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New Debate on Role of Pope Pius Xii Following Pope’s Miami Statement

September 24, 1987
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

A simple statement made in Miami by Pope John Paul II at the meeting with Jewish leaders, in which the Pontiff said he believed that Pope Pius XII would be vindicated by history, has elicited a skeptical response from Holocaust historians and some Jewish figures present at the meeting.

Pope Pius XII has been accused, in the years since the end of World War II, of a singular Holocaust sin: silence.

In effect, John Paul’s assertion reopens an old can of worms, one which was given tremendous attention beginning in 1963 with the production of the play “The Deputy” by German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, in which Pius XII was assailed for having refrained from speaking out publicly on behalf of those who were persecuted, particularly the Jews.

Critics of the wartime Pontiff base their judgment on the fact that Pius XII did not speak out on behalf of the Jews specifically. The telling document many refer to is the address the Pope gave at Christmas 1942. The criticism leveled at him is that he never once in the very long statement mentioned the word “Jews.”

The Christmas plea given by the Pope was, rather, a sweeping condemnation of the perils of a “Godless society” and the threat to private capital under Marxism. In broad but generalized terms he called for opposition to the “excessive herding of men into lifeless things” and urged mankind to “uphold respect for the practical realization of the… fundamental personal rights… to maintain and develop one’s corporeal, intellectual and moral life and especially the right to religious formation.”


In attempting to explain that Pontiff’s reasoning during that era, many have pointed the finger at his tremendous loathing of Communism. It has also been variously noted that it was simply not in the style of Pius XII to be specific about any people’s suffering, nor by whom.

Pius’s record is a somewhat mixed bag, in that it is known and documented that he allowed sanctuary to be given to the Jews of Rome; that he intervened, through the papal nuncio in Berlin, for the Jews in northern Italy; that he telegrammed a personal appeal to Hungarian Regent Admiral Miklos Horthy.

British historian Martin Gilbert notes in “The Holocaust” (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, NY, 1985) that in 1943, the Pope “helped the Jewish community in Rome that September, offering whatever amount of gold might be needed towards the fifty kilogrammes of gold demanded by the Nazis, which the community could not raise in full on its own.”

However, historians Nora Levin and Raul Hilberg have softened the impact of that offer by explaining that it was a loan requested by the then bankrupt Jewish community, which, said Hilberg, was ultimately not needed because the Jews mustered the sum themselves. On September 20, 1942, Pope Pius XII gave an audience to U.S. envoy Myron Taylor, of which it was speculated that the topic discussed was the persecution of the Jews. Although the specific agenda of that audience was not disclosed, Taylor was quoted as saying that the Pontiff had said that “Church and State must aid in the efforts of both the religious and civil communities.”

David Wyman, author of “The Abandonment of the Jews” (Pantheon Books, NY, 1985), feels that Pius’s good deeds are, however, overshadowed by his long lapses, and his pronounced overall silence.

He told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency: “From what I know now, the record of Pius XII is a very poor one.”

Wyman cited the telegram to Horthy which “was not sent until late June. But the Jews were deported May 15. Why did he wait for a period of more than a month? Before the Pope had moved, 200,000 Jews had been deported.

“It’s true that Pius XII helped some Jews, but his record is 95 percent empty. On November 24, 1942, the State Department confirmed that the Jews were being exterminated. The news came to the world. And if the Pope is speaking a month later (the Christmas address), then we have to ask why? What took him so long?”

Levin, author of “The Holocaust: The Destruction of Eastern European Jewry, 1933-45” (Schocken, NY, 1973) cited Pius’s great admiration for German culture. She also claimed that Pius “was interested of course in the continuity of the institution (of the Catholic Church). And so any action which might be considered anti-Nazi and antagonistic to the policy of the Third Reich in any way would be actually harmful.”


Hilberg, author of “The Destruction of the European Jews” (Holmes and Meier, NY, 1985) believes “there is no way” Pius would be cleared. “The record is very clear that he did not exercise his function as chief of the Vatican’s diplomatic service, his whole control of the nuncios in various countries, to exercise leverage for the saving of Jews. And he did not do so as Bishop of Rome when the Jews were deported from there in 1943 and 1944… So there’s no way of vindicating the omission.” Hilberg said that the Pope is “three things: head of the Catholic Church, sovereign leader of the Vatican state, and Bishop of Rome. He didn’t do anything in any of these capacities,” said Hilberg.

Much of the debate among Catholic theologians on Pius’s role, both among his apologists and his harshest critics, is drawn on a series of II volumes based on Vatican documents published by the Vatican Secretariat of State in the mid-1970s, “Acts and Documents Relative to the Second World War,” which the Vatican commissioned from a team of lay historians, much in response to the raging debate over “The Deputy.”

At loggerheads over the Pope’s wartime record are two Catholic priests, Father Robert Graham, an American Jesuit working at the Vatican who edited this compendium of Vatican wartime records, and Father John Morley, a Jesuit who teaches at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.

Morley wrote a critical appraisal of the Catholic Church during the war, “Vatican Diplomacy and the Jews During the Holocaust, 1939-43” (KTAV, NY, 1980), which draws heavily on these volumes.

Graham sees the positive in the Vatican history. He wrote a 36-page pamphlet summarizing the 10th volume of the series, “Pius XII: Defense of the Jews and Others,” which refutes charges that the Pope was silent in face of Jewish persecution.

In the pamphlet, for example, Graham cites the activities of the Archbishop of Utrecht, The Netherlands, who “was warned by the Nazis not to protest the deportation of Dutch Jews. He spoke out anyway, and in retaliation the Catholic Jews of Holland (those who had been baptized) were sent to their death.” Among them was Edith Stein, the Carmelite nun whose beatification this year has raised much controversy.

Graham wrote: “It could be asked whether these good works were enough, whether it would have been better for the Pope to have denounced from the rooftops the crimes that were occurring. This thought troubled Pius XII, and he confided afterward to an associate, ‘No doubt a protest would have gained me the praise and respect of the civilized world, but it would have submitted the poor Jews to an even worse persecution.'”

Graham also claims that in 1944 Pius provided funds to aid Rumanian Jews, and cites help for the Jews of Slovakia, which was ruled by a Nazi puppet, the virulently anti-Semitic Catholic priest Joseph Tiso, leading a Nazi-ruled government of Catholic clergy. The Slovak situation has been criticized by historians because of the embarrassment that would have been caused the Church had Catholic clergy permitted wholesale deportations of Jews. Eventually 56,000 Slovak Jews were sent to Auschwitz.

Morley wrote that “It must be concluded that Vatican diplomacy failed the Jews during the Holocaust by not doing all that it was possible for it to do on their behalf. It also failed itself because in neglecting the needs of the Jews, and pursuing a goal of reserve rather than humanitarian concern, it betrayed the ideals it had set for itself. The nuncios, the secretary of state, and, most of all, the Pope share the responsibility for this dual failure.”


Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, international affairs director of the American Jewish Committee, said that participants at the Miami meeting with Pope John Paul II were “shocked” by his voluntary mention of Pius, but that “it’s clear now that the Pope has put Pius XII on the agenda. And so we must be prepared to deal with that. Not in hysteria, not in screaming, and not shrill attacks.” Tanenbaum’s perception of the issue is that the effort to rehabilitate Pius’s reputation is part of the larger tendency to “deemphasize the victimization of the six million Jews as unique victims of a Final Solution, and efforts to Christianize the martyrs. That’s what is meant by a certain tendency toward revisionism… to emphasize Christians as victims and to thereby in effect remove the issue of conscience before millions of German and Austrian Catholics and some other Christians in those countries… undercutting the energy for them to have to face that task, for their children to have to face that task and understand it… It’s in that context that the Pius XII thing now is being rehabilitated.”

However, Tanenbaum, as well as Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, who was spokesman at the Miami meeting, emphasized that the issue will be part of a meeting In December in Washington between Catholic and Jewish theologians, representatives of various organizations and leading Catholic and Jewish historians to establish once and for all the role of Pius and the Church in the Nazi Holocaust, and to hash out the Catholic Church’s impact on 19 centuries of anti-Semitism.

Henry Siegman, president of the American Jewish Congress, expressed hope that “the Pope will prove to be correct when he says that further scholarship will show that Pope Pius XII… did in fact do everything he could have done to help the Jews. However,” he admitted, “current scholarship on the subject is in agreement that Pius XII failed to condemn explicitly the persecution and extermination of the Jews. American bishops issued such an unequivocal condemnation in 1942. There is no record of any such statement by Pius XII.”

Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel said, “I think it is unfortunate that Pope John Paul II has seen fit to defend the activities of Pius XII in a meeting with Jewish representatives. The record of Pius XII is known. His silence must remain a source of embarrassment to all people who also believe in human solidarity.”

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