and Latin countries of Catholic Europe. More than he had feared Hitler—and with good reason, as events after 1989 demonstrated—Stalin feared the moral power of the Pope.
The attack on Pius XII took on major proportions, however, only in 1963, with Rolf Hochhuth’s surprisingly successful play, The Deputy. Even though it was roundly denounced by historians, the play drew moral attention away from Hitler and moral pressure away from Germany, especially Protestant and pagan Germany, and shifted the spotlight of moral condemnation in the direction of the Pope and the Catholic Church.
Today, a considerable number of “progressive” Catholics, not least among them former priests and seminarians, choose to beat up on Pius XII as a way of diminishing the papacy in general, and thus also the present Pope with whom they especially disagree. This is the express intention of John Cornwell, author of Hitler’s Pope: to discredit John Paul II and his ilk, that is, popes speaking as solitary moral voices (which, though he does not seem to notice it, more or less undercuts Cornwell’s case against the solitary moral voice of Pius XII). One can only wish progressive Catholics better luck next pope, even if they have trouble making up their minds about what they want in papal outspokenness.
A few Jewish spokespersons today, both in America and elsewhere, have also turned on Pius XII. For the first fifteen years or so after World War II, the effort to comprehend the sheer barbarity, madness, and evil of Hitler and his entire machinery of death ended in frustration. There followed many recriminations among Jewish groups themselves, as chronicled in Walter Laqueur’s book The Terrible Secret. The terrible secret is how long it took the public to recognize that after January 1942 the Nazis were serious about exterminating Jews. Many Jews fought and died in furious resistance, in vain. But most could not believe what was happening to them until far too late.
Why, it was now urgently insisted, didn’t someone warn them? Why didn’t someone sound the alarm? Why didn’t at least one world leader raise a voice in moral condemnation and say, “This must stop!”
Here, too, refocusing the question on Pius XII brought moral relief. Journalists and commentators of many different backgrounds (including Catholics), who had never before thought that popes counted for much, now imagined that one word from the Pope, one dramatic statement, might have had the necessary miraculous effects.
In fact, what Pius XII did say and do—especially through Vatican Radio, jammed as it was in Germany—was almost daily amplified by the BBC and other Allied radio broadcasters. Reports of atrocities were easily dismissed as war propaganda, to which the public had become inured during World War I. Appeals to Hitler would have been even more futile: the Fuehrer knew he was violating Christian moral principles; in his eyes Christianity was a religion for weaklings, and he had contempt for it. Besides, when Pius XII had pleaded with every ounce of public strength for one last peace conference in the summer of 1939, before an irreversible descent into the cauldron of war, no one took him seriously. No one even answered his summons, neither the Axis powers nor the Allies. That was the last time he had freedom of access to worldwide media.
Once the war began, Mussolini shut the Pope up in the Vatican, and every means of communication he had was censored—his mail, Vatican Radio, L’Osservatore Romano. Four different Nazi intelligence organizations, along with the more pervasive Italian ones, penetrated the Vatican. (It was easy to threaten the families of Vatican employees, virtually all of whom commuted into the Vatican gates every working day.) The Holy See, moreover, was totally dependent on the Italian government for essential services: water, sewage, electricity, telephone, telegraph, and food. Even with all this, Hitler’s unhappiness with Pius XII was such that he twice gave orders that contingency plans for occupying the Vatican be put into operation. Paratroopers were to attack suddenly and haul the Pope off to Germany. Twice his orders were frustrated by local commanders, who delayed until he was distracted elsewhere. (One told him he was assembling experts in Latin and Greek who could decide which of the archives to haul off, and this would take six weeks.)
When the Pope had full voice nobody listened. Are we to believe that when he could not be heard unless his keepers let his words go forth, then the world would have listened? For most Catholics, such reasoning is hard to understand. During the last fifteen years, for instance, there has been no lack of dramatic statements by Pope John Paul II (and Mother Teresa)—sometimes in the very face of world leaders, and before vast audiences on international television—against the systemic use of abortion and euthanasia and “the culture of death” they represent. Few listen. Why would they have listened in 1942 or 1943?
The Allies were interested in the Pope when he made propaganda for their side. They didn’t want him criticizing Communist atrocities, since Stalin was an ally; they didn’t want him condemning Allied carpet-bombing of German and Italian cities. But they did want him to condemn the German carpet-bombings of London and Coventry. They were furious when he was silent.
As prisoner in the Vatican, Pius XII was silent about many things, and on principle, not out of fear. Archbishop Sapieha of Krakow upbraided him publicly for not speaking up in late 1939 and 1940 as the intellectual leaders of the Polish Church, lay and clerical, were persecuted by the thousands, beaten, killed, thrown into concentration camps. Sapieha later recognized that moving into open rhetorical warfare would have been useless—and worse, positively inflammatory. He later grasped the method in the Pope’s coolness and followed suit in his own style of leadership as the years went by. He was young Karol Wojtyla’s protector and teacher.
