Old controversies die hard, even in the face of facts.
Last week Pope Benedict made his first official visit to Rome’s main synagogue and met with the leaders of Italy’s Jewish community. His speech was interrupted by applause and cheers several times and the smiles and embraces from Catholic and Jew alike were enough to convert any cynic to a faith in human dignity and understanding. This was a great, grand success. Unless, of course, you read the mainstream press and were told that many Jewish observers were offended by the Pope’s comments on how much was done by the Church to help Jewish people during the Holocaust and by his support for the beatification of Pius XII, who is now named as venerable by the Church. There were, naturally, some disagreements and concerns but to highlight these would be like explaining soccer by analyzing the color of grass. The overall result, the context, the epicenter of the visit was triumph, love, understanding and mutual regard. Put simply, Jew and Catholic are closer now than at any other time in history, in spite of what some would have us believe.
What certain journalists wanted to see were Jewish leaders becoming angry over the alleged actions of Pope Pius XII and the current Pope’s regard for the man. Indeed articles highlighted
the words of some Roman Jewish leaders on "the silence"
of Pius XII while downplaying the warm welcome the pontiff received and the balanced assessment
of other Jewish leaders. What these journalists didn’t understand is that many people are now seeing through the myth of Papal indifference during the Nazi hell and are coming to appreciate just how much was actually done by the Roman Catholic Church at all and every level and often at colossal cost and sacrifice.
It’s an issue that I have studied for a long time out of familial and emotional necessity. I am a Catholic whose father was Jewish. Not only Jewish but from a Polish family. The role of Pope Pius and the Church during the Second World War is to me at the epicenter of identity, loyalty and truth. There are Jewish leaders 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 that the Pope abandoned his moral authority and that his successors have to delegate power because of this. Was Pius silent, was the Church complicit in its indifference, is Catholic orthodoxy opposed to social justice? The latter, by the way, is the genuine issue at play here. The new orthodoxy of the Church is terrifying to the older generation of liberals and they will use history as a battering ram if they can.
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 the B’rith’s
The World Jewish Congress donated a great deal of money to the Vatican in gratitude 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 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 with 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’s deeply significant that the attacks on the Pope were largely initiated by the German playwright Rolf Hochhuth
- who claimed in his 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 Holocaust-denier David Irving.
While it is true is that the Pope did not issue an outright attack on the Nazis, this was because the leaders of the Catholic Church in Holland had make a public statement condemning Nazi anti-Semitism
and protesting the deportation of the Jewish people and in response the German occupiers had arrested and murdered every Dutch Jewish convert to Catholicism they could find. The group included Edith Stein, 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.
Hundreds of thousands of Catholic religious and lay people risked their lives and sometimes gave them 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 and from critics who use the issue to vicariously attack orthodoxy and Popes John Paul and Benedict. This was precisely the case with John Cornwell’s
risible book Hitler’s Pope. In a scholarly response Rabbi David Dalin’s
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.”
But the last word should go to another Jewish man. In 1945 the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli
, publicly embraced Roman Catholicism. This extraordinary conversion was partly due to Zolli’s
admiration for the Pope’s sheltering and saving of Italian Jews. The battle for Pope Pius’s reputation will continue and there will still be disagreements between Jewish and Catholic people of goodwill. But the overwhelming message is one of hope and progress, in spite of what the enemies of all genuine religious and a group of angry, disappointed modernist Catholics would prefer to be the case.