Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII, age 6
Jews and gentiles alike have criticized the Catholic Church, in particular its head at the time, Pope Pius XII, for not being more proactive in opposing Nazi atrocities before and during World War II.
According to the late William F. Buckley, Jr., a devout Irish-Catholic and conservative pundit, Catholic-bashing is the only form of discrimination that’s still tolerated even by liberals who condemn any other kind of bias.
Many factors help explain this tolerance of intolerance by the otherwise tolerant. Rounding up the usual suspects produces two major causes that contribute to hatred of the Catholic Church: pedophile priests and nuns who mistook five-year-olds for punching bags. But that’s another blog.
Perhaps the most powerful criticism of the Catholic Church involves its alleged complicity in the Holocaust – most egregiously, Pope Pius XII’s failure to denounce atrocities committed by the Third Reich.
Before becoming Pius XII in 1939, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli served as the Church’s Secretary of State. At the urging of the Secretary of State, the Vatican became the first sovereign power to sign a Reichskonkordat (peace treaty) with Hitler less than six months after the Nazis came to power in January 1933.
Pius XII (1876-1958)
The scholarly acceptance and enthusiasm for beating up Christ’s vicar on earth is exemplified in A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair by former Harvard historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.
Goldhagen takes Pope Pius XII and other Catholic leaders to task for keeping silent about the extermination of European Jewry, which literally took place outside the pope’s window in the Vatican, as sad processions of Roman Jews walked to the train station en route to death camps in Eastern Europe.
It is true that Pius ransomed Jews by paying Italy’s Nazi occupiers a bribe of 15 kilograms of gold, issued Jews fake baptismal certificates and hid them in monasteries and convents, but his public speeches and encyclicals (pastoral letters to the faithful) condemned the general brutality of the age without naming names, unless the name was preceded by “Comrade,” as in Comrade Stalin.
When the head of the Polish government in exile together with the bishop of Berlin begged Pius to condemn the extermination of the Jews, the pope demurred.
Asked his opinion of the collaborationist Vichy French government’s anti-Jewish laws, Pius said he didn’t like to get into “specifics” but added that nothing in the Vichy French legislation against the Jews conflicted with Catholic beliefs.
When Harold Tittman, a U.S. delegate to the Vatican, asked Pius in 1941 to denounce Nazi atrocities against the Jews, the pope said he preferred to remain “neutral.”
Historians often wonder why Pius and other ecclesiastics blasted the Soviet dictator, while not laying a hand – or a tongue-lashing – the Nazi dictator.
Slovak dictator Monsignor Tiso with friend
A hint of why Pius opposed Stalin but not Hitler lies in a speech delivered in 1947 by Monsignor Jozef Tiso, the Catholic priest Hitler appointed puppet ruler of Slovakia: “I consider myself a martyr in the defense of Christianity against Bolshevism.”
The martyrdom Tiso referred to was his imminent execution by the Soviet occupiers of post-World War II Czechoslovakia for treason and collaboration with the Third Reich.
Tiso signed off on the deportation of his country’s Jews to Auschwitz. The Slovak government paid 500 Reichsmarks ($2,000 today) for each Jew sent to Auschwitz. Only 1,000 of Slovakia’s 90,000 Jews survived the fatal dragnet.
The papacy bought into Tiso’s justification for collaboration and accepted his self-invention as a martyr-patriot who died fighting Communism and atheism.
Shortly after the Soviets hanged the priest in 1947, Vatican radio broadcast his obituary: “As a martyr to his love for his country, Dr. Tiso will continue to live in the nation.”
The Church’s silence about Hitler’s brand of genocide while demonizing Stalin’s mass murders had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with real estate. Hitler only killed Catholic priests and Protestant ministers who spoke out against the regime. Sensitive to public opinion and fearful of the power of the Church, the dictator left compliant clerics alone.
As opponents of Communism’s atheism, these cooperative priests would have been shocked to learn that after winning the war, Hitler planned to disestablish Christianity as Germany’s 703 ww unofficial state religion and replace it with a pre-Christian Teutonic paganism - Wagnerian opera as liturgy or psalm.
It wasn’t until 1998 that a papal commission dealing with relations between the Church and the Jews published a document, We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, that acknowledged Hitler’s preference for paganism:
“The Shoah [Holocaust] was the work of a thoroughly modern neo-pagan regime,” the commission reported.(Jewish activists have always preferred the term Shoah, which means “the calamity” in Hebrew, instead of the Greek word, holocaust, which translates as “burned whole.”)
Stalin, by contrast, expropriated the property of the Russian Orthodox Church and exiled or killed its leaders.
Almost a century before Stalin became dictator in the 1920s, the founder of Communism, Karl Marx, capsulized his opinion of the soothing effect the promise of a glorious afterlife with Jesus had on a restive proletariat. Marx’s most famous quote may be “Religion is the opiate of the people.”
