Sunday, February 28, 2010

The case for, and against, the canonization of Pope Pius XII

The road to sainthood is never speedy, but rarely is it as divisive as the campaign to canonize Pope Pius XII.

Just last week, a group of prominent Catholic scholars urged Pope Benedict to slow down the process in order to better assess contradictory evidence.

Some see the Pope, who reigned over the Roman Catholic Church during the Second World War, as a pro-Nazi collaborator and anti-Semite who went along with the Holocaust.

To others, including some prominent Jews, he was an anti-Nazi, who actively saved Jews, risking his own safety and that of the Church in defence of the persecuted.

To add to the complexity, many historians say Pius was neither a war criminal nor a saint, just a complicated individual caught in one of history’s most catastrophic conflicts.


The Nazi pope?

In 1963, The Deputy, by German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, began to play to packed theatres worldwide. It was an utter indictment of the pontiff’s wartime behaviour.

Though the historical basis for the accusations has always been questioned, it left a lasting impression, that persists to this day, of a man more concerned with protecting Vatican financial assets than saving lives, and as sympathetic to Nazi aims.

In the 1990s, Hitler’s Pope, by John Cornwell, added to the popular impression of a collaborating, Jew-hating pope.

However, in 2004, Mr. Cornwell later said he now found it “impossible to judge” Pius XII, “in light of the debates and evidence.”

Keeping quiet, saving lives

It is a fact that Pius did not offer a clear condemnation of the Nazi regime, but interpretations vary as to the motivation and outcome of that silence.

Robert Ventresca, a professor at University of Western Ontario who is researching a biography of Pius, offers this explanation, “Pius XII chose instead to avoid a public confrontation with the Hitler regime, counting instead on less obvious but practical activity on the part of his representatives and Catholic clergy and lay people on the ground. It is entirely legitimate to question the efficacy or wisdom of his approach.... But there is very strong evidence to support the view that his public restraint and diplomatic caution actually saved lives and thwarted some fundamental Nazi objectives.”

The esteemed British historian Sir Martin Gilbert believes Pius saved hundreds of thousands of lives by whispering rather than shouting.

A deafening silence

“Even if Pius hadn’t saved one person by going public, he would have protected the moral authority of the Church for future generations,” said Father John Pawlikowski of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

He is among those who judge the inaction more harshly because of the expectations of a pope as the greatest living moral authority.

Jewish praise

When Pius died in 1958, Golda Meir, the former prime minister of Israel, said, “When fearful martyrdom came to our people, the voice of the Pope was raised for its victims. The life of our times was enriched by a voice speaking out about great moral truths above the tumult of daily conflict.”

Sir Martin has argued that not only did Pius speak out but even the Nazis accused him of being “the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals.”

He points to the Pope personally saving three quarter’s of Rome’s Jews when deportations started after the German occupation.

American historian and rabbi David Dalin, author of The Myth of Hitler’s Pope, notes that Pius’ first encyclical was against Nazi racism.

The Allies dropped 88,000 copies of the document over Germany “in an effort to raise anti-Nazi sentiment.”


Actions, not words

Margherita Marchione, the author of 10 books defending Pius, said documents prove that he saved 5,000 Jews in Rome when the Nazis came in 1943.

“He did that by opening the doors of convents and monasteries. He told the bishops to save Jews either in the churches or in their own homes. The Holy Father sent trucks around supplying food. Pius spoke by actions, not words. He was the only leader in the world who helped save 5,000 Jews. What did Franklin Roosevelt do? He turned around a shipload of Jews and Jewish children from U.S. shores and sent them back to their death.”

Canada’s Mackenzie King also refused to let the ship dock.

The diplomat

Frank Coppa, a professor at St. John’s University in New York, who is writing a biography of Pius, suggests Pius was genuine in his belief that he was taking the right course of action. “But he was really frightened.”

At heart, he said, Pius was a diplomat and sometimes when you’re diplomatic “you can fail to see the moral dimensions of the issue.”

The great protector

Mr. Coppa said the Vatican sees Pius as a saint “because he made every effort to protect the faithful. He was very concerned about the Church in Germany. His motive on this was good. My own personal view was he underestimated the strength of the German Church. He felt it could not survive a massive persecution by Hitler.”


The struggle within

Becoming a pope is not an automatic pass into the communion of saints. Of the 265 popes who have led the Church, 76 have been canonized. Yet there seems a great sense of hurry to complete the cause for Pius XII.

Ms. Marchione said the Vatican is simply responding to the call of the faithful.

“Pius is already a saint; the Church is in the process of recognizing that.”

Fr. Pawlikowski thinks the push reflects a deeper political struggle within the Church “between a more progressive Vatican II orientation and a conservative orientation. Those conservatives who are pushing his canonization see it a justification of their position … The more progressive Catholics and Jews who are raising these issues will be put in their place by his canonization.”

Politics and saints

Sometimes sainthood is used by the Church to make a statement, according to James Carroll, author of Constantine’s Sword, a book about the history of Christian anti-Semitism.

For example, Thomas More, the Catholic martyr who died opposing King Henry VIII’s split with Rome, was made a saint in 1935, under Pius XI, who was vocally anti-Nazi. It was useful for the Church, Mr. Carroll said, to lift up a hero who would inspire Catholics to reject tyrants, whether it was Hitler, Stalin or Mussolini.

Similarly, he believes the Vatican wants to elevate Pius XII to make the point that the Church will not be bullied by its critics.

“If a pope could fail in the greatest moral test what does that say about the reliability of any pope’s moral leadership? Benedict is trying to shore up that authority.”

Saintly virtues

“You don’t have to believe Pius XII was some kind of war criminal to oppose canonization,” said Mr. Carroll.

“I have no doubt Pius XII loathed Hitler and if he could have found ways to help in the defeat of Hitler I have no doubt he would have. But canonization should be reserved for figures of historic and heroic virtue. He was not that.”

Why hurry?

Last week a group of Catholic scholars asked Pope Benedict to slow down the process of canonization to allow for further study.

Fr. Pawlikowski said there are a significant number of Catholic scholars who share the same concerns as many of Pius’ Jewish opponents.

If Pius is canonized before all the facts are in, “it will make it more difficult for Catholic historians to have a critical assessment of his papacy. It’s hard to critique a saint,” he said.

He stressed, however, that the opposition letter “was not intended to create a bandwagon against canonization.”

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1 comment:

sixmillionbook said...

Well, if everyone could agree on one point is that there are different opinions about what Pope Pius XII did or did not do during the war. However, the important point is that his public record is known and not open to dispute, and shows him to have been silent. Many defenders of the pope want to believe he did great things, but historical analysis is not based on wishful thinking. I also wish he had done much more than what I think he did. The issue is that if the pope did indeed do a lot of “behind the scenes” work to save the Jews, and I am not saying he didn’t (although I suspect he did not), then it makes sense for the Church to make that information public.

Perhaps the Church feels that the combination of time and new “facts on the ground” set by the canonization of the pope will whitewash his role and that of the Church during WWII. After all, it has worked in the past many times when the Church canonized many people whose record was atrocious, yet today we call them Saint This or Saint That and that makes them automatically good people. Pope Pius XII may have been a profoundly wonderful human being whose religious work may indeed warrant raising him to the sainthood. However, a pope is more than a religious figure. A pope is a head of state, and the head of a giant church, and Pope Pius had the misfortune to reign over it during the darkest period in history. Maybe he did indeed work tirelessly in defense of the Jews as his apologetics claim, and maybe his “heroic virtues” would warrant calling him a saint. However, his public record is well known and the available evidence seems to point in the opposite direction. As far as is publicly known, Pope Pius failed to speak loud and clear on behalf of the Jews, failed to prevent the German Catholic Church from providing the Nazis with baptismal records that allowed them to identify Jews, failed to instruct Catholics to stop murdering Jews, failed to officially instruct the clergy everywhere to give shelter to Jews, and failed to excommunicate any Catholics including Hitler, Goebbels, and many others in the Nazi hierarchy, let alone the actual Catholic perpetrators whose souls were cleansed by field priests as the soldiers, policemen or SS came back to the barracks with blood stains in their uniforms from the hundreds of Jews they murdered at point blank range that day.

The Vatican Secret Archives for the WWII period need to be opened. This is ultimately also for the Church's benefit, even if it does show, as I think it will, that the Church as such did very little to help the hounded Jews. After all, it was the Church itself that published eleven volumes of documents forty years ago precisely to counter allegations that Pope Pius XII did not do as much as he should have. It’s safe to assume the Church would have shown its best, most compelling documentation showing Pope Pius helping Jews if it had it, and it would have been totally counterproductive to have left clear evidence of this help out of those eleven volumes. I think one can logically assume the documentation simply does not exist.

Gabriel Wilensky

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