Views of CCJR Members

Taking another look at Pope Pius XII’s actions during the Holocaust

From The National Post (Ontario, Canada)

Charles Lewis, interviewer 

Pope Pius XII reigned between 1939 to 1958, a period of catastrophic events. But history seems mainly concerned about his behaviour around the Holocaust. Pius has been accused of being a German sympathizer or at best failing to do his moral duty to help save the Jews of Europe by keeping silent. For others he was a saint who used his skill as a diplomat to save thousands of Jews from Nazi terror. But this week in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem, the world’s most foremost Holocaust museum, softened its criticism of the wartime pope, allowing that despite faults he did help save Jewish lives. The changes in an exhibit on the pope seem subtle, but given the divisions between Roman Catholics and Jews over Pius’ actions, even small changes are considered important. For example, Yad Vashem now acknowledges the 1942 Christmas radio message in which Pius speaks of “the hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault of their own, sometimes only because of their nationality or ethnic origin, have been consigned to death or to a slow decline because of their ethnicity.” The National Post’s Charles Lewis spoke to Robert Ventresca, a professor of history at King’s University College at University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., who is completing a biography of Pius XII called Soldier of Christ.

NP: What does the Yad Vashem decision signify?
This rewording constitutes a minor diplomatic victory for the Vatican and the defenders of Pius XII insofar as it seems to correct what was considered to be the decidedly one-sided and inaccurate original description. I think that it’s unfortunate that this decision has sparked the predictable range of polarized opinion ­ such as saying the exhibit now vindicates Pius. I do think the new wording is remarkably balanced and nuanced not just about Pius but of the Church in general. It conveys clearly there is a range of opinion on this subject.

NP: When Pius died in 1958, he was widely praised by Jewish leaders, including Golda Meir, later Israeli prime minister. Then came Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 play The Deputy, which vilifies Pius and started the decline in his reputation. Did anyone question his role before?
There was a clear and consistent criticism of his policies, and especially of his diplomatic style and choices, beginning as early as 1939 and continuing through the war years and beyond. It’s important to stress that some of the strongest and most consistent criticism came from within the Catholic world. The lines of the debate have remained fairly constant over the years but intensified after The Deputy. There was the feeling that Pius as the Vicar of Christ was expected to raise his voice in protest. Even after the war, there were Catholics who wanted him to say something explicitly about what had happened to the Jews. The matter always comes back to the nagging doubts about what felt to many like excessive papal caution in the face of unspeakable atrocities.

NP: Was the Jewish leaders’ praise misguided?
It was not so much misguided, as only partly informed, especially considering that when he died in 1958 the historical understanding about the Holocaust was in its early stages. It’s a matter of record that in the months after the war Jewish delegations went to Rome to thank the pope for what the Church had done on their behalf. But as we learned more about the Holocaust, it allowed us to approach the story of rescue with a greater degree of differentiation among the various layers of the Church. In effect, the pope’s indirect role in these efforts has receded into the background, while the courageous efforts of the Catholic rescuers on the ground have moved to the forefront.

NP: For most people Pius is either a saint or the worst sinner. What’s wrong with that analysis?
The problem arises from the tendency to think of Pius XII the way he was presented in The Deputy ­ as “less a person than an institution.” Thinking of Pius XII that way works only if your intention is to render the man a myth, which can never correspond to the more complex reality of a man who struggled, often unsuccessfully, to reconcile his very human attributes and foibles with the demands of leading a global community whose self-ascribed nature and mission were not of this world. When we approach Pius XII as a person, we find a man of considerable talent, intelligence and imagination, who nonetheless often could not free himself from the norms and conventions of his upbringing and clerical training to grasp fully how the times in which he was living required an extraordinary courage and originality.

NP: So how do you see him after all your research?
There are things about him that are so admirable, but other things at the end of the day that leave me ambivalent. There was an intelligence, an unmistakable spirituality, a keen mind at work. At the same time, he could be very narrow-minded and unyielding. [In terms of the Holocaust during and after] he could be excessively diplomatic rather than evangelical in his criticism. After the war he didn’t appear to want to come to terms with what happened and did not want broach the important question of the role of historical Christian anti-Semitism in leading to the Holocaust.

NP: Was he an anti-Semite?
Much of what we say about Pius and the Jews has to be inferred. There is nothing I recall seeing in the way of a letter or an encyclical or speech that tells us much about what he thought about Jews and Judaism. He was a man of his times. He would have had an appreciation of the Jewish roots of Christianity and a great love of the biblical heritage of Judaism. But there would have been a certain measure of ambivalence, especially of Jews in the social and economic life of European societies. I don’t think he had any special appreciation of sense of duty toward contemporary Jews or Judaism. But he was not indifferent to Jewish suffering. He would have seen the suffering Jews as akin to the suffering of many others who were suffering as a result of destructive modern ideologies, including communism.

NP: What did he think of Nazis?
I think he saw Nazism as a kind of heresy. He saw the nationalism and the racial theories incompatible with Christian teaching.

NP: Why couldn’t he have said just once directly the actions against the Jews were wrong and no Catholic should be a party to them?
That’s the nagging question. There was always this vague allusion to people who were targeted for no reason other than their ethnicity. After the war, for instance, he spoke directly about the persecuted clergy of Poland and the sad fate of German youth, but there is no explicit mention of what happened to the Jews. There it is. When we come back to the question of his relations to Jews, there remains many nagging questions. One of the problems I have with the certain defenders is that they don’t want to deal with the uncomfortable questions.

NP: But did he save Jews?
There are some exaggerated claims made by certain defenders that Pius XII helped to rescued tens if not hundreds of thousands of European Jews, albeit indirectly through the work of papal institutions or other Catholic organizations and religious orders. These claims are not tenable in my view, nor especially instructive, since they would credit the pope with efforts that took place often without his specific knowledge, approval or encouragement This is not to say that his general policy, as well as the work of certain Vatican-related institutions in Rome itself with the Pope’s approval, did not help to save lives. Clearly, Pius XII knew of and approved of initiatives by his representatives or other Catholic individuals and institutions in Italy and parts of Europe to rescue Jews and other civilians. Near the war’s end, the Vatican itself boasted of having helped to save at least 6,000 Jews in Rome alone during the Nazi occupation. Some scholars put that number at closer to 4,000.

Then there is the case of high-level papal intervention with leaders in Hungary and Slovakia during the war to prevent the deportation en masse of tens of thousands of Jews. In the end, the Pope’s intervention was only partly successful, but undoubtedly his direct intervention helped to save lives, though it is difficult to say with great precision just how many.