Like the narcotic in Huxley’s dystopian novel, Brave New World, which kept the working masses in line by anesthetizing them with a heroin-like substance, the novel’s fictional soma, Christ’s promise that the meek will inherit the earth was postponed by His successors until after the meek died. The downtrodden would get their reward in heaven; in the meantime, they were told by their religious leaders to keep quiet and not protest hellish conditions on earth.
The reactionary nature of religion explains why the Catholic Church in particular has cozied up to right-wing dictators while condemning left-wing tyrants like Castro.
It’s been hushed up by her hagiographers, but Mother Theresa accepted huge donations from right-wing Latin American strongmen, while the papacy condemned the liberation theology promoted by radical priests who demanded heaven now, not in heaven, for the poor of Latin America.
The Church’s political philosophy is understandable if not justifiable as a means of self-preservation amid threats of confiscation and annihilation. The anti-Nazi Archbishop of Munich, Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber, wrote a letter to Pius in 1933, explaining the dangers to the Church in opposing Nazi atrocities:
“We bishops are being asked why the Catholic Church does not intervene on behalf of the Jews. This is…because the struggle against the Jews would then, at the same time, become a struggle against the Catholics…”
In 1938, German citizens found out exactly how the regime would react to criticism, depending on the prominence of its critic.
After Faulbauer condemned the Stormtroopers who burned down all of Germany’s synagogues and deported thousands of German Jews during the two-night pogrom in 1938 called Kristallnacht, a Nazi mob attacked Munich’s episcopal palace, Faulbauer’s residence, but only broke its windows.
Faulbauer and other high-ranking churchmen like Cardinal von Galen, the aristocratic Bishop of Muenster, who condemned Nazism, escaped the ultimate penalty, but lesser clerics did not.
In 1942, Father Bernhard Lichtenberg, provost of St. Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin, wrote a letter of protest to the top Nazi physician in charge of Germany’s euthanasia program which killed 100,000 disabled people. Lichtenberg was arrested and died en route to Auschwitz. But the euthanasia did end as a direct result of protests by Lichtenberg and other religious leaders, Catholic and Protestant.
Even after Hitler’s troops occupied Northern Italy in 1943 following the ouster and arrest of his ally, Mussolini, by King Victor Emmanuel III, Church property was left unmolested with the tacit understanding that the status quo would remain in force as long as the pope kept his infallible mouth shut and his denunciations to himself.
That reasoning is used to justify Pius’ failure to excoriate Nazism from the pulpit and in encyclicals: The Gestapo would have burned down the Vatican if its chief occupant had spoken out against Nazi atrocities, and like religious leaders in Germany who dared rock the ship of state, Pius would have been deported to a concentration camp.
If that was indeed the cause of the pope’s inaction, his worries were unfounded because the high rank of German Cardinals Faulbauer and Galen spared them from retribution by the Nazis. If Hitler didn’t dare arrest cardinals, he wouldn’t have considered harming a pope.
Before the Protestant Henry IV became king of France in 1589, he realized that a Protestant sovereign could not rule Catholic France and explained his conversion to Catholicism with the cynical quip, “Paris is worth a Mass.”
Pius may have rationalized his silence in a comparable way by explained, “Six million Jews are worth a bronze by Michelangelo or a fresco by Leonardo.”
The argument that opposition to Nazism meant destruction of the Church loses further strength when the papacy’s role in pre-occupation Italy is examined.
Before Mussolini fell and Nazi troops marched over the Alps and into Italy to prop up the ousted Italian dictator, the Pope failed to condemn Nazism or Italian Fascism’s gradual implementation of racial laws that resulted in the deportation of Italy’s Jews.
After German occupation of the upper half of the Italian peninsula that included Rome, Pius might have remained silent, fearing for his life and the destruction of the Church, however unfounded that fear may have been.
But pre-Occupation, Pius didn’t have to worry about Mussolini harassing him because the devoutly Catholic nation would have overthrown the Fascist government. And yet Pius remained silent despite the absence of danger by Mussolini before the Italian dictator’s overthrow.
Unlike the Nazis and Italian Fascists, the Soviet government didn’t tolerate religious leaders whether or not they spoke out against the regime. One of the first things Lenin did after coming to power during the Russian Revolution of 1917 was confiscate Russian Orthodox Church property and harass or kill Orthodox priests.
The most powerful embodiment of Communism’s militant atheism and a warning of what the Catholic Church could expect from a Soviet takeover of Western Europe was Stalin’s demolition in 1931 of the landmark 19th century Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.
World War II ended Stalin’s plan to replace the cathedral with a skyscraper taller than the Empire State Building topped with a statue of the Soviet dictator higher than the Statue of Liberty.
An atheist but not a Communist, Nobelist and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobelist, explained his disbelief in a divinity by asking, “Where was God at Auschwitz?”
Those who adhere to religion may still ask a related question: “Where was the Catholic Church at Auschwitz?”
Cromwell, John. Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII. Viking, 1999.
Friedländer, Saul. Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945: The Years of Extermination. HarperCollins, 2007.
Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah. A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair. Knopf, 2002.
Causes Frank Sanello Supports
ACLU, ASPCA, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders