Canonization of Pope Pius XII?

Benedict XVI and Pius XII


by Richard Prasquier, President of CRIF (Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France)

The press has reported on statements of Pope Benedict XVI in a forthcoming book on the subject of his predecessor at the time of the 2nd World War, Pius XII. Recall that last year the Pope had signed a decree establishing the "heroic virtues" of Pius XII, the first step toward beatification, but the procedure had not been pursued.

Benedict XVI has presented in this book Pius XII as a great and fair man, the man who during the war was responsible for saving the greatest number of Jews. This sentence is astounding. It cannot be accepted by historians today. It is true that it reprises the very old claim of an Israeli diplomat of the 1950s, Pinchas Lapide, and the enthusiastic comments of Golda Meir, who was not a historian. This view has been put forward by some clerics who have had, and only they, access to Vatican archives for that period. These men venerate Pius XII, the last Pope to have exercised his pontificate with all the glory and the pomp of a bygone era, before Vatican II. They seek, perhaps for theological reasons, to honor his character and are tireless promoters of his beatification.

If we stick to what we know about the history (and many historians have written high quality texts on the subject since Saul Friedlander in 1966), there was no evidence of an organized action of Pius XII protect the persecuted Jews. Certainly he was not the pro-Nazi Pope that has been described in some books. He knew, as editor of the encyclical "Mit Brennender Sorge " at the time of Pius XI, the incompatibility of racist Nazism with Christianity. Certainly, many Jews (in the Nazi sense of the term), including the Rabbi of Rome who later converted to Christianity, were sheltered inside the Vatican, undoubtedly with its agreement: most were also Christian. During the roundup in Rome, many Jews were hidden in the convents of the city, thanks to the organization Delasem and the wonderful Father Benedict. But nothing makes it possible to make of the Pope the orchestrator of these heroic rescue operations. Or then, it would also be necessary to make the opposite claim that many Nazis escaped justice after war (Operation Odessa) because certain monasteries played a paramount role in this escape.  

What is most striking is the timidity of speech of Pius XII in the face of the tragedy: the Jews of Rome, present in the city for many centuries, were rounded up, almost in front of his windows, he is silent. When information had come to him earlier of the extermination of millions of Jewish men, women and children in Eastern Europe, he had already remained silent, except for an isolated and ambiguous allusion in his radio message of Christmas 1942 . In addition, he had not protested when thousands of Polish priests were executed by the Germans, who were eager to shatter the leadership of a rebirth or a national resistance. And yet, who would be better informed than he of the extent of the crime through the myriad networks of the Church? Admittedly, he was not alone, neither Roosevelt nor Churchill nor de Gaulle had spoken. But they waged war. One could have expected the Pope to speak, to yell. Would that have served no purpose? Maybe. plus que tout autre. Many of the Righteous gave their lives to witness to the values that Pius XII was supposed to carry out more than any other. Would it put other Catholics in danger? Maybe. But the courageous Mgr von Galen had strongly denounced from the pulpit the assassinations of mentally handicapped persons in spite of the possible reprisals against the Catholic church. Would it have helped the Soviet Union [to protest] while Germany, even though Nazi, could serve as a bulwark of Christian civilization against Marxist atheism? Maybe. But does such a choice, which makes the Jews unimportant collateral damage and finds virtues with Nazism, deserves beatification?

And this is not the only silence. Once the war ended, when Pius XII has paradoxically become an absolute icon, he still does not speak. It’s as if he had never concluded that the extermination of six million Jews in the heart of Christian Europe deserved his thinking, his word and his moral guidance. And yet what were the risks of speaking once the war ended? To indirectly give arguments to communism? But that was worthy of a Machiavellian politician on a small scale, not the Pope.

Yes, we believe that the radical transformation of relations and mutual regard between Jews and Christians in the wake of Vatican II is a magnificent event of the twentieth century, and we cherish the friendship that has developed between one another. Yes, we know that Pope Benedict XVI is as committed as much as his predecessor John Paul II and he deeply rejects anti-Judaism and antisemitism. But with the deep sense of respect that we owe to the Pope, we say that history does not correspond to the words he has uttered in his recent book. Pius XII was not the greatest of the Righteous. We are the first to regret it.