25 gennaio 2010

Pius XII and objectivity

Carl Olson | Ignatius Insight | Friday, January 22, 2010

I was reading a couple of articles this morning about responses to Pope Benedict's recent visit to the Great Synagogue in Rome, and was struck by this, from The Catholic Herald:

Although Rabbi Rosen was critical of the way in which certain crisis situations had been dealt with by the Curia (and believes the Pope must take responsibility for this) he says it is unfair to perceive Pope Benedict's pontificate as a step backwards. He says, however, that it was easy to see how even educated people come to that conclusion, citing the beatification of Pius XII, the Lefebvrists and the liberation of the older form of the Latin Mass among other instances, but these would ultimately not affect the substance of the dialogue. He says that not one of these was an initiative put forward by Pope Benedict.

Really? That is a remarkable statement, one I have a very hard time believing is accurate. (It bears resemblance to the claims that a beleaguered Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae because of nefarious conservatives in the Vatican.) And then this:

Rabbi Rosen says the issue of Pius XII goes back many years. "We should ask ourselves why it has taken so many years for the Vatican to approve his status of heroic virtues - surely out of caution and sensitivity to the Jewish community. Pius XII belongs to the most traumatic period in the history of the Jewish people and it is inappropriate to expect Jews not to be upset about the issue, that anybody who did not lay down his life in protest could be considered a saint is almost anathema to Jews."

He says that while it caused angst for some people, "it is not something which would torpedo the process for both parties. And on this period in history, we shall have to learn to agree to disagree. It's unfair to expect Jews to be objective about that period of their history just as its unfair to expect Catholics to be objective about popes."

First, this remark: "... it is inappropriate to expect Jews not to be upset about the issue, that anybody who did not lay down his life in protest could be considered a saint is almost anathema to Jews." One question that comes to mind immediately: "Is it better to die dramatically but foolishly, or to quietly go about saving lives and then be damned as an anti-Semitic 'do-nothing' in years to come?" The more I read about the criticisms of the "silence" of Pope Pius XII, the more I am convinced that they are quite often driven by the modern, obsessive belief that dramatic symbolic gestures are morally superior to mundane, concrete action. Put another, we live in age in which style and image tends to trump—often shamelessly—prudent action and moral rectitude. I get the impression that even if there is irrefutable proof Pius XII saved, say, 700,000 to 800,000 Jews, that would mean almost nothing because it did not include the appropriate level of eye-catching public demonstration and dramatic symbolic gestures. Sure, he might have saved a lot of lives, but he did too quietly! But, as Dimitri Cavalli summarizes in a short piece, "Much-maligned pontiff," published today in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz:

During the war, the pope was far from silent: In numerous speeches and encyclicals, he championed human rights for all people and called on the belligerent nations to respect the rights of all civilians and prisoners of war. Unlike many of the pope's latter-day detractors, the Nazis understood him very well. After studying Pius XII's 1942 Christmas message, the Reich Central Security Office concluded: "In a manner never known before the pope has repudiated the National Socialist New European Order ... Here he is virtually accusing the German people of injustice toward the Jews and makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals." (Pick up any book that criticizes Pius XII, and you won't find any mention of this important report.)

In early 1940, the pope acted as an intermediary between a group of German generals who wanted to overthrow Hitler and the British government. Although the conspiracy never went forward, Pius XII kept in close contact with the German resistance and heard about two other plots against Hitler. In the fall of 1941, through diplomatic channels, the pope agreed with Franklin Delano Roosevelt that America's Catholics could support the president's plans to extend military aid to the Soviet Union after it was invaded by the Nazis. On behalf of the Vatican, John T. McNicholas, the archbishop of Cincinnati, Ohio, delivered a well-publicized address that explained that the extension of assistance to the Soviets could be morally justified because it helped the Russian people, who were the innocent victims of German aggression.

Throughout the war, the pope's deputies frequently ordered the Vatican's diplomatic representatives in many Nazi-occupied and Axis countries to intervene on behalf of endangered Jews. Up until Pius XII's death in 1958, many Jewish organizations, newspapers and leaders lauded his efforts. To cite one of many examples, in his April 7, 1944, letter to the papal nuncio in Romania, Alexander Shafran, chief rabbi of Bucharest, wrote: "It is not easy for us to find the right words to express the warmth and consolation we experienced because of the concern of the supreme pontiff, who offered a large sum to relieve the sufferings of deported Jews ... The Jews of Romania will never forget these facts of historic importance."

In a much longer article published in the October 2000 edition of Inside the Vatican, in which he detailed Pius XII's opposition to the Third Reich's pogroms against the Jews, Cavalli wrote:

Many Catholics have been puzzled by the fact that many of the same Jewish organizations that condemn Pius XII today once never passed up an opportunity to praise him. What could have caused the vast shift in Jewish attitudes toward the late Pope?

Some Catholic writers point to the influence of Rolf Hochhuth's 1963 play, The Deputy, which presented the Pope as a cold-blooded Nazi collaborator who did nothing as six million Jews went to their death. However, allegations that the Vatican collaborated with the Nazis did not begin with Hochhuth. While Pius XII was still alive, anti-Catholic authors like Avro Manhattan (The Vatican in World Politics, 1949) and Paul Blanshard (American Freedom and Catholic Power, 1949) condemned his actions during World War II. Although Manhattan and Blanshard found isolated audiences in some Protestant and fundamentalist Christian circles, many Jews continued to have a favorable impression of the wartime Pope.

Other cultural shifts in society ensured that Hochhuth's demonic portrait would become accepted as conventional wisdom. Shortly after Hochhuth's play made its appearance, the movement known as the New Left marched across college campuses. The New Left was more than a political movement; it was also a cultural movement whose members seized influential positions in the universities, the media and the entertainment industry. The Catholic Church strongly opposed the New Left's social agenda of legal abortion, contraception and sexual promiscuity. Activists needed a weapon to undermine the Catholic Church's moral authority and influence. "The silence of Pius XII" provided such a powerful weapon, and it was used at every possible opportunity. What right would a Church that failed to oppose the mass murder of Jews have to teach morality to anyone? A few years ago, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops criticized US Surgeon General Dr. Jocelyn Elders for her pro-abortion views. Dr. Elders responded by noting the Catholic Church's indifference toward both slavery and the Holocaust.

Which brings me back to the other remark by Rabbi Rosen: "It's unfair to expect Jews to be objective about that period of their history just as its unfair to expect Catholics to be objective about popes." If by that he means this is an emotionally charged topic, I understand and agree. But if he is insinuating it is not really possible to honestly assess the facts available to us, he is shortchanging both Jews and Catholics who are interested in the truth. It is, in fact, quite possible for Catholic to be objective about the actions of popes, who are not sinless, perfect, or flawless when it comes to governing. It is, however, rather difficult to be objective about what might have resulted if Pius XII had jumped in front of trains deporting Jews (the advice of Ed Bradley on "60 Minutes") or issued endless public statements. (Am I the only one who finds it hard to believe that the Catholic-hating Nazi leadership would change course because of papal announcements? After all, consider how Paul VI was attacked and denounced—by many Catholic priests, theologians, and lay people!—when he issued Humanae Vitae.)

What frustrates Catholics such as myself is that Pius XII is repeatedly condemned for "failing" to do what this or that critic thinks he could have and should have done while the same critics ignore the evidence for what he did do: quietly saved hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives. As Robert Lockwood remarked in an essay, "Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust":

Pulitzer Prize winning historian John Toland, no friend of Pius XII, summed it up: "The Church, under the Pope’s guidance…saved the lives of more Jews than all other churches, religious institutions and rescue organizations combined…The British and the Americans, despite lofty pronouncements, had not only avoided taking any meaningful action but gave sanctuary to few persecuted Jews."

"Lofty pronouncements" saved no lives during the horror of the Holocaust. Action did so. Pinchas Lapide, Israeli consul in Italy, estimated that the actions of Pius II saved over 800,000 Jewish lives during World War II. If that were an exaggeration by half, it would record more Jewish lives saved than by any other entity at the time.

One can only hope Cavalli is correct: "The campaign against Pope Pius XII is doomed to failure because his detractors cannot sustain their main charges against him - that he was silent, pro-Nazi, and did little or nothing to help the Jews - with evidence. Perhaps only in a backward world such as ours would the one man who did more than any other wartime leader to help Jews and other Nazi victims, receive the greatest condemnation."

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