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July 25, 2011
The Role of Pope Pius XII
By Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. *

By Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. *

To many, the role of Pope Pius XII during the Second World War, and in particular his action or lack of action on behalf of the Jewish people, are the sum-total of the history of the Catholic Church during the war. This is, of course, nonsense. Whilst it is true that the Church is led by the Pope, it is not true that the Pope is the Church. This has been recognized by Popes ever since Innocent III adopted the title, ‘Servant of the Servants of Christ’, as one of the official titles of the office of Pontiff, as long ago as the thirteenth century. The Bishop of Rome is the primary bishop of the Church, and communion with him is a prerequisite for membership of that Church. However, the Church is the body of believers; it consists, in other words, of all Catholics.

This is of fundamental importance to the debate on the complicity or otherwise of Pope Pius XII during the war. His detractors seem to believe that by discrediting the Holy Father, they can discredit the whole Catholic Church. Sadly, his defenders appear to think that they are right. Even if Pope Pius XII had supported the extermination of the Jews – and he did not, as this series will try to prove – then this would not prove that the Church as a whole was complicit. The short-comings of one man are as nothing when compared to the eternal Truth. This is also true for all other aspects of the role of the Church during the war. There were as many roles as there were Catholics! One may find within the confines of one Church province saints and sinners, indifference and heroism.

This does not mean that the role of Pope Pius XII is without importance – far from it. His leadership did much to shape the response of many in the Church to the challenges of Fascism, Nazism and Communism. We have to recall all the time that it was this triumvirate of evil ideologies that the Church faced in the period between 1917 and 1945. It is naïve to suggest that all bishops, indeed, that all Catholics followed exactly what Pope Pius XII asked them to do. They did not. Yet the tone set by the Pontiff is of vital importance, and, I will argue in this series, is exactly what we as Catholics should focus on. Let us restate this once again: the tone of Pope Pius XII’s pontificate is what matters, as well as how he was perceived at the time.

Subsequent judgments of the Pope are valid, but only when examined within the context from which they arose. Rather unsurprisingly, one finds that his critics usually emanate from circles at odds with the Church. Harsh criticism of the Holy Father emerged first in the Soviet Union immediately after the war. There is a famous cartoon in the Soviet satirical magazine, Crocodile, showing Pius defending the West, standing at the gates like the Archangel Michael, swinging a thurible, whilst behind him cower American multi-nationals, General Franco, and a host of war criminals with a Nazi or Fascist background. As a piece of propaganda it strikes as being crude, but the link made in the cartoon, which appeared in the late 1940s, between Pope Pius XII and the Nazis proved to be a potent one.

No one will require any explanation as to why the Soviets wished to portray the Pontiff in this light. The next attack came when Rolf Hochhut’s Der Stellvertreter. Ein christliches Trauerspiel (The Deputy. A Christian Tragedy) appeared in 1963. This is the play about the role of Pope Pius XII during the war, in particular in relation to the Holocaust. Few modern plays can have had such an impact as this one. It contrasts the Pope’s pre-occupation with the Church’s money and indifference to the fate of the Jews of Rome with the heroism of St. Maximilian Kolbe in Auschwitz, and with Bl. Bernard Lichtenberg.

Now as pointed out above, such comparisons are meaningless from a Catholic perspective. Kolbe and Lichtenberg are saints of the Church, their heroic defense of the Truth amply recognized. If Pius XII had indeed been guilty of the crimes of which Hochhut’s play accuses him, then their sacrifice, following Jesus’ example, would have been more than a witness even, they would have been atonements. The Church lives in its saints, for it is these who have responded must fully to Our Lord’s call to holiness.

Hochhut’s play has two further fatal flaws. The first lies in the limited sources on which he drew. This ensured that the conclusions to which he came rested on insufficient evidence. Of equal importance is the background of the play. Evidence has come to light that KGB support had been given to Hochhut, and his fictional Pope Pius XII is remarkably similar to the one protecting the multi-nationals and Nazis in the Crocodile cartoon. It is also no coincidence that the play first premiered in East Berlin and toured the Communist Block before reaching the West. There, it found a welcome reception amongst a section of the audience permeated by the restlessness of the 1960s, which saw the Church as an obstacle to its vision of society.

