The term “heroic virtues”, we are told, has a purely spiritual meaning and does not constitute an opinion about temporal issues. However, I doubt if this is how it is understood [by ordinary people]. We are what we do and the hero who today is pronounced “venerable”, possibly “blessed” tomorrow, is seen as a compass showing the way for the faithful through the uncertainties of their existence, when faith is needed to orient their actions. All the more so if the said hero has lived through dramatic times. Consequently, are Pius XII’s choices - while the extermination of the Jews was taking place (and about which the papal nuncio to Slovakia, at the very least, had informed him in March 1942) – a model to be followed?
There were quite a number of Jews who in the immediate post-war period thanked Pius XII for his action. Mention is often made of a delegation of survivors in the Vatican in 1946, of a cheque given by the World Jewish Congress, of a statement by Golda Meir in 1958, of the book by Pinchas Lapide, Israel’s Consul in Milan and the more recent publication by Rabbi Dalin from New York. Mention is often made of the conversion of the Rabbi of Rome, Israel (later Eugenio) Zelli, which was in fact a consequence of his rejection by the community after the war because of his cowardice.
Such praise often takes for granted that the unforgettable help given to Jews by members of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe was the consequence of secret instructions coming from the Pope. This however was not the case in general, even though some priests and nuns thought it was so; in fact, the direct involvement of Pius XII in the rescue networks, such as the network of Roman monasteries organised by the admirable Father Marie Benoit, is still being debated. For Cardinal Palazzini, a Righteous among the Nations and Vice-Rector of the Pontifical Seminary in Rome at the time, it was fundamental, but for others it was merely likely and “implicit”. Hence the often repeated need to open up the Vatican archives.
There is no doubt, contrary to a sinister legend, that Pius XII opposed the Nazi doctrine of racial inequality, so contrary to the very foundations of Christianity. He expressed it in particular in the encyclical “Mit brennende Sorge” that he wrote and which was published under the pontificate of his predecessor Pius XI and read out in Germany’s Catholic churches.
However, in this encyclical, as in all his public statements, the word “Jew” itself does appear. There is a terrible parallel between the effacing of this name and the annihilation of the human beings who bore it. Saying nothing said something. And for a Pope, whose only power is the word, to say is to do, and to say nothing was a decision to do nothing. How is it possible to call the faithful to disobedience and risk their lives purely on the basis of subtle allusions? The name Jew was damned. It’s possible that pronouncing it would have increased the Nazi fury and added to the danger faced by converted Jews (as happened to Edith Stein in the Netherlands, following the declaration of Dutch bishops) and possibly the Catholic Church itself. Indeed. But Pius XII had the example of his friend von Galen, Bishop of Munster, who with just his voice obliged the regime to suspend its euthanasia programme (even if today we know it was only a transitory measure).
The truth, it seems to me, is that the extermination of the Jews was, in the Pope’s mental universe, no more than a regrettable, but secondary, event. His concern was first and foremost to not insult the future, to think about the survival of the Church in a world that was going to be dominated by Nazism or threatened by communism. There was no question of removing Orsenigo, the papal nuncio in Berlin, who had shown himself so accommodating toward Hitler. The Pope had to remain an “impartial” diplomat (impartial between the Jews and the Nazis?).
And once the war had been won by the Allies, the primary concern was for the Church to recover its former glory, allergic to introspection. The Holocaust did not lead Pius XII to change the teaching of contempt, nor to publish the slightest moral or doctrinal text on the Jews. We had to wait for his successors.
A journalist asked me why I was surprised that the Pope during the war had not favoured first and foremost the safety of his own people, the Catholics. I answered that I had naively thought that, faced with a universal crime, there was a need for a universal response, the word of a prophet. Are not the courage of a word of testimony and strength and spiritual insight far more “heroic” virtues than those of managing power play?
Richard Prasquier, President of CRIF