Recently I watched Amen, a Costa-Gavras film about an SS officer and a Jesuit priest trying to get the Vatican to denounce the Holocaust. It was very critical of the Pope for his feeble response to the atrocities being committed against millions of Jewish lives. How fair is that criticism? I decided to research the actions of the two popes during the 1930s and 1940s and see how they reacted to Adolph Hitler and his policy against the Jews. Pope Pius XI, the pope during most of the 1930s, was increasingly confrontational of Hitler and the Nazis as their actions began to affect more people. Pope Pius XII, the wartime pope, privately approved of sheltering Jewish refugees in church property, but he never publicly condemned the shipping of Jews in concentration camps and the killing of Jewish lives. The two different reactions of the two popes offers a microcosm of the way religion has dealt with authoritarian governments and atrocities against its citizens.
Pope Pius XI was formerly Achille Ratti, a scholarly clergyman and librarian who spent 45 years of his life presiding over two great scholarly collections, the Ambrosian Library in Milan and the Vatican Library in Rome. He was a great lover of books, and he held great faith in the power of knowledge that good books endowed upon the reader. Ratti presided in Poland after World War I and was selected as cardinal of Milan soon afterwards. In 1922, he was elected as pope as a compromise candidate in a divided conclave.
Georges Passelecq and Bernard Suchecky chronicled Pope Pius XIs interactions with Hitler in a good book titled The Hidden Encyclical of Pius XI. At first Pope Pius XI signed concordants with Mussolini and Hitler in the late 1920s and early 1930s the hopes that these agreements would help maintain religious autonomy in churches and catholic schools. To get Hitler and Mussolini to agree to this, Pius had to sacrifice the influence of Catholic political parties in the two dictators countries, and this severely weakened any political opposition to Hitler and Mussolini.
Pius’s hopes that the concordants would allow the church to run without interference from the Nazis was dashed as Hitler broke promise after promise. Pope Pius XI reacted in kind, increasing his criticisms of Hitler and the Nazi racial policies. In 1937 he asked Cardinal Faulhaber to draw up an encyclical that would criticize Hitler’s nonadherence to the concordants and had his secretary of state Eugene Pacelli secretly sent to the German churches to have them read from the pulpits and published in small local presses. This encyclical, Mit Brennender Sorge or “With Burning Dismay” , denounced the Nazi intimidation of Catholic schools and the hostility of the Nazis towards free religious activity. In one passage, the encyclical states:
“Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community – however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things – whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds. “
With this statement, Pius XI began to increasingly criticize Hitler’s racial policies to different groups. In a 1938 address to Belgian pilgrims, the pope said that “we are the spiritual offspring of Abraham… We are spiritually Semites.” Four months earlier, he had commissioned an American priest named John LeFarge to write an encyclical titled Humani Generis Unitas to more explicitly denounce the Nazi policy against the Jews. LeFarge was chosen because of his work in the Catholic Interracial Council and the Catholic Rural Life Movement and his 1937 book Interracial Justice, which attacked the segregation laws of the southern states of the U.S. Before LeFarge could finish the encyclical, however, Pope Pius XI died in 1939 and his successor shelved the project.
Eugenio Pacelli succeeded Pope Pius XI and became Pope Pius XII in 1939. While Pius XI was becoming increasingly confrontational with Hitler and his policies, Pius XII preferred to work behind the scenes and use diplomacy to get things done. This was due, in part, to his previous experience as a Vatican diplomat and Secretary of State. Dan Kurzman’s book A Special Mission: Hitler’s Secret Plot to Seize the Vatican and Kidnap Pope Pius XII makes clear that in spite of his more circumspect approach towards Hitler, Pope Pius XII deeply disliked the dictator and the Nazi idealogy. In the early part of his papacy, Pius XII had been involved in a plot to oust the Fuhrer. When Pius first became Pope, he created a special department for the Jews in the German section of the Vatican information office to make it easier to protect them. Pope Pius XII allowed convents and monasteries to shelter Jewish refugees in Rome when the Nazis were rounding up people to ship to concentration camps. In March 1940 Pope Pius XII privately protested the persecution of Poles and Jews to German foreign minister Ribbentrop when he visited Rome. The pope arranged for several thousand to escape to countries that would accept them. Kurzman notes that after the war, notable Jewish leaders like Golda Meir and historian Martin Gilbert commended the pope for his efforts.