The strongest supporters of the idea that Pius was complicit in the Holocaust these days are to be found in secularist circles in the West, and in Israel. The former can quite easily be dismissed: no Catholic need to worry too much about the biases of a group whose hostility to their Faith is well attested. The Israeli criticism is rather more problematic. It hinges on a phrase from Hochhut’s play: “doing nothing is as bad as taking part”. It is a line frequently quoted in certain sections of Israel’s formidable publicity machine. Somehow, that quote re-emerges every time the Church criticizes an element of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. This does much to explain and equally serves to remove some of the potency of criticism by the descendants of the victims of the Holocaust. This is all the more so the case when one realizes that Pope Pius XII had plenty of admirers amongst the founding fathers of the state of Israel.

It may be clear from the brief summary above that the portrayals of Pope Pius XII as somehow complicit in the crimes of the Nazi regime are always driven by ideology and political expedience. In the next three installments, we shall be examining in greater detail whether this combination of ideology and politics always invalidates the conclusions that Pius’ detractors have come to. At this point, I would like to finish with a brief overview of Pope Pius XII’s life, to provide the material for the reader to visualize the man as he struggles with almost impossible challenges.

The future Holy Father was born in Rome on 2 March 1876. This was only five years after the Italian state had conquered the Eternal City. His name was Eugenio Pacelli, his background rather aristocratic and with close ties to the Papacy. He was gifted with a far from ordinary intellect, and had a particular gift for languages: besides his native Italian and Latin, he spoke French, German, English, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, and Slovak and, most impressive of all, Hungarian. Apparently he learned Portuguese in a few weeks in order to be able to address the parliament of Brazil.

All his life he was plagued by poor health, and he studied for the priesthood from home. His early life in the Church was dedicated mainly to the diplomatic service and to the codification of Canon Law. Of particular importance with regard to his stance as Pope were his experiences in Britain, where he represented the Pope on several occasions, as well as his role in the attempts by the Church to end the First World War. From 1917 he was, in effect, the Nuncio to Germany. In Berlin, he experienced the Marxist troubles, and he attempted to provide relief to the persecuted Church in the Soviet Union. Interestingly, he also had contacts with the leadership in that country, against the general stance of the Vatican.

A strong supporter of the Weimar Republic, Pacelli endorsed Pope Benedict XV’s belief that punitive economic measures against Germany were counter-productive and morally wrong. In 1929, shortly after the creation of the Vatican State, Pacelli became its Cardinal Secretary of State or Prime Minister. In this role, he visited the United States, and engaged with many different countries. Few men had been as thoroughly prepared to become Pope as Eugenio Pacelli. 

Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. was born in Holland to a secularized family with Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran roots. He moved to Scotland at the age of 18, and attended the University of Wales, College Cardiff (then the Jesuit University of Antwerp, Belgium), and the University of Edinburgh, where he gained a masters. Schnitker completed his Ph.D. in medieval history at the same university. During college and through the study of the Middle Ages, he regained contact with his own Catholic roots.

Since graduating, Schnitker has taught at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, before moving to the Maryvale Ecclesiastical Institute, where he is the senior supervisor of Ecclesiastical History. The institute specializes in long-distance learning, and this allows Schnitker, his wife, son and daughter to live in the countryside of Perthshire, Scotland.

Besides supervising Ph.D. students, he also teaches the history module for those training for the permanent diaconate, and is developing a new course of R.E. for primary education throughout the English-speaking world. He has written for a number of Catholic newspapers and magazines, both in Britain, North America and Holland.

In the past Schnitker has been involved in curating exhibitions, both at a local and national level, and was responsible for the historical St. Ninian’s pageant in Edinburgh in 2010 for the state visit of the Holy Father to the United Kingdom. He recently completed a book on the culture of the devotion to Our Lady, and is currently finishing a book on the memory of the saints in Scotland.

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