August 01, 2011

Pope Pius XII and the Jews

By Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. *

The single most controversial element of recent Catholic history has to be the relationship between Pope Pius XII and the Jews. This controversy is an on-going one and a small article such as this cannot hope to offer any new insights. However, it can present a survey of the debate to date, and make some tentative suggestions. The controversy revolves around the proposition that, during his Pontificate, Pope Pius XII remained silent when it came to the deportation, incarceration and deliberate extermination of the Jews in what is now called the Holocaust or Shoah.

As shall be seen, the Holy Father’s silence was not as pronounced as some would have it, but one does require ‘Catholic’ ears to hear it. His very first Encyclical, Summi Pontificatus, contains a very profound statement on the Jews. It appeared in October 1939, some weeks after the war had begun, and well after the direct attacks on the Jews had commenced in the Third Reich. The Encyclical is rarely quoted by historians, which is a great omission. Traditionally, the first encyclical of a new pope sets the tone for his Pontificate, and Summi Pontificatus forms no exception. Pope Pius XII began with a reference to the consecration of mankind to Christ the King. He wrote:

“It is a message to men who, in ever increasing numbers, have cut themselves off from faith in Christ and, even more, from the recognition and observance of His law; a message opposed to that philosophy of life for which the doctrine of love and renunciation preached in the Sermon on the Mount and the Divine act of love on the Cross seem to be a stumbling block and foolishness”.

This is a very clear attack on the Nazis, for their ‘philosophy’, drawing on Social Darwinism and Nietzsche, held that the Sermon on the Mount contained all that which enslaved people. Love and renunciation were linearly opposed to the ideals of the survival of the fittest, as espoused in the Third Reich. Of course, the Sermon on the Mount holds no reference to Jews: it was written by and for Jews! The Encyclical also contains a strong denunciation of the unbridled free market of capitalist society. Quoting the Apocalypse, Pope Pius XII affirmed Catholic social teaching:

“Thou sayest: I am rich, and made wealthy, and have need of nothing: and knowest not, that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked”.

That he was in the mood for combat is beyond doubt,

“Who among "the Soldiers of Christ" - ecclesiastic or layman - does not feel himself incited and spurred on to a greater vigilance, to a more determined resistance, by the sight of the ever-increasing host of Christ's enemies; as he perceives the spokesmen of these tendencies deny or in practice neglect the vivifying truths”.

This was an attack on all the forces that had been battering the Church for over a century: extreme free market capitalism, Marxism, secularism and now, Nazism. The text leaves little doubt about the direction of the Pontificate: he wished to defend the radical, Catholic alternative to what was on offer in the political sphere. The Encyclical thus becomes a vital document in understanding the Pope’s stance during the war years. The Holy Father knew what was to come, and the evil that would come with it; he had witnessed it during the First World War, and, like his predecessors, had tried in vain to halt it. Thus he wrote,

“Venerable Brethren, as We write these lines the terrible news comes to Us that the dread tempest of war is already raging despite all Our efforts to avert it. When We think of the wave of suffering that has come on countless people who but yesterday enjoyed in the environment of their homes some little degree of well-being, We are tempted to lay down Our pen. Our paternal heart is torn by anguish as We look ahead to all that will yet come forth from the baneful seed of violence and of hatred for which the sword today ploughs the blood-drenched furrow”.

The image of the stern, remote Pius XII is shattered by that single sentence: “We are tempted to lay down Our pen”. Here is the Pope acknowledging the futility of his own resistance, and the limitations of his own position: he was powerless to prevent the destruction of so many lives, of so many people’s happiness. He knew where the blame lay: amongst the regimes that had rejected the ethics of Christianity, the ethics of love, brotherhood and compassion, the ethics of inclusiveness, forgiveness and humility. He wrote:

“From the immense vortex of error and anti-Christian movements there has come forth a crop of such poignant disasters”.

Amongst this anti-Christianity, Pius singled out the evil of racism. He emphasized the need for native leadership in the emerging Churches in the colonial world, a truly radical statement in an age where British Prime-Minister, Winston Churchill, could dismiss Gandhi, the leader of the Indian independence movement, as a ‘naked fakir’. Pius goes on to quote Scripture in support of his stance, more in particular St. Paul:

“putting on the new, (man) him who is renewed unto knowledge, according to the image of him that created him. Where there is neither Gentile nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision”.

This is Pius at his most radical: no Catholic could mistake the open support of the idea that all men, and that included the Jews which were classed as non-humans by the Nazis, were equal before Christ and in Him. An important question, of course, is whether Pope Pius XII actually lived by the words he wrote in his first Encyclical. In other words, does the – mostly – public silence mask an active involvement in the prevention of the Holocaust? The answer to that question is simply ‘yes’. Pius knew that to speak out loudly was to condemn more souls to torment. The lesson was learnt by the Dutch episcopate. It spoke out against the deportation of the Dutch Jews, with only one result: all ethnic Jews who were Catholics, and who had been left in peace, were rounded up and sent to the extermination camps, including St. Edith Stein. In a letter to the Bishop of Berlin in 1943, Pius admitted that his silence was to ‘avoid the worse’.

Pius’ silence was a deliberate silence, and does not make him complicit in any way, as it was accompanied by a great exertion on behalf of the Jews. This varied from making deeply symbolic gestures to actively trying to save those threatened. In 1939, for example, he appointed several Jewish academics, who had been dismissed from Italian universities, at Pontifical universities. In 1940, the Vatican received a request from the chief Rabbi of Palestine to intervene on behalf of the Jews of occupied Lithuania. Pius called Von Ribbentrop to the Vatican and repeatedly protested against the treatment of Lithuania’s Jews. Action speaks louder than words.

This was followed by a letter to all the clergy, urging them to exert themselves on behalf of the Jews. Two Nuncios in particular stand out in their efforts following this letter, namely those of Hungary and Turkey, who both saved many thousands of Jews by providing them with travel documents and money raised by American Catholics in particular. Letters written to the governments of Slovakia, Croatia, Hungary and Vichy France leave no doubt that Pius condemned Anti-Semitism. Indeed, in his Christmas address of 1942, Pius was explicit in reiterating the Church’s teachings. He condemned the treatment of

"those hundreds of thousands, who ... sometimes only by reason of their nationality or race, are marked down for death or progressive extinction”.

It was a rare departure from the normally quiet diplomacy and guarded symbolic gestures, and one that immediately dismisses the idea that Pope Pius XII remained totally silent on the Holocaust.

One can continue for some time with these examples, which are often willfully ignored. Indeed, at times the truth is simply twisted to serve the political message. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of the Jews of Rome. The Holy Father has been accused of standing by when they were targeted by the Nazis. Nothing can be further from the truth. Eighty percent of Rome’s Jews were saved, mostly by being hidden in churches and monasteries, including almost 500 who were brought into the Vatican. Since only some 800 people use the Vatican on a daily base, the Pope was obviously more than aware of their presence! I have previously explored why Pope Pius XII is presented in the way he is in certain circles; he was not without blame with regard to some Vatican policies during the war, but if everyone had adopted the Pope’s stance to the Jews many more would have escaped the camps. 

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.