December 12, 2011

A Catholic Experience? The Church and the War

By Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. *

When I began to write this particular series, I had little idea where it would take me. This is unusual, as normally there is a carefully planned structure which is executed to the letter, however, that is not the case this time. In part, this was because there is no existing template: to my knowledge there is, as yet, no survey of the Catholic Church during the Second World War. As such, this series was a journey, which, occasionally threw up unpleasant surprises, but which also occasionally, showed the Church at her best.

I also wanted the evidence to speak for itself. This is good practice in any field, especially necessary in history, and few topics in history require a more dispassionate approach than that of the Church during the period 1933-1945. Bl. John Paul II, who knew about the evils of war from bitter personal experience, urged Catholic historians to apply the tools of their craft to the Church’s past. He insisted that we should be critical and show deficiencies, but not shy away from telling the positive story either.

Few have taken up this request with regard to the war. Unfortunately, the issue of the Church’s role during the period has become the preserve of polemicists. On the one hand we find those who simply wish to show the Church’s faults so as to prove that she was complicit with some of the worst events in human history. This can take on a flagrant guise, in particular with regard to Pope Pius XII. It is also, and more frequently, insidious. One is reminded of the simply outrageous suggestion made by the ‘comedian’, Stephen Fry, that Auschwitz was in Poland, and that somehow this made the Poles and their Church guilty of the crimes involved. Either Mr. Fry is ignorant of the facts, or he was being mischievous.

This type of ‘history’ writing is not history writing at all: it is a twisting of the facts to serve an agenda. I have noticed some of these agenda in this series: the Soviet one, the Israeli government one, the secularist or atheist one.

There are many more. Their job is an easy one; unfortunately there were many in the Church who, for a variety of reasons, collaborated fully with the Nazis. One can select these and present a story that is unremittingly depressing and evil. This priest or that bishop did this: therefore the Church colluded with the Nazis.

No medical person would trust such a conclusion and if drug trials were conducted along these lines we would still be living in 1750, at least in terms of public health. Equally inefficacious is the tone adopted by some Catholics.

There is a tendency to retreat into the bunker – if you forgive the metaphor – and dispute any suggestion of Catholic wrong-doing. This is used with great frequency when it comes to the role of Pope Pius XII, and, oddly, it is arguably least misplaced there.

I have dwelt on Pope Pius XII for a considerable part of this series, simply because his role is vital. I hope that the evidence which I have presented has shown conclusively that Pius in no way condoned the Nazis, that he distanced himself from those European regimes, like those in Italy, Croatia and Vichy France, when these implemented racist or anti-Semitic policies, and that he frequently engaged in facilitating resistance against the Nazis.

Of course the main charge against Pope Pius XII is his silence. Now I have shown that he was not always silent, that he did, publicly, through the press or radio, condemn the Nazis and their policies. However, his silence can, indeed, often be discomforting. One would have liked to have him stand up, possibly even to have stood as a witness like St. Maximilian Kolbe. But that would have been very impractical. His position was vital if the Church was to continue bearing witness to the Truth. There is the salutary lesson from the Dutch Church, too. Archbishop De Jong wrestled with his conscience for the remainder of his life, after his outspokenness caused the immediate death of Holland’s Catholic Jews. These included German refugees, and amongst them was the gentle, learned and lovable St. Edith Stein. De Jong once said that he felt he had condemned them to their graves.

