Commentary Magazine

Pius XII and the Holocaust

Michael Novak:

Kevin Madigan does not make a persuasive case that Pope Pius XII failed either the Jews of Europe or his own high office [“What the Vatican Knew About the Holocaust, and When,” October 2001]. On the contrary, Mr. Madigan testifies that until the death of Pius XII in 1958, his deeds during World War II had raised his stature in the eyes of the Jews—and indeed of the whole world—to remarkable heights.

People of that time knew, as people today have forgotten, that during the war the 300-acre Vatican City depended on the Fascists for its electricity, water, garbage removal, and work force. That work force (including some clergy) was thoroughly penetrated by Italian and German intelligence agents. The Vatican’s secret communication codes were known, and its means of communication, even with its own bishops, were open to hostile inspection. Its city gates and approaches were guarded by enemy soldiers.

Nemo nisi per amicitiam intelligitur, runs the ancient proverb—no one is understood except through friendship. Those closest to Pius XII’s time thought best of him. They themselves understood the terror imposed by the Nazis, and admired his bravery in refusing to leave the Vatican for safer refuge abroad. The Jewish leaders among them well understood the anguished moral dilemma he experienced about how best to help; they, too, debated in their own hearts and council meetings whether to launch public protests or to work quietly to save as many as they could.

Though Mr. Madigan’s adversarial approach prevents him from doing full justice to Pius XII, he deserves much credit for bringing the discussion down from high-decibel extremes. He rightly argues that the accusations leveled against the wartime Pope by the playwright Rolf Hochhuth in the 1960’s and more recently by the author John Cornwell are “grossly defamatory and absurd” on their face, and he affirms that Pius XII was neither an ally nor a lackey of Hitler, but rather an enemy.

Still, Mr. Madigan’s article is disappointing in many respects. To begin with—and contrary to his basic premise—most Catholic defenders of Pius XII hold that the Pope knew fairly early and clearly what the Nazis were doing to the Jews of Europe (and to many others, including Slavs, priests and nuns, and Gypsies). Indeed, the Pope was the first to make these atrocities known to the world. As early as 1940 the Vatican was publishing book-length reports, speedily translated into English, on the persecution of the Church in Germany in the 1930’s and the fierce and bloody violence wreaked on Polish Catholics in 1939.

In response to these slaughters, Pius XII formed the strategy that would also guide his actions with respect to the Nazi war against the Jews. The Pope had carefully observed Hitler’s uncontrollable irrationality, and had seen how protests—or even the mere mention of certain themes—inflamed the Fuehrer to more flagrant excesses. He adjusted his own course accordingly.

Despite various attempts to shake him from his strategy, the Pope stood resolute, though not without anguish and second thoughts. These were the ingredients of his approach: a principled impartiality among the belligerents; a clear enunciation of moral principles; great restraint in public statements that might be taken as provocations; a steady provision of reliable information about atrocities and abuses through Vatican Radio and, when possible, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano (whose distribution was at times severely curtailed by Mussolini); and, finally, the most extensive relief effort ever launched in war-torn countries under hostile governments.

In what the British historian Owen Chadwick calls the single most risky and heroic act in the history of the papacy, Pius XII put himself at the mercy of the Gestapo in 1940 by relaying to the British government a secret offer of surrender by the German general staff. The German Catholic courier who conveyed the message to the Pope was later captured and tortured by the Gestapo but did not reveal his mission. The British, of course, did not accept the offer.

Another of my disappointments with Mr. Madigan’s article is his unduly high praise for most of the prosecutors of the case against Pius XII, with little or no notice of their errors and omissions. At the same time, he dismisses the defenders of Pius XII, especially the contemporaneous Jewish defenders, with an astonishing ad-hominem argument: that their words are not to be trusted because they were seeking papal recognition of Israel, or were for other reasons seeking to “ingratiate” themselves. His insinuation that the words of these Jewish spokesmen are not to be trusted is insulting in itself and, in the cases he cites, not at all credible.

Mr. Madigan also totally fails to deal with the best book yet written on the charges against Pius XII, Hitler, the War, and the Pope by Ronald J. Rychlak, a law professor at the University of Mississippi. Rychlak, it should be noted, recently took part in a nationally televised debate with Susan Zuccotti—the author of Under His Very Windows, yet another indictment of the wartime Pope—and his questioning forced her to make several emendations and retractions. The result of these and other omissions is that Mr. Madigan not only brings nothing new to the table, but at nearly every point leaves out important evidence that runs opposite to his claims.

Finally, Mr. Madigan minimizes those deeds of Pius XII that, given his predicament at the center of Nazi-occupied Europe, were actually quite heroic. As Mr. Madigan puts it, Pius XII “permitted” Catholic clergy, religious, and laity to rescue Jews in peril. He “allowed” Catholic institutions, including Vatican properties, to shelter Jews, and to distribute food, clothing, and money to them. Similarly, Mr. Madigan concedes that Pius XII “must be credited with saving lives” through his intervention on behalf of Italian Jews, and that several papal nuncios, though seemingly without the Pope’s knowledge, “tried valiantly to stop deportations.”

Mr. Madigan states these achievements in their weakest form, as if no testimony existed from these nuncios and religious institutions about their total confidence that they had the full support of the Pope. But such statements, given under oath, exist in abundance in the records of the beatification process for Pius XII, a source that Mr. Madigan fails to consult.

It is not my place to say whether Pius XII should be declared a saint. That is to be decided only after a rigorous process of examination by competent judges. But the evidence tells me that Pius XII was a just man, of far greater clarity of vision and strength of will than the ordinary run of us. Perhaps his strategy was wrong. Perhaps another Pope would have done better. But a great many of the leaders of his time did not do nearly so much. If Oskar Schindler is a hero for rescuing a thousand Jews threatened with annihilation, and Raoul Wallenberg for saving 20,000 or more, at least some measure of honor and gratitude is due to a man, however flawed, who personally and through others saved still more than that.

I am grateful to Mr. Madigan for having moved the argument forward.

American Enterprise Institute
Washington, D.C.



Ronald J. Rychlak:

Kevin Madigan argues that most writers who think well of Pius XII deny that he knew about the persecution of the Jews until very late in the war. Yet, in my own book, Hitler, the War, and the Pope, I expressly reject the notion that the Pope lacked knowledge of the Holocaust: “In all likelihood, the Vatican learned of the plan shortly after the Nazis themselves decided on it. . . . It makes no sense . . . to contend that Pius was unaware of the abuse until after the war.” Mr. Madigan’s premise is simply a straw man.

In demonstrating that Pius XII knew of these horrors by the end of 1942, Mr. Madigan quotes several pleas for help sent to the Vatican by or on behalf of Jewish victims. Unfortunately, he fails to mention the several Vatican responses (particularly relevant were those in Slovakia and Vichy France) or the letters of thanks it received after taking action (those sent, for example, by Gerhart Riegner and Rabbi Miroslav Freiberger of Zagreb). Such one-sided reporting is unfair.

Strangely, Mr. Madigan chides those who have written on Pius XII for not using the Vatican’s published collection of wartime documents (though I have at least 55 citations to this source in my own book), but then he recommends authors like Guenter Lewy, whose book was written before the documents were assembled, and John Morley whose book was written before the final volumes were published.

In trying to minimize the credit that some writers give to Pius XII for his efforts to save Jews, Mr. Madigan buys into the author Susan Zuccotti’s thesis that the Pope merely “permitted” Catholics to help Jews. In fact, Mr. Madigan goes even further, saying that there is “no evidence whatsoever” that Pius XII instructed other Catholics to help. Actually, Zuccotti found much oral testimony to that effect. Numerous people, including Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, have verified that Pius XII directly instructed them to save Jewish lives.

This evidence, however, is insufficient for Zuccotti and Mr. Madigan. Unless they find a written order from the Pope, they will give him no credit. This logic is similar to that of Holocaust deniers who will not blame Hitler for the Holocaust because no written orders exist directly linking him to the gas chambers.

School of Law
University of Mississippi
University, Mississippi



William A. Donohue:

Kevin Madigan argues, with respect to Pius XII and the Holocaust, that “the Vicar of Christ knew enough, but did not care enough, to speak more forcefully or to act more courageously than he did.” Unfortunately, he offers not one scintilla of evidence for this slanderous charge.

If it is fair to conclude that an uncaring attitude explains why Pius XII did not speak out more forcefully, then it should be fair to conclude that this motive applies equally to others who acted in a similar manner. Take, for example, the reaction of American Jews to the anti-Semitic policies of the Nazis. When Hitler came to power in 1933, he wasted no time showing his hatred of Jews. American Jewish leaders quickly met to discuss having public demonstrations against the new German leader. Plans were made for an anti-Hitler parade in New York on May 10, 1933. But then the American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith put out a joint statement condemning “public agitation in the form of mass demonstrations,” fearing it would only “inflame” matters. So there was silence.

Or consider the reaction in 1935 to the Nazis’ enactment of the Nuremberg race laws, which effectively stripped German Jews of all civil rights. What did American Jewish leaders do? Led by Rabbi Stephen Wise of the American Jewish Congress, they worked against legislation that would have made it easier for Jews from Germany to emigrate to the U.S.

Three years later, in the wake of the Nazis’ Kristallnacht pogrom, major Jewish organizations assembled to discuss their options. The American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith, and Jewish Labor Committee debated what to do about immigration reforms that would alleviate the plight of German Jews. Their conclusion: “at least for the time being, nothing should be done with regard to this matter.” Furthermore, they declared, “there should be no parades, demonstrations, or protests by [American] Jews.”

As Mr. Madigan notes, in August 1942 Gerhart Riegner of the World Jewish Congress notified his colleagues in London and New York of an “alarming report” about plans to exterminate Europe’s Jews. But there is little evidence that this galvanized Jewish leaders to act. In fact, these organizations failed to lobby for a bill on Capitol Hill that would have made it easier for Jewish refugees to emigrate from France to the U.S.

The point I wish to make is that there were plenty of good reasons why Jews in the U.S. were not more vocal. Would asking for special treatment anger other Americans? Was there not the specter of rising anti-Semitism at home? If protests mounted in the U.S., might it not worsen the plight of Jews in Europe?

In hindsight, perhaps the reasons American Jews gave for not speaking up more forcefully are unpersuasive. But if someone today were to conclude that Jewish inaction was a function of not caring enough, I would consider the accuser to be anti-Semitic.

This is why Mr. Madigan’s charge that Pius XII did not care about what was happening to the Jews is so scurrilous. There were plenty of good reasons why the Pope did not use his bully pulpit. For one thing, many prominent Jews begged him not to stir the pot. As the Anti-Defamation League concluded years later, in response to the charges made by Rolf Hochhuth in his 1963 play The Deputy, a formal statement by Pius XII “would have provoked the Nazis to brutal retaliation and would have substantially thwarted further Catholic action on behalf of the Jews.”

Catholic League for
Religious and Civil Rights
New York City



Monsignor James Kelly:

Kevin Madigan denies that Pius XII influenced those Christians who helped Jews; to affirm this would be, he says, to accept an exaggerated view of the Catholic Church’s centrality. Why does not the same argument tell against his own contention that many Christians were prepared to risk their lives to resist Hitler, if only the Pope had excommunicated Hitler or those who cooperated with him?

New York City



William Doino, Jr.:

Every accusation Kevin Madigan makes against Pius XII—concerning the Pope’s knowledge of and response to the Holocaust, his alleged indifference toward Polish Catholics and Jews, and his supposed inaction during the Nazi round-up in Rome—has been thoroughly refuted by leading historians, including Oscar Halecki (Poland), Michael Tagliacozzo (Israel), Martin Gilbert and Owen Chadwick (Great Britain), John Conway (Canada), Michael O’Carroll (Ireland), Jeno Levai (Hungary), Jean Chelini (France), Antonio Gaspari and Andrea Tornielli (Italy), Konrad Repgen and Michael Feldkamp (Germany), and John Jay Hughes, John Lukacs, and Ronald Rychlak (United States). One misses in Mr. Madigan’s article any mention at all of their views.

Weston, Connecticut



Reverend Vincent A Lapomarda, S.J.:

Exactly who, according to Kevin Madigan, has “thoroughly discredited” the work of the Israeli author Pinchas Lapide, whose 1967 book, The Last Three Popes and the Jews, argued that Pius XII was responsible for saving at least 700,000 Jews from the Nazis?

Coordinator, Holocaust Collection
College of the Holy Cross
Worcester, Massachusetts



Robert L. Phillips:

Kevin Madigan’s article on Pius XII and the Holocaust belongs to a new class of “nuanced” treatments of the subject. Practitioners of this genre begin by criticizing the author John Cornwell for the crudeness of his Hitler’s Pope (1999), but having thus satisfied the demands of fairness, they arrive at Cornwell’s conclusion: Pius XII was no saint.

Mr. Madigan tries to rebut Rabbi David Dalin’s claim in the Weekly Standard that the enemies of Pius XII are all disgruntled Catholics by noting that two chief critics of the Pope are in fact priests. But Mr. Madigan well knows that in the wake of the Second Vatican Council a Roman collar is no guarantee of orthodoxy. After all, even John Cornwell has the nerve to style himself a Catholic.

Who becomes a saint in the Catholic Church is none of COMMENTARY’s business. When Pius XII is canonized, he will be in heaven interceding for us before God regardless of what Mr. Madigan or anyone else says.

West Hartford, Connecticut



D. S. Ragsdale:

I found Kevin Madigan’s essay well-balanced and free of the ideological biases that taint too many of the critics of Pius XII.

Nonetheless, Mr. Madigan gives too little attention to the legitimate concern on the part of the Vatican that any statement explicitly denouncing the deportation and massacre of Jews would be met with a brutal response. In retrospect this may seem like a cowardly argument, but the Vatican had only the example of the Dutch Catholic bishops, whose strong statements against the Nazis in 1942 led to the deportation of Jews who had converted to Catholicism.

Los Angeles, California



Doris L. Bergen:

Kevin Madigan’s careful exposition should lay to rest once and for all the old excuse that Pius XII did not know about the mass murder of European Jews during World War LI. Mr. Madigan recounts the familiar sources of papal intelligence—Vatican diplomats, Jewish leaders, representatives of international organizations—and makes a significant addition to the list: in May 1942, Pirro Scavizzi, an Italian priest and military chaplain—and a friend of the Pope’s family—reported from Ukraine that the slaughter of Jews there was “complete.” Even Pius XII could not dismiss such a trusted eyewitness.

So why did the papacy not act more energetically to protect Jews? Mr. Madigan prudently sidesteps the question of Pius XII’s anti-Semitism but still concludes that “in other circumstances, and where Jews were not concerned,” the Pope was not always the cautious politician. A glance at some “other circumstances” in the context of World War LI indicates, however, that Pius made a habit of reticence.

In 1939, when Germans slaughtered thousands of Polish intellectuals, including many Catholic priests, the Pope was silent. He was only slightly more outspoken in defense of Nazism’s handicapped victims, although they included Catholics and inmates of Catholic-run hospitals and asylums. As for the approximately three million Soviet prisoners of war whom Germans killed or allowed to die of starvation and disease in 1941-42, no one seems to notice that the Pope said nothing on their behalf, nor do even Pius XII’s sharpest critics mention his apparent indifference to the murder of hundreds of thousands of Roma (Gypsies).

