August 26, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

20th-century Church: Pope Pius XII in World War II

John F. Fink(Fifth in a series of columns)

Pius XII was pope for 19 years, from 1939 to 1958. He was elected months before the start of World War II and, in his first encyclical in October of 1939, he denounced the German/Soviet invasion of Poland, anti-Semitism, war, totalitarianism and the Nazi persecution of the Catholic Church.

During the war, he did all he could to end it, declaring the Vatican neutral territory, but saving Jews who were being rounded up. The Jewish historian Pinchas Lapide estimated that the Catholic Church had managed to save 850,000 Jews.

In Rome, Jews took refuge in the Vatican when Hitler’s troops occupied the city in 1943. There were 15,000 Jews at Castel Gandolfo alone, 477 hidden in the Vatican and another 4,238 in Roman monasteries and convents. Eighty percent of the Roman Jews were saved.

Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister from 1969-74, praised Pope Pius XII after his death: “When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the pope was raised for the victims.” Adolf Hitler’s biographer, John Toland, criticized the Allies’ record of inaction against the Holocaust while “the Church, under the pope’s guidance, had already saved the lives of more Jews than all other churches, religious institutions and rescue organizations combined.”

Pope Pius XII was highly revered after his death until the 1960s when a play by Rolf Hochhuth appeared. Called The Representative in Germany and, later, The Deputy in the United States, it fictionalized the events of World War II, and made it appear that the pope had collaborated with Hitler. This was followed by books that claimed that Pope Pius XII had remained silent about the Holocaust, and did not speak out forcefully enough against the Nazis.

The fact is that Pius did speak up, first on Dec. 24, 1942, and again on June 3, 1943. The result was that the Nazis stepped up their persecutions of the Jews and Catholics. In the Netherlands, after the Archbishop of Utrecht denounced the Nazis, the Germans rounded up and deported all the Jews they could find in Holland, including Edith Stein, known in the Church as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, and her sister, who were Carmelite nuns.

John Cornwell, author of the anti-Pius book Hitler’s Pope, quoted Pius XII as saying, “I now think that if the letter of the bishop has cost the lives of 40,000 persons, my own protest, which carries an even stronger tone, could cost the lives of perhaps 200,000 Jews. It is better to remain silent before the public, and to do in private all that is possible.”

Hitler had also threatened to invade the Vatican and arrest the pope, which would have ended any possibilities of the Vatican aiding Jews. Pius believed that it was only by maintaining a quiet diplomacy that he could continue to help the Jews.

This fact was accepted by Jewish leaders at the time, and by the numerous testimonials and gratitude expressed immediately after the war.

It was only years later that the canard was invented and spread that Pius XII didn’t speak out forcefully enough against the Nazis. †

Local site Links: