Pope Pius xii, The Church and Europe’s Jews in the 1940s by Rev. Andrew JJ Paton
During a talk by a holocaust survivor at the North Hunterdon Rotary Club I got to wondering why so many Jews I’ve known have strong anti-Christian feelings from a mistaken belief that the church sided with the Nazis. In the first place most of the Third Reich leadership was deeply impressed by the atheist philosopher, Nietche. With power and threats they cowered the German churches. Secondly you can visit places all over occupied Europe where Christians were shot because of their efforts to hide the Jews. They knew the price for resistance and paid it bravely.
So where did the idea come from that Second World War Christianity was anti-Semitic? Much of the blame goes back to 1963. The German playwright, Rolf Hochhuth, claimed that the Pope’s alleged indifference to the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust allowed it to happen. Hochhuth claimed that the pontiff cold-heartedly abetted the Nazis. His controversial play The Deputy opened in Berlin and went on to be translated into more than 20 languages.
While I really liked the movie version of The Deputy, titled Amen, I wonder if the part portraying Papal apathy was a figment of Hochhuth’s imagination. Several historians of the caliber of Ron Rychlak have debunked the premise. The trouble is that a lie goes a long way if it’s told well. The DaVinci Code was a good example of that. In 1999 J. Cornwell published Hitler’s Pope and further embroidered the legend.
So who was Pope Pius xii and what did he do about the persecution of the Jews? The Pope was denounced by Dr. Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, for siding with the Jews in his December 1942 message, during which he criticized racism. An August, 2009 article in Newsmax.com says Pius ordered churches to “hand out baptismal certificates and passports to thousands of refugees: Jews, Gypsies, and others; sparing them from the concentration camps.” On the 70th anniversary of his papacy, the Catholic Church has released a book called A Hand of Peace. Reading the review I came upon the renowned Holocaust historian Sir Martin Gilbert. In his book, The Righteous, Sir Martin remarks: “The Pope played a part in the rescue of three-quarters of the Jews of Rome, at very short notice, when the SS came in and tried to round up all 5,000, at least 4,000 were given shelter in the Vatican itself and other Catholic places.”
So Herr Hochhuth, you have done Christian / Jewish relations a great disservice. The Jewish Virtual Library opens its article on Pius xii saying: “For much of the war, he maintained a public front of indifference and remained silent while German atrocities were committed. He refused pleas for help on the grounds of neutrality, while making statements condemning injustices in general. Privately, he sheltered a small number of Jews and spoke to a few select officials, encouraging them to help the Jews.”
Back in his days as a Cardinal, the pope erred greatly in his relations with the Nazis. In 1933, he and a German diplomat signed a concordat that granted freedom of practice to the Roman Catholic Church. In return, the Church agreed to separate religion from politics. No church worth its salt should ever agree to “separate religion from politics.”
The month he was elected Pope, March 1939, Pius obtained 3,000 visas for European Jews who had been baptized and converted to Catholicism to enter Brazil. They soon reverted to Judaism once in Brazil. So was he anti-Semitic or even just too passive? A case can be made for the latter if you review his public statements during the war, yet when one takes into consideration the thousands of priests murdered by the Nazis, one understands the Pope’s delicate dance. I submit that the real Pius xii wasn’t the face he showed the Axis powers all around the Vatican. As in Schindler’s List, the haunting question of not doing enough will always dog the memory of Pius xii. One day when your grandchildren ask you about the evils of this generation, I trust you will have stories to tell of what you did. Diplomacy or dissidence in the face of what you consider to be evil.... which road do you choose?
Andrew Paton of Clinton Church of the Nazarene, born in Africa, has pastored in Hunterdon County since 1997. Before that he ministered in Durban and Bedfordview, South Africa and prior to that was an officer in The Salvation Army. He has been in full time Christian leadership since 1975. He and his wife Carol have two married sons and five grandchildren.
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