Eugenio Pacelli, age 6, the future Pius XII
Jews and gentiles alike have criticized the Catholic Church, in particular its head at the time, Pope Pius XII, for not speaking out against 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 contributes to hatred of the Catholic Church: pedophile priests and nuns who mistook five-year-olds for punching bags. But that’s another blog for a virtual soapbox.
The Catholic Church - First in Line to Recognize Hitler
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 pope in 1939, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli served as the Church’s Secretary of State. At Pacelli's urging, the Vatican became the first sovereign power to sign a Reichskonkordat (peace treaty) with Hitler less than six months after the Nazis regime took over in January 1933.
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 (Knopf, 2002) by historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.
The Harvard scholar takes Pope Pius XII and other Catholic leaders to task for remaining silent while European Jews disappeared into the "night and fog" of the Gestapo and concentration camps.
The Holocaust's day-to-day business of extermination literally took place outside the pope’s window in the Vatican, where sad processions of Roman Jews walked to train station en route to death camps in Eastern Europe.
Pius did ransom 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 the pope’s public speeches and encyclicals (pastoral letters to the faithful) condemned the general brutality of the age without naming names, unless the name Comrade Stalin.
The Soviet dictator's confiscation of Russia’s church property troubled Pius more than the extermination of Germany’s Jews, which didn’t threaten a Church whose leader kept his mouth shut.
When the head of the Polish government in exile and the bishop of Berlin both begged Pius to condemn the extermination of the Jews, the pope distanced himself from the Holocaust by ignoring it and those like the Poles and the bishop in Berlin.
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 France’s racial laws 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.”
Why Did Pius XII Oppose Communism But Not Nazism?
The Pope feared Stalin more than Hitler.
Hitler didn't persecute churchmen who didn't oppose the Nazi regime.
Stalin confiscated Church property and killed clergy, including those who didn't oppose him.
Historians often wonder why Pius and other ecclesiastics blasted the Soviet dictator, while not laying a hand – or a tongue-lashing – the Nazi dictator.
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 less to do with religion and more with real estate. Stalin confiscated the property of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The leader of the Church was a Stalin appointee and puppet. Apolitical Orthodox priests were imprisoned and murdered for no reason other than Soviet hatred of religion.
Hitler only persecuted and liquidated Catholic and Protestant clergyman who spoke out against the regime. Sensitive to public opinion and fearful of the power of the church, the Nazi 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 unofficial state religion and replace it with a pre-Christian Teutonic paganism whose liturgy would be inspired by Wagnerian opera.
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.
Karl Marx Believed Religion Kept the Oppressed From Fighting Their Oppressors
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 in heaven 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.
Adolf Hitler, 1889
Joseph Stalin, age 16
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.
Liberation theology was too close to the radical left for comfort of conservative churchmen. They feared that only a slippery slope separated liberation theology from the abyss, militant Godless communism
The Church’s political position was 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 windows.
High-ranking Churchmen Escaped Hitler's Punishment But Ordinary Priests Did Not
Faulbauer and other higher-ups in the church, like Cardinal von Galen, the aristocratic Bishop of Muenster, who also opposed Hitler, 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 came to end as a direct result of protests by Lichtenberg and other religious leaders, Catholic and Protestant.
Would Hitler Have Killed Pius XII if the Pope Had Opposed Him?
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 any anti-Nazi denunciations to himself.
That hypothetical situation comes from apologists who justify Pius’ failure to excoriate Nazism from the pulpit and in encyclicals. According to the pope’s defenders, 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 status of German Cardinals Faulbauer and Galen spared them from retribution by the Nazis. If Hitler didn’t dare arrest outspoken cardinals in a totalitarian regime where mild criticism could land people in a concentration camp, the Fuehrer 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.”
German fire-bombing of a rebellious Rome, a real possibility, would have wiped out the treasures of the Renaissance.
Pius may have rationalized his silence in a comparable way by saying, “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 was not in any physical danger.
After the Germans occupied 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 German troops took over, Pius didn’t have to worry about persecution by Mussolini because the devoutly Catholic nation would have overthrown the Fascist government. And yet Pius remained silent despite the absence of danger from Mussolini before the Italian dictator’s overthrow and before the Wehrmacht invaded.
Stalin Killed Churchmen Even if They Didn't Condemn the Soviet Dictator
Unlike the Nazis and Italy's Fascisti, 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 involved Stalin’s demolition of the landmark 19th century Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow in 1931.
Stalin’s plans to replace the cathedral with a skyscraper taller than the Empire State Building topped with a statue of the Soviet dictator taller than the Statue of Liberty were canceled after his death in 1953 from a cerebral hemorrhage which may been caused by the rat poison warfarin.
Was God AWOL Auschwitz?
Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, has explained the basis of his atheism with a question: “Where was God at Auschwitz?”
Devout Christians may need to ask a less abstract question:
“Where were Pius and the Catholic Church at Auschwitz?”
Causes Frank Sanello Supports
ACLU, ASPCA, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders