June 27, 2011

The Catholic Church in the Second World War

By Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. *

I would like to begin this new series with a look back to last year, and to the event that, for Catholics, will be one of the abiding memories of 2010: the state visit of the Holy Father to the United Kingdom. In his first address of the visit, in Edinburgh, Pope Benedict XVI broached a subject that has very personal meaning to him. Referring to the Nazis, he said,

"I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the Truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives"

The Holy Father was, of course, quite right to highlight the heroic suffering of Christians who opposed that regime on the grounds that it was incompatible with the teachings of Christ and the teachings of the Catholic Church. I hesitate to write this, but the Pope’s critics were also right when they highlighted the wrongs committed by members of the Church in the period. The history of the role of the Church during the war years is a highly complex one. For every edifying story one can find stories of evil-doing, of Catholics who abandoned the core of their beliefs and embraced the devil, sometimes in the mistaken belief that it would further the cause of the Faith. The Holy Father knows this and has, on other occasions, highlighted the fact that, at times, evil resides within our Church.
Bl. John Paul II, on the eve of the new millennium, exhorted Catholics – and Catholic historians in particular – to face up to the mistakes and wrongs caused by the Church in the past. However, this should not be done at the expense of recognizing that which was good, as Pope Benedict XVI did on his visit to Scotland. This is a difficult debate, made all the more difficult by the enormity of the subject and the fact that there is not a single historical survey of the Church’s role in Europe during the war.
It is also a subject hijacked by those with an agenda. Let me illustrate this at the hand of an example, one to which I will return in a future article. Of all the aspects of the Church during the war, none has become more debated than the role played by the war-time Pope, Pius XII. There are many in the Church who consider the Pope to have been a saint. In stark contrast, others view him as, at best, cowardly and, at worst, complicit in the holocaust, the planned and systematic destruction of Europe’s Jews. Obviously, both sides cannot be right. The historical facts seem to matter little to either side of the debate; Pius II’s detractors point to his ‘silence’ and construe that as a moral failure.
Some go beyond this. A famous photograph showing German soldiers shouldering arms as the Holy Father leaves the Vatican is frequently deployed with a caption suggesting that the Pope had the support of the Nazi regime. Others still go even further: ever since the obviously fictional 1963 play by the Protestant German author, Rolf Hochhuth, the epitaph of ‘The Deputy’ has been used to taint the Pope. On the other hand, Pius’s champions are not above over-emphasising his virtues, or, at the least, ignoring his shortcomings. His stance towards the Polish government in exile, partly inspired by his well-founded fear of Communism, was anything but heroic.
This series, then, will be an attempt to provide an overview of the Catholic Church throughout Europe during the war years and their prelude. For I strongly believe that it is only through a comprehensive survey of the Church’s role across the continent that we may gain a better understanding of the complexities of the situation. National histories of the Church’s position dominate the discussion and do much to cloud the issue. The Catholic Church is a trans-national body, indeed, is the trans-national body, and her history is destroyed by a nationalistic approach to the past.
Again this may easily be illustrated at the hand of an example. Cesare Orsenigo was the Nuncio in Germany. As such, he was the official representative of both the Vatican and the Catholic Church in that country during the Nazi regime. Orsenigo’s reputation is not the best: a few pictures of the nuncio with Hitler and a damning comment by the heroic President of the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Konrad von Preysing, have served to ruin his name. This is not totally undeserved if seen from a German perspective: his lack of backbone caused the German bishops and their flock much trouble. It was even worse in Poland, where Orsenigo became acting nuncio upon the German occupation. He is regarded by Poles as nothing short of evil, the man who betrayed Poland to the Nazis and to Stalin.
From a Jewish perspective, too, the nuncio has little to recommend him. Whilst many Jewish historians praise the nuncios in countries such as France, Turkey and Hungary for their active role in saving the Jews, they have little good to say about Orsenigo. All this seems to damn the nuncio. However, one also needs to see Orsenigo as the representative of a Church that played for time in order to survive.
His letters, which are currently being made available by the Vatican, reveal that his main concern was the preservation of a diplomatic link to the Nazi regime. To the nuncio, this was necessary to allow Vatican instructions to reach the German episcopate, and he knew from first-hand experience in Poland what happened when this was no longer feasible. It was through Orsenigo that the Pope’s instructions for a coordinated opposition to the Nazi’s euthanasia program were relayed to the German bishops, an opposition that proved remarkably efficient.
This fact highlights one significant element that the detractors of the Church, of Pius XII and of Orsenigo often failed to mention: Catholic teaching denounced racism and saw Nazism, Fascism and Communism as antithetical to the revealed Truth of Jesus. Orsenigo wrote as much in 1933 when Hitler had come to power: “to support this regime would be ingenious and incoherent with Catholic teaching”. As a diplomat one may have to work with a regime, but one does not have to approve of it. Clearly Orsenigo did not approve and his actions have to be judged from the perspective of the Church which he served. Somehow, though, many seem to think that it was incorrect for the Church to look after its own interests first. This is distinctly odd, for it is a moral criteria never used for other players of the period.  
Few would criticize Churchill for working with Stalin, a man every bit as evil as Hitler, in order to secure the survival of Britain. Nor should he be criticized. Survival is also what the Church fought for, and, like Churchill, Pius XII was well aware of the dangers posed by the other great evil of the era, Communism. This meant that any consideration of the role played by the Church in the period needs to bear in mind that Pius was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, or, perhaps more appropriately, between two evils. For the Church which he was leading to survive, he had on occasion to ‘sup with a long spoon’. Again, this series will not shirk from exposing or focusing on the wrongs committed by members of the Church. But it will also put these in a context and, in doing so, will hopefully provide a balanced view of the Church’s recent history, a history which still has profound influences today.

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.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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