Each failure to protest must have made it harder to speak out the next time. The result: during World War II, the Vatican failed to engage the desperation and agony of a world torn by mass death, to show humanitarian leadership and solidarity with people outside the Church, or even to extend itself fully on behalf of all Catholics.

Mr. Madigan is right to resist the facile assumption that “nearly everyone” who criticizes Pius XII’s wartime conduct “is a lapsed or angry Catholic.” As neither the one nor the other, I consider it crucial to point out that the legacy of Nazi crimes belongs to all Christians, regardless of confession or denomination. By World War LI, despite years of anti-Christian propaganda, more than 95 percent of Germans were still baptized, tax-paying members of an established Christian church. Indeed, self-identified Christians of all kinds did more than passively allow the Holocaust to happen: they carried out most of the theft, torture, and killing.

Shocking and painful as it is to confront the Vatican’s wartime failures and “sins of omission,” it is even harder to face Christian “sins of commission.” Seen this way, Kevin Madigan’s convincing arguments about the Pope and what he knew are also a valuable reminder of how far we still need to go before we understand the complex involvement of Christians and Christianity in the Holocaust.

Department of History
University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, Indiana



John Farrell:

I confess to suffering from what might be called “Pius fatigue syndrome,” the intellectual exhaustion that sets in on Catholics who realize that they have spent years running to their libraries to reexamine the unfortunate wartime papacy of Pius XII. There comes a time when one realizes that the constant attempt to rationalize and whitewash—and I know the feverish defenses of Pius XII from the usual suspects on the conservative end of American Catholicism will continue—is self-defeating and intellectually dishonest. Casuistry has no place in the Church, but I am afraid that is all that remains to those who continue to try to make a hero and saint out of man who was too ready to “wait and see.”

Boston, Massachusetts



Donald Feldstein:

“What the Vatican Knew About the Holocaust, and When” is comprehensive, persuasive, and well balanced. Kevin Madigan might also have discussed the recent collapse, amid accusations that the Vatican was refusing to release relevant archival material, of a panel of Jewish and Catholic historians convened to investigate the Church’s actions during the Holocaust. If the Vatican’s spokesman is correct that the documents already released demonstrate conclusively that Pius XII made every effort to save as many lives as possible, one would think that the Church would be eager to release every relevant document. Mr. Madigan did a great job with the available material, but people will continue to doubt his conclusions until all the archives are opened.

Teaneck, New Jersey



Hans Fisher:

David I. Kertzer’s careful documentation in The Popes Against the Jews, his new book about the attitudes of the Church toward Jews over the last two centuries, is so damning as to make the question of what Pius XII did or did not do during the Holocaust a mere distraction. The hateful dissemination of anti-Semitic vitriol in the most important Vatican publications, L’Osservatore Romano and Civiltà Cattolica, gives the lie to Pope John Paul II’s assertion that the Church took issue with Judaism and Jews only on religious grounds. High church officials distributed the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion and helped lead the attack against Dreyfus in France; even after the truth became known and Dreyfus was exonerated, Vatican publications blamed world Jewry for its untoward influence in getting him released. And as late as 1915, Church publications repeated the slander of Jewish ritual murders. This, and not Pius XII’s behavior, is the real scandal.

Highland Park, New Jersey



Kevin Madigan

As is obvious, many of my correspondents are committed in a-priori fashion to the impeccability of Pius XII. For these individuals, I doubt that any response I make, or any evidence I offer, is likely to change minds. Even less do I suppose my response will be heard charitably. But let me begin with the lengthiest and most civil letter, from Michael Novak, and thereby reply as well to those letters written in tones he rightly deplores as “high-decibel extremes.”

I energetically agree with Mr. Novak that, in attempting to understand Pius, it is imperative to appreciate how his own contemporaries perceived him. Let us, then, follow that principle. It is important to recall, for example, the speech given by Alfred Delp, S.J., to a conference of bishops at Fulda in 1943, at a moment when thousands of Jewish lives were being cruelly extinguished every day. “Has the Church,” Delp asked, “forgotten to say ‘Thou shalt not’? Has the Church lost sight of the commandments? . . . Or has the Church forgotten humanity and its fundamental rights?”