The vulnerability and weakness of the papacy was nothing new. Among recent namesakes of Pius XII, two (Pius VI and Pius VII) had been jostled in rude carts to Paris for delicious humiliation by Napoleon; the chancellor of Pius IX had been assassinated on the marble stairs of his office building, while the Pope had to flee Rome for his life; Leo XIII was also driven into temporary exile in the late nineteenth century. Pius XII knew this history and knew precisely the Vatican’s vulnerabilities, but he told a boastful and threatening Goebbels to his face that he personally feared nothing, and would never leave Rome. Often described as distant and analytical, Pius also had cold steel in his spine.
A skilled reader of men, Pius had carefully diagnosed both Hitler (given to flying into destructive rages) and Mussolini (more reasonable and, even better, Italian). The Pope knew that on at least a few big things he could eventually persuade Mussolini—keeping Rome a free city, for instance—but he also knew he had been thrown into a game of wits with Hitler, in which an iron determination not to be baited out of formal neutrality might prevail against all odds. No matter how bleak everything appeared from 1939 to 1943, Pius XII judged that coolness under fire would allow him to shepherd such strengths as could be deployed to alleviate suffering.
Many people around the Pope begged him to speak out more dramatically—the ambassadors of Britain, Brazil, and France, for instance, confined by necessities of war in cramped rooms inside the Vatican walls. The Pope pointed out that he was speaking out, very strongly, in clear and unmistakable principles. More than once, he drew the portrait of the brutal jackboot of racism, unjustified violence, and the gross slaughter of human beings. He did not, of course, point out which powers the portrait described. To figure that out did not take rocket science; the propagandists at BBC knew instantly how to put those papal condemnations at Hitler’s feet, and did so within hours. Hitler’s infuriated analysts saw just as quickly how the Pope intended his words to be used, but (cleverly) without formally violating neutrality. Worse, if the Nazis attacked what the Pope said, they confirmed the accuracy of the BBC’s sharp thrusts.
Among world leaders, none was more at the mercy of surrounding Axis powers for the entire period of the war than Pius XII. But none spoke as openly as he did or fed the world press with as much vital information about what was happening. He also saved a large number of Jewish lives through opening convents, monasteries, and religious houses to clandestine sanctuary, and brought face-to-face, hand-to-hand relief to millions who suffered as refugees. Pope Pius XII worked out his strategy early, learned to adjust his tactics, and never heard a convincing reason—though he heard many reasons—to do differently. He was as steady and courageous as he was cool and analytical.
A less disciplined course, Pius XII knew, might have led him to become more confrontational. If that course resulted in an even more open and draconian warfare on the Church, the very best, ablest, and bravest would have been killed or imprisoned earliest. All would have been reduced to silent servility. The Pope probably would have been spared, mocked for his helplessness, and reduced to the isolated, almost demented state in which Napoleon left Pius VII. But scores of thousands of others would die, with no tangible gain. Hitler was yearning for the confrontation. Wiser heads trapped under Hitler’s power, with a view to the future, were not.
For some critics, all this is too subtle. They demand in retrospect an open, no-holds-barred papal condemnation of unprecedented evil. They offer nothing but speculation about what would have followed from such a statement. Indeed, for the rigor of their logical position, they must concede to the papacy far greater rhetorical power than modern theories of the advanced secularization of Europe permit. Do such historians pledge that they, for instance, would heed the solemn words of a pope today, even when those words go against their own beliefs and interests? And if they wouldn’t today, why would others then?
The fury of recent attacks on Pius XII, in contrast with the almost universal esteem he enjoyed from the beginning of the war until his death, is fed by different passions than those of sixty years ago. Among those secular Jews whose chief organizing principle is the Holocaust, one hears the simultaneous assertion that all theological notions are abstruse and fanciful, and yet that a theological condemnation of the Holocaust by Pius XII would have made a difference. Others today who are bitterly opposed to the Church’s perennial position against the moral approval of homosexual acts, or against abortion or euthanasia, also seem to delight in weakening the moral authority of the papacy. At the commanding heights of culture, as the Marxists used to say, this new establishment resents the imputation that what it blesses as moral is contrary to the law of God and hence immoral. The critics of Pius XII are deflecting attention from themselves; for this new establishment, it is convenient to discredit the messenger.
The more antithetical the times to Catholic substance, the higher the prestige of the papacy seems to climb. It appears to be an office most easily injured by universal obeisance, and bravest and most useful when it runs against the grain. Two thousand years on the same spot, above the tomb of Peter, it has seen many powerful establishments rise and fall. Today’s charges against Pius XII cannot stand scrutiny.
Published in First Things Online May 26, 2004, first published by First Things, August/September 2000
Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 105 (August/September 2000): 20-22.