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 HISTORICAL CONTROVERSY
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.
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.
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 ROAD TO SAINTHOOD
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.”
“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.”
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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