I have not seen Delp quoted in any of the books recently published in defense of Pius. Nor will one find in these defenses the words of the British minister to the Holy See, Francis d’Arcy Osborne, who, after the Vatican threatened to protest publicly if the Allies bombed the Eternal City, recommended that “Instead of thinking of nothing but the bombing of Rome,” the Church consider “its actions in respect to the unprecedented crime against humanity of Hitler’s campaign of extermination of the Jews.” When Allied raids did indeed damage the Basilica San Lorenzo, Pius finally appeared in public to complain of the danger to the city’s “priceless treasures”; neither the Catholic nor the far more imperiled Jewish residents of Rome were among the treasures he had in mind.

In still another vignette one is unlikely to come across in the works of Pius’s defenders, Bishop Preysing of Berlin, having received a letter from the Pope about the damage wrought by Allied bombardment, felt compelled to remind him that, with “the new wave of Jewish deportations,” the bishop’s own episcopal see had suffered something far “more agonizing” than had Pius’s. Then there are the words of Wladislaw Rackiewicz, the Polish president-in-exile, who in the face of Pius’s failure to denounce Nazi atrocities unambiguously was impelled to admonish the Vicar of Christ that “divine law knows no compromise.”

The great Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain was appointed French ambassador to the Holy See in 1945. Unable to convince the Holy Father to denounce anti-Semitism, Maritain concluded that Pius’s “attention to the political is too great considering the essential role of the Church” as the custodian of moral truth and authority. But even Maritain has been ignominiously silenced. What, then, of Mr. Novak’s principle that contemporary evaluations must be taken into consideration in any attempt to understand Pius XII?

Mr. Novak also criticizes me for failing to use the dossier assembled in connection with Pius’s beatification. Let me remind him of a basic rule of professional writing—namely, that documents produced for the purposes of hagiography are to be treated with extreme caution. That Susan Zuccotti, for example, declined to make use of these documents is a sign not of scholarly dereliction but of adherence to established standards. In fact, the documents say next to nothing reliable about what Pius thought about the Holocaust, what he did about it, or why he decided on one course of conduct rather than another. They are of use mainly to scholars interested in the history of saint-making.

Some of Mr. Novak’s arguments show other kinds of slippage. Thus, in contending that Pius was among the first to make Hitler’s atrocities known to the world, he observes that the Vatican reported on the persecution of the Church in Germany and of the “violence wreaked on Polish Catholics in 1939.” That is true. But my article was about Pius’s response to the massive slaughter of European Jews, which had not even begun until the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the fall of 1941.

Another slip occurs when Mr. Novak observes, again correctly, that the Pope was willing to act in 1940 as a mediator between German generals plotting to assassinate Hitler and the British. It would be churlish to point out that, even then, Pius hesitated before acting, or to recall d’Arcy Osborne’s testimony that Pius “did not relish” being used as a channel. The main point is this: the Pope’s willingness to be so used was motivated by a desire to stop Hitler from occupying Catholic France, as well as Belgium and Holland. Since, to repeat, Himmler and Heydrich’s killing operations had yet to begin, Pius’s action had nothing to do with stopping Einsatzgruppen massacres or halting deportations. Such effects may conceivably have resulted from Pius’s mediation; but they were emphatically not its intent. The whole episode thus provides the flimsiest evidence imaginable for Pius as a philo-Semite, or Pius as a heroic defender of the Jews. It is utterly unrelated to the whole question of Pius and the Holocaust.

Once the killing operations began in earnest, Pius did have a chance to act, being richly informed about the atrocities occurring in the East. About the last point, at least, Mr. Novak seems to agree with me. Where we disagree is on the crucial question of whether or not most of Pius’s defenders agree with us. Although Mr. Novak says they do, some of them, including all of the influential editors of the published Vatican documents, in fact denied that Pius knew what was happening.

Here we ought to begin again, according to Mr. Novak’s stated principle, with those closest to Pius’s own time. In a March 27, 1963 article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Robert Leiber, S.J., Pius’s secretary for 34 years (1924-58), stated that the Pope “did not know what was really happening. Nor did the Allies. It was not until after the war that they were able to realize the extent of the Nazi crimes.” Again, in an article published in Civiltà Cattolica (June 1964), Angelo Martini, one of the four Jesuit editors of the published Vatican documents, declared: “The decision to adopt the Final Solution . . . was suspected from the middle of 1942, but the details were clear only when the extermination was completed, i.e., after the defeat.” Listen, too, to the comments of Vladimir d’Ormesson, French ambassador in Rome until October 1940: “Like everyone else, Pius XII was uninformed about the monstrous refinements of cruelty of which the Jews were the secret victims.” More recently (1988), Robert Graham, S.J., another of the editors of the documents, declared in this same connection, “The full truth of what was known only came later.” Finally, and most recently, Pierre Blet, S.J., the most authoritative scholar among the editors, contended in Pius XII and the Second World War, published in 1999, that “as long as the war lasted, the fate of the deportees was shrouded in obscurity,” concealed by a “curtain of fog.”

It is thus simply not true, as Mr. Novak would have it, that “most Catholic defenders of Pius XII hold that the Pope knew fairly early and clearly what the Nazis were doing to the Jews of Europe.” Not one of the Jesuit editors of the Vatican documents would have agreed with this statement. All tried to defend him on the basis of his partial or almost total ignorance of the facts.

In general, then, Michael Novak’s criticisms reflect his own noble and sincere Catholic aspirations rather than an authentic confrontation with the historical record. As a Catholic who wishes the best for his Church, I do not savor this troubling record, but it is imperative to face it.



In answer to Vincent Lapomarda, a number of authors have authoritatively discredited Pinchas Lapide’s estimates. Susan Zuccotti, for example, concludes severely if with justice that Lapide’s book is “replete with egregious mistakes and distortions.” But since Father Lapomarda is unlikely to accept Zuccotti’s verdict, let me point out that even Lapide himself did not credit Pius XII personally, but rather the Church, with saving between 700,000 and 860,000 lives (see page 215 of his The Last Three Popes and the Jews). By a sleight of hand, Pius’s apologists have transferred this credit to Pius himself.

I can assure Robert L. Phillips that it was not COMMENTARY’s editors but I who made the arguments he finds so objectionable. But let me also gently recommend caution in claiming to know who and who is not a real Catholic. I could more nearly agree with Mr. Phillips’s declaration that Pius “will be in heaven interceding for us before God” had the Pope chosen to intercede on earth more forcefully for the Jews.

And here is perhaps a good place to point out where exactly the logic of Pius’s defenders leads them. If the Pope were as thoroughly in charge of the activities of Catholic subordinates during the war as these defenders insist, by the same logic he must also have overseen the efforts of clerics associated with the Vatican after the war to assist Nazi and Ustashi war criminals in escaping Allied justice. One thinks especially of the case of Franz Stangl, who, with the help of the Vatican’s Bishop Alois Hudal, was housed, hidden, and provisioned with money and papers that enabled him to flee Europe, first to the Middle East and then to South America, where he spent most of the rest of his life. Stangl happened to have been the commandant of Treblinka, in which capacity he oversaw the murder of nearly one million Jews. Hudal also helped Adolf Eichmann escape justice.

For myself, I am willing to grant that Pius may have known no more about Hudal’s criminal campaign of deliverance than he knew about, much less managed or superintended, the thousands of anonymous acts of genuine rescue that occurred in Rome, Italy, and on the Continent at large. But those who demand that Pius be given credit for the latter must also, by their own ahistorical logic of papal sovereignty, assign him blame for the former. It is a matter of record that Pius was far more vocal in demanding clemency for war criminals than he was in demanding mercy for war victims. Has this fact made it into the beatification dossier?

