Behind the Headlines: Vatican Denounces Book Alleging Wartime Pope Deeply Anti-semitic

A new book that claims deep-seated anti-Semitism caused the wartime pope to condone the Holocaust and facilitate Hitler’s rise to power has drawn Catholic outrage and bolstered Jewish calls to open Vatican archives to scholars.

The issue has also prompted warnings that the troubled legacy of Pope Pius XII — and plans for his possible beatification — could be manipulated to reverse positive strides in Jewish-Catholic relations.

Excerpts from “Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII” by British historian John Cornwell appear in the October issue of Vanity Fair magazine. Not only do they describe Pius XII, who was pope from 1939 to 1958, as a knee- jerk anti-Semite, but they assert that he helped Hitler consolidate power through the Vatican’s 1933 Concordat with the Third Reich.

Pius XII, according to Cornwell, had “undermined potential Catholic resistance in Germany. He had implicitly denied and trivialized the Holocaust, despite having reliable knowledge of its true extent.

And, worse, he was a hypocrite because after the war he had taken undue credit for speaking out boldly against the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews.”

The Rev. Pierre Blet, a Jesuit scholar who co-edited an 11-volume edition of Vatican wartime papers, dismissed Cornwell’s book as “very confusing” and lacking documentation.

The New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights also attacked it for bad scholarship, describing the Vanity Fair article as “laced with conjecture and innuendo of the most scurrilous kind.”

But Richard Heideman, the president of B’nai B’rith International, called Cornwell’s work “deeply disturbing.”

“It reinforces our position that the Vatican needs to open its Holocaust-era archives to independent historians and journalists so the controversy over Pius XII’s wartime actions can be dealt with fully.”

Jewish organizations have called for Vatican archives to be made public for several years.

Jews have long accused Pius XII of remaining silent in the face of the Holocaust, and the outlines of the material in the Vanity Fair excerpts have been presented in the past.

The 1963 play “The Deputy,” by Rolf Hochhuth, touched off the debate by painting a bitter portrait of the pope as a cynic who held scant regard for Jewish suffering.

A best-selling book published two years ago in Italy, “La Parola Ebrea” (The Word Jew) by Rosetta Loy, gave a detailed depiction of Pius XII as extravagantly pro-German, dating back to when he served as papal nuncio in Munich and Berlin long before he became pope.

And Pius XII is well-known to have been a staunch anti-Communist.

What is different with this most recent book is that Cornwell, a practicing Catholic, at first set out to write a defense of Pius XII and, as such, gained access to what he described as “secret material” from Vatican archives, including letters.

These, he wrote, were “explosive” evidence that proved Pius XII to have been “blatantly” anti-Semitic. He believed the Jews were responsible for their tragedy by rejecting Christ, and he also equated Jews with Communists.

“He was the ideal pope for Hitler’s unspeakable plan. His denial and minimalization of the Holocaust were all the more scandalous in that they were uttered from a seemingly impartial moral high ground,” Cornwell wrote.

The battle lines over Pius XII’s wartime role have become sharper in recent years with the approach of the year 2000. The millennium year is celebrated as a Holy Year by the Roman Catholic Church, and Pope John Paul II, 79 and ailing, has indicated it as a landmark for reflection, repentance and self-examination.

John Paul II has made improving Catholic-Jewish relations a priority of his papacy. He is the first pope to have visited a synagogue, he has visited Holocaust sites, and he has spoken out eloquently and frequently against anti- Semitism. He also oversaw the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See.

But several recent events have raised concern among Jews.

A major Vatican document released last year repented for individual Catholic failings during the Holocaust, but absolved the Catholic Church itself from any responsibility and, in particular, staunchly defended Pius XII.

Catholic critics of Cornwell’s book, such as Blet, have reiterated the Vatican’s defense that Pius worked behind the scenes to help Jews.

“As far as the silence is concerned, we know clearly that a public protest against Nazism would have been a disaster not only for Catholics but above all for the Jews,” Blet wrote in the Catholic newspaper Avvenire.

Last year, too, many Jews were deeply offended by the pope’s canonization of Edith Stein, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who became a nun and was killed at Auschwitz. Some Jews also questioned the pope’s beatification of a Croatian cardinal, Alojzije Stepinac, accused by many of having been a wartime fascist collaborator.

As the year 2000 approaches, media reports have increasingly stressed John Paul II’s desire to beatify Pius XII along with two other postwar popes, John XXIII and Paul VI, as part of millennium year celebrations.

Some observers warn that the beatification issue, and competing visions of history, could become a flashpoint that might undo years of progress in Catholic-Jewish relations.

“The danger is in the buildup to beatification,” said Shimon Samuels, director for international liaison at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Some members of the church hierarchy, he said, including nationalist bishops from Eastern Europe and patriarchs in the Middle East, already view John Paul II as being too soft on Jews and Israel.

“Some feel they can use the Pius XII issue against what they see as `Jewish power,’” Samuels said.

Cardinal Edward Cassidy, the Vatican’s key liaison in Catholic-Jewish dialogue, let it be known in speeches earlier this year that the Vatican was becoming frustrated with sometimes bitter Jewish criticism of its policies — including its defense of Pius XII.

Cassidy, who maintains excellent relations with the Jewish world, complained that “recent Jewish attempts to influence decisions concerning the internal life of the Catholic Church are strongly resented. People very dear to the Catholic faithful are condemned without proof but simply because they are not personae gratae with the Jewish community.”

Already, the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights said Cornwell’s book was “an attempt to derail the beatification of this saintly man.”

The furor over Cornwell’s new book comes, too, at a time when Jewish — and non-Jewish — organizations, including the U.S. State Department have voiced protest over a possible papal trip to Iraq as part of a pilgrimage to biblical sites.

Formal announcement of such a trip has not been made, but indications are that the Pope will visit Iraq, and possibly meet with Saddam Hussein, in early December.

NEXT STORY