There’s a running joke in Canada about our charming sense of delicate hubris. A Toronto newspaper headline wryly proclaims: “Man Lands on Moon. Boots made in Montreal!” In other words, we’re only 30 million strong and we’re invariably mistaken for quiet Americans, and so when we do achieve something remarkable, even of a minimal variety, we like people to know.
Which is why the world needs to know that what will now be the standard life of Pope Pius XII—the definitive biography of the wartime pontiff at least for the present—has just appeared. And it was written by a Canadian academic. It’s true that Harvard University Press published the book, but Robert A. Ventresca is a professor at King’s College at Western University in London, Ontario. And his new volume, Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII is a splendid work.
It won’t be the last word in the “Pius wars”, of course, but it is one of the best. It depicts a profoundly good and devout man who, contrary to what the critics have claimed, had absolutely no personal animus against Jewish people, was active in the struggle against Nazism, and was clearly and transparently the victim of a concerted attempt to libel him and by extension the Papacy, the Church, and serious Catholicism. Ventresca does agree that were times, both before and during the war, when Pius could have been more specific in mentioning Jewish targets of Nazi eugenics and oppression, but that’s about as severe as the censorship goes.
I’ve obsessed about this issue for some years, partly out of familial and emotional necessity, in that I am a Catholic whose father was Jewish. He was not only Jewish but also from a Polish family. The role of Pope Pius XII and the Church during the Second World War is to me at the epicenter of identity, loyalty, and truth. There are still Jewish leaders, even after years of debate (and now Ventresca’s book), who claim that Pope Pius said little and did less as Europe’s Jews were rounded up and slaughtered. There are non-Jewish activists—often liberal Catholics fighting modern battles vicariously through the tragedy of the Holocaust—who want to discredit papal history and thus the contemporary papacy by arguing the Pope abandoned his moral authority. They then construe that his successors have to delegate power because of this, and that power is always to be delegated to their liberal friends.
So, was Pius silent? Was the Church complicit in some monumental indifference? Was the Church on the wrong side during one of the great ethical litmus tests of world history? The latter, by the way, is the genuine issue at play here. The new, or revived, orthodoxy of the Church is terrifying to the older generation of liberals and they will use history as a battering ram if they can get away with it.
The truth is somewhat different. Before he became Pope Pius, Cardinal Pacelli drafted the papal encyclical condemning Nazi racism and had it read from every pulpit. The Vatican used its assets to ransom Jews from the Nazis, ran an elaborate escape route and hid Jewish families in Castel Gondolfo. All this is confirmed by Jewish experts such as B’nai B’rith’s Joseph Lichten. The World Jewish Congress donated a great deal of money to the Vatican in gratitude for its wartime work and in 1945 Rabbi Herzog of Jerusalem thanked Pope Pius, “for his lifesaving efforts on behalf of the Jews during the occupation of Italy.” When the Pope died in 1958 Golda Meir, then Israeli Foreign Minister, delivered a eulogy at the United Nations praising the man for his work on behalf of her people.
For twenty years, in fact, it was considered a self-evident truth that the Church was a member of the victim class during the Second World War and Pope Pius was mentioned alongside Churchill and Roosevelt as part of a triumvirate of good. It was as late as the 1960s that the cultural architecture began to be restructured around this issue and it is deeply significant that the attacks on the Pope were largely initiated by the German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, who claimed in his 1963 play The Deputy that the Vatican had ignored the plight of the Jews. What is seldom mentioned is that Hochhuth was a renowned anti-Catholic who would later champion the infamous Holocaust-denier David Irving.
While it is true is that the Pope did not issue an outright attack on the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews, one of the main reasons was because the leaders of the Catholic Church in Holland had made just such a public statement condemning Nazi anti-Semitism and protesting the deportation of the Jewish people. In response the German occupiers had arrested and murdered every Dutch Jewish convert to Catholicism they could find. The group included Edith Stein (Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), who was dragged from her convent to the slaughterhouse of Auschwitz, to be gassed in August 1942. She would later be declared a saint by the Church. So, actions have consequences, and the Nazis were hardly some civilized group who would be swayed by moral and intellectual argument.
Hundreds of thousands of Catholic religious and lay people risked their lives and sometimes gave their lives to help the Jewish victims of the Nazi pagans. To a very large extent their sacrifices have gone uncelebrated, even ignored. Shamefully, much of the criticism of the Church comes from within, as well as from critics who use the issue to vicariously attack orthodoxy and Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. This was precisely the case with John Cornwell’s risible book Hitler’s Pope. Rabbi David Dalin’s scholarly response, The Myth of Hitler’s Pope, stated that people are trying to, “exploit the tragedy of the Jewish people during the Holocaust to foster their own political agenda of forcing changes on the Catholic Church today.” Dalin’s work has done much to reverse or at least explain the situation, and he is essential reading for anybody who wants to genuinely understand the reality and the subtext of all this.
We also need to recall the actions of another significant Jewish man, also a rabbi. In 1945 the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, publicly embraced Catholicism. This extraordinary conversion was partly due to Zolli’s admiration for the Pope’s sheltering and saving of Italian Jews. Zolli suffered greatly due to his conversion, and his motives have been questioned quite dreadfully by his detractors. But that does not change the truth of the situation.
Which brings us back to the meat of the problem, which is anti-Catholicism using any means necessary to discredit the Church. We may win the Pius wars, but our enemies will simply find another battleground on which to fight. The irony of this particular skirmish is that while the Church, and in particular serious and orthodox Catholics, have worked tirelessly to expunge any vestige of an anti-Semitism that may have existed, the new Jew-hatred, often disguised asanti-Zionism, is largely the preserve of the left, Islam, militant atheism, and their friends. And that unholy alliance, it should be noted, hates the Church just as much!
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!