I take very seriously the argument advanced by many, and here by D.S. Ragsdale, that an explicit denunciation of Nazi atrocity might have led to a more brutal Nazi response. Mr. Ragsdale is right to point to the Dutch case of 1942. But once again we need to remember the chronology. In 1942, a policy of restraint may have been defensible (if not heroic or noble); but this argument got weaker with every passing month. By early 1943, at the latest, with the Jews of Europe either dead or waiting for death, the Holy See might well have asked itself how any action on its part could possibly worsen what was by then a catastrophically bad situation. Defenders of Pius, if they wish to be regarded seriously by those other than themselves, have to wonder whether his policies were saintly, or even defensible, in the last three years of the war.

Be that as it may, my intention was not to say that the Vatican should have adopted this or that course. It was to ask whether one who chose an essentially passive stance toward an atrocity about which he was well and even fully informed deserves recognition as a “righteous Gentile,” as was proposed by David Dalin.

I want to register once more, as I did briefly in my article, my areas of agreement with Dalin. First, there is a lot of pseudohistorical writing on the Vatican and the Holocaust. In much of this writing, Pius has become a cipher—for the Right as well as for the Left—in a larger war over the future of the Church, over the course of Jewish-Christian relations, and over the place of religious authority and values in an increasingly irreligious world. It is these extra-historical issues that the controversy over Pius’s canonization proceedings—even, I suspect, Dalin’s own recommendation that he be recognized as a righteous Gentile—is really about. Because the ecclesiological and cultural stakes are so high, the categories in which Pius has been discussed are often ludicrously, even childishly, polar: either he was Hitler’s Pope or he was a righteous Gentile. The results for an understanding of history have been, to say the least, unfortunate.

My own hope was to encourage us all to eschew these extreme categories—for this reason, by the way, I reject Michael Novak’s caricature of my approach as “adversarial.” When we can see Pius for the unheroic man he was, neither monstrous nor saintly, he will assume much less political or moral utility to either side.

In this respect, I also agree with David Dalin that it is a gross error to “make Pius XII a target of moral outrage.” For that is to lose sight of the stark fact that Hitler, not Pius, was the Prince of Darkness in 1940’s Europe. It is also to fail to perceive that other churches, Protestant as well as Catholic, played a terrible role not only in failing to resist but in actively promoting National Socialism. (Their record is brilliantly documented in Doris L. Bergen’s 1996 book, Twisted Cross.)



Pius XII never approached that level of moral depravity; as I stipulated in my article, he even attempted, with only temporary success, to do some things to halt deportations (particularly with the aid of bishops, nuncios, and political figures in Catholic Slovakia, Croatia, and Hungary). But I also agree in the end with Robert Wistrich’s carefully stated judgment that there was “a paucity of moral courage displayed by the Vatican when it came to the fate of the Jews.” Pius’s apologists need to train themselves to hold these two truths in their minds at once.

They also ought to desist from reactively (and ignobly) lashing out against those who, on the basis of their reading of the evidence, arrive in conscience at different historical and moral conclusions from their own. Neither I, nor John Morley, nor Michael Marrus, nor John Pawlikowski, nor Michael Phayer, nor Susan Zuccotti has argued that a morally failed pope did, or could, discredit the Catholic faith. His defenders, on the other hand, have at times involved themselves in evasions of truth that do threaten to discredit the Church. We could all benefit from pondering the words of Cardinal Newman: “To conscience first; then the Pope.” Not to mention an even more authoritative text: “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”

I want to close by thanking my correspondents for taking the time to write and for their contributions to this important and vexed question. I am especially grateful to the distinguished scholar Doris L. Bergen, not only for supporting my argument but for suggesting lines of inquiry that may now be fruitfully taken up by all who desire an honest reckoning with the Church’s past.


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