In spite of these efforts, critics ask if Pope Pius XII should’ve made an explicit denunciation of Hitler’s policies towards the Jews and especially the Holocaust, as his predecessor Pope Pius XI was going to with his encyclical Humani Generis Unitas? Two reasons are given in Kurzman’s book for the pope’s decision not to make that denunciation. One is that Pius worried about persecution against Catholics that would result from such a denunciation. He also worried that an explicit statement against the Holocaust would worsen the persecution against the Jews. Kurzman wrote:
“The strongest justification offered for Pius’s public silence was that any papal protest would provoke Hitler into drastic retaliation. The pope’s supporters argue that because Dutch prelates protested vehemently against Hitler’s deportations in Holland, several hundred additional victims, mostly Jewish converts, including Edith Stein, the philosopher, were dragged out of Church institutions to their death. And the supporters further note that about 80 percent of Holland’s Jews were ultimately deported, a higher percentage than in any other Nazi-occupied country.”
When Pius XII made statements critical of the Nazis or in reference to the plight of the Jews, he often couched them in vague language. His most explicit address was his Christmas address of 1942 where he stated:
“Mankind owes that vow to the countless dead who lie buried on the field of battle: The sacrifice of their lives in the fulfillment of their duty is a holocaust offered for a new and better social order. Mankind owes that vow to the innumerable sorrowing host of mothers, widows and orphans who have seen the light, the solace and the support of their lives wrenched from them. Mankind owes that vow to those numberless exiles whom the hurricane of war has torn from their native land and scattered in the land of the stranger; who can make their own the lament of the Prophet: “Our inheritance is turned to aliens; our house to strangers.” Mankind owes that vow to the hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or to a slow decline.”
Though I empathize with the quandary that Pope Pius XII was in, I tend to agree with critics that he should’ve followed his predecessors example and made an explicit statement against the Holocaust. Costa-Gavras noted in his movie Amen that the Catholic Church took a stand to stop the Nazi policy of euthanasia of the mentally ill. At another time, gentile wives of Jewish men protested as a group the roundup of their husbands and the Nazis released them. Though there would be consequences to taking such a public stand, the enormity of the Holocaust made it an imperative that any spiritual leader should’ve spoken out against it. Though Pius XII probably felt that his diplomatic skills were what was needed to save the thousands of lives sheltered in Catholic churches, the millions that died in concentration camps demanded more of an explicit stand.
Pope Pius XI and Pope Pius XII offered two different responses to a great moral evil. Pius XI was more confrontational of the racial policies of Adolph Hitler, and at the time of his death, he was moving towards making more explicit condemnations. Pius XII was more circumspect, making a front of being neutral, but working behind the scenes to try to shelter Jewish refugees in monastaries and convents and move them to safer countries. A case can be made for either approach for a church to use in dealing with difficult moral decisions. During the time of slavery, the Quakers and Evangelicals made strong moral condemnations of the institution of slavery. The Anglican Church founded the idea of Via Media as an effective diplomatic way to make peace between the Catholic and Protestant believers in Elizabethan England. These two examples show that some times call for the confrontational style of a Pius XI, while other times call for the more diplomatic style of a Pius XII. Though Pius XII should be commended for secretly saving many Jewish lives, World War II was a time that needed a more forceful pope like Pius XI.
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Published November 18, 2008 by Angelo Lopez | Permalink | Tags: Germany History Religion
Thanks for this. It is important to remember how popular Hitler was among the educated and elite of Europe and America. Many leaders openly admired Hitler in the 1930s, such as Margaret Sanger and Joe Kennedy. The image of the Nazis as being the embodiment of evil is a post-war consensus.
In such a circumstance, what is the balance between wisdom and courage (remembering the saying that fools rush in where wise men fail to tread)? There are many places today where the same question is raised: China, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela, Iraq, Burma, etc.
Unfortunately, the Catholic Church has a history of acting more like a large bureaucratic institution and not as a prophetic, God-protected collection of souls. I suspect that John Paul II and even more so Benedict XVI, both witnesses to WWII, side with courage over caution. We have seen both take more and more unpopular stances, putting teaching above protecting the Church, and trusting God. But more needs to be done in this direction. See the priest-abuse scandals.
I am also reminded of Stalin’s question, How many divisions does the Pope have? The Catholic Church had no physical way to defend itself, only the non-physical.