At issue was the silence of Pius XII during the Holocaust
and his indirect complicity in the Nazi mass murder of Jews. These allegations,
which first emerged around 1964, had prompted the Vatican to publish eleven
volumes of its own documents (edited by four trusted Jesuit scholars), most of
them appearing in the 1970s. It was these documents in Italian, German, French,
Latin, and English that we were originally asked to review. The million or so unpublished
documents from the pontificate of Pius XII (1939-1958) according to the Vatican’s
most recent estimate, will only be available in about four year’s time.
It is in this context that we need to see the recent
decree on the “heroic virtues” of Pius XII, just signed by Pope Benedict XVI.
Most Jews have interpreted this act as yet another signal that the Vatican is
determined to beatify the controversial wartime pope – whom some even consider
to have been anti-Semitic – regardless of what the historical evidence may
indicate. The sharp response of Jewish leaders to Benedict’s decree prompted
the Vatican’s Press Office Director, Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., to release
a conciliatory note distinguishing between the historical judgment of Pius XII’s
actions (still an open question) and the saintly Christian life he apparently
led. In particular, Father Lombardi was concerned to disclaim any notion that
this decree was “a hostile act towards the Jewish people” or an obstacle to
Catholic-Jewish dialogue. In the light of the pope’s forthcoming visit to the
Synagogue of Rome, this was a politically astute and welcome reassurance.
Nevertheless, the decree on Pius XII still raises concern
not only about the continuing drive to beatify the wartime pontiff but also
about the present pope and the state of relations between the Catholic Church
and the Jewish people.
Regarding Pius XII, I personally have never seen him
either as “Hitler’s Pope” (the theory of British historian John Cornwell – a “lapsed”
Catholic), or as the “Righteous Gentile” evoked by Rabbi David Dallin. My own
provisional conclusion drawn from the study of thousands of documents is that
the mass murder of Jews was fairly low on his list of priorities. Of course,
much the same could be said of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, but they did
not claim to be the “Vicar of Christ” or to represent the Christian conscience.
Pius XII strikes me as a polished diplomat far more
worried about the Allied bombing of Rome than about the thousand Roman Jews who
were being deported by the Germans to their deaths in Auschwitz, virtually
under the windows of the Holy See. True, other Roman Jews were discreetly given
sanctuary in ecclesiastical establishments in and around Rome after October
1943, but it remains unclear if this was the result of a direct papal
instruction. In some instances we know that Pius XII did try to intervene
against Nazi or racist anti-Semitic legislation, but in general this was almost
always on behalf of baptized Jews since they were protected by the Church as
Catholics. Pius’s rare references to the mass murder of the Jews were
invariably veiled and very abstract, as if he found it difficult to utter the
word itself. Was it fear of further German reprisals? A latent anti-Semitism?
Was it his visceral anti-Communism which also led him to hope for a Nazi
victory in the East? Or perhaps the desire to spare German Catholics a conflict
of conscience between their loyalty to Hitler, the fatherland, or their Church?
Whatever the reasons, this was hardly heroic conduct.
So why has Benedict XVI chosen to take this step now? Why
risk unnecessary damage to Catholic-Jewish relations? My own inclination is to
think that the present pope regards Pius XII as a soulmate – both theologically
and politically. He shares with the wartime pontiff an authoritarian centralist
world-view and a deep distrust of liberalism, modernity, and the ravages of
moral relativism. He was 31 years old when Pius XII died in 1958, and already
then regarded him as a venerated role model. Moreover, the German-born Joseph
Ratzinger (today Benedict XVI) certainly knew that Pius XII (an artistocratic
Roman) was also a passionate Germanophile, surrounded by German aides during
and after the war, fluent in the German language, and a great admirer of the
German Catholic Church. Not only that, but Ratzinger probably knows that Pius
XII personally intervened after 1945 to commute the sentences of convicted
German war criminals. This solicitude for Nazi criminals contrasts sharply with
Pius XII ignoring all entreaties to make a public statement against
anti-Semitism even after the full horrors of the death camps had been revealed
In this context it is profoundly unsettling to think that
the ultraconservative Benedict XVI and his entourage can identify so completely
with Pius XII as a man of “heroic virtue.” The present pope, no doubt, deplores
anti-Semitism, though his statements on the subject have been noticeably less
robust than those of his predecessor, John Paul II. At Yad Vashem last summer
he expressed no personal regret as a German for the unspeakable horrors of the
Shoah, even though he had once been a member of the Hitler Youth. True, he had
little choice in the matter. However, he was disturbingly vague about the truly
monstrous German role in the Holocaust. Earlier this year Benedict also showed
remarkably poor judgment (to put it charitably) in reinstating an unrepentant
Holocaust-denying British bishop into the mainstream Catholic Church, an action
he only retracted after worldwide Jewish and Catholic protests.
These serious mistakes appear to follow a pattern and may
even indicate a regression from the real progress in Catholic-Jewish relations
under Benedict’s predecessor. One can only hope they are not irreversible since
the stakes are high and no sane person can be interested in undermining the
bridges across the abyss that have been so painstakingly constructed.
Prof. Robert S. Wistrich is the director of The Vidal
Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew
University of Jerusalem