The Holy Father made mistakes, too. Of course he did; as I mentioned before, his infallibility did not extend into the political realm. His relations with Poland, never easy, took a nosedive when he allowed German bishops, including the pro-Nazi bishop of Gdansk, to impose their will on the Poles. It took the Poles years to come to terms with what they regarded as a betrayal by Rome. But for all his mistakes the case against Pope Pius XII is easily dismissed: he was a human being in an impossible position in an impossible time and he equated himself, on the whole, with honor and dignity. He also rescued many thousands from certain death, something which the less radical nationalists amongst the Israelis and the wider Jewish community happily acknowledge. By concentrating their fire on the Holy Father, the Church’s critics actually do their cause a disservice. They clearly have not heard of such Catholic luminaries as Mgr. Tiso of Slovakia, Carl Maria von Splett of Gdansk, Alfred-Henri-Maria Cardinal Baudrillart of Paris, or, worst of all, Fr. Miroslav Filipović O.F.M., the Croatian butcher of women and children. I have not shied away from presenting these, the misguided, the brutal, the nationalists, or the down-right evil men who wore the priest’s collar. I hope Bl. John Paul II approves, for my motives are simple: to show that not all was well in our Church during those terrible years. To deny this would be to deny truth, to follow Pilate instead of Christ and close one’s eyes to what is in front of us.

Before the Church’s critics drag these men and their like to where they should have been, the camp of her enemies, and rejoice, let me remind them that this series has also brought to light the hesitant, the fearful, the compliant and the heroic. Some simply could not bring themselves to desert those to whom they felt they had a pastoral duty, men such as Bl. Cardinal Schuster of Milan, who to the end kept in touch with Mussolini from those motives. Others, such as Cardinal von Faulhaber of Munich, loved their country almost as much as their Church. These men found it impossible to denounce the leadership of their state until that leadership began to threaten their Church.

Then there were the millions of Catholics who simply tried to survive, to feed their families, to keep a roof over their heads, and to live to see a better day. These are the nameless ones: those who kept quiet when the Nazis came, and who quietly rejoiced when they left again, those who did small deeds of mercy, like the Germans who nursed allied airmen downed over their country, those in occupied countries who took pity on a weary German soldier, and those in Britain who campaigned for Catholic POWs to be able to attend Mass.

Finally, there are the martyrs and leaders of the resistance, people like St. Maximilian Kolbe, who offered his life for that of a fellow inmate in Auschwitz. One can make a long list of such martyrs of the Church. I have also introduced many of the leaders of a principled resistance to the Nazis that sprang up all over Europe, men who simply knew, like Pope Pius XII knew, that this was an un-Christian evil that had to be fought.

In two things the Church’s critics are right. Almost universally, the fear of Communism drove Catholics into the arms of dictators whom they would otherwise not have tolerated. This is a serious matter, but somewhat outside the scope of this series. It blinded some to the evil they were embracing or tolerating, whilst others saw the evil but ignored it. Since 1945, the Church in Spain, France, Hungary and Croatia has openly admitted to this and asked for forgiveness.

They are also right that the Church sought to defend herself first and foremost, and that others, including the Jews, were defended, but came second. This is true, and I for one do not wish to make an excuse for this.

The Church is the portal of salvation, and its closure could not be contemplated. Any attack on its institutions, be it school, youth organization or hospital, had to be resisted. The Church under Pius XII very clearly offered an alternative to Marxism, to Fascism, to Nazism and, yes, to Capitalism as well. It was a radical alternative, and one that required a passionate defense. It is epitomized by Bl. Clemens von Galen, who stood against the Nazis’ euthanasia program, fought them over threats to Catholic youth movements and schools, and only then thought about the Jews. But he did think about them, just as Bl. Aloysius Cardinal Stepinać thought about and fought for Jews, Gypsies and Orthodox Serbs, as well as standing up for his Church.

In the end, there was no single Catholic experience during 1933-1945. The Church is too large an organization to have a single experience. One may encounter saints and sinners and every gradation in between, and in this series we have. That does not take away from an essential, theological, fact namely that although the Church is full of sinners, she and her teachings are sinless. It is those men and women who responded most fully to that teaching that stand as witnesses to that sinlessness; for the others there is the hope of forgiveness.

This conclusion will not satisfy the Church’s critics and I do not expect it to,
“for the word of the Cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”. (1 Cor 1:18).

It is the radical alternative that Pius XII proclaimed during the War, the seeming foolishness of St. Maximilian Kolbe, volunteering to die in someone’s place. It is also our inheritance as Catholics, and, unlike the men and women of 1933-1945, we have the saintly icons from that period to ensure that if such a situation arises ever again, we know how to act.  

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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