Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust: The Real Lessons

Sean O’Conaill  © The Irish Times 1999

The issue of Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust just won’t go away. Seán O’Conaill believes the central question is about the Papacy itself.

“Hitler’s Pope” is so obvious a book title that sooner or later some opportunistic publisher was bound to use it and, predictably, the debate that has followed the publication of John Cornwell’s book is confused and partisan. Once more Pius XII becomes both villain and victim, depending upon which side you take.

However, the debate has again tended to focus on human judgment rather than the question of principle. Owen Chadwick argues in the Tablet that Cornwell exaggerates the ‘power’ of Pacelli/Pius XII throughout the period of both World Wars. He points out that Nazi brutality was deliberately directed against the dioceses of the more anti-Nazi bishops of Germany.

Others will repeat exactly the same point in the context of the Holocaust. Dutch Catholics suffered far more in the aftermath of a forthright condemnation of Nazism by their own bishops. Richard McBrien, for the prosecution, demurs: a more forthright condemnation from the Vicar of Christ, the head of the world’s largest religious organisation, would have given Berlin pause for thought. Just as John Paul’s dangerous policy of support for the Polish Solidarity movement helped undermine global communism.

Common to both sides of the debate is a belief that Pius XII’s primary responsibility was for the physical safety of his own flock. If he underestimated his “power” and overestimated the likely Nazi reaction to a forthright condemnation of the Holocaust he is to be condemned. If he was “powerless” to halt the Holocaust, and would have provoked a new Holocaust of Catholics by such a condemnation, he must be applauded for better judgment than his detractors.

For both sides, it would appear, the basic question was a matter of political judgment: whether Pius XII’s explicit condemnation of an ongoing genocide, in which many Catholics in Nazi-held Europe were actively involved, would have done more “harm” than “good”. And these concepts are implicitly defined in secular rather than spiritual terms. “Good” is the absence of physical pain and death. “Harm” is its opposite. In 1942 it was Auschwitz, history’s closest analogy to hell itself.

But the Papacy titles itself the Vicarship of Christ, and calls the church the mystical body of Christ. There is in the heart of this terminology a claim that Catholicism embodies the spirit of self-sacrifice that led Jesus to crucifixion rather than worldly survival and triumph. There is also the claim that the Papacy in particular symbolises this ethic. If the Papacy’s and the church’s bottom line is their own physical survival, how then are they to live the moral claim they make? Can a self-sacrificing God be witnessed to by a mystical body that defines good and evil in secular terms, and which chooses survival before self-endangerment?

It may be said: “But the church must survive in order to bring the message of salvation to future generations”. But what message is brought if the historical record shows that the infallible church was, in history’s deepest moment, unable to live that message?

Christianity is rejected in the West today not because it is not a beautiful ideal, but because most do not believe it can be lived. The Papacy itself in 1942-1945, and the debate that currently rages, implicitly underwrite this wisdom.

Of course, we are to some extent saved by those Catholics who, on their own initiative, did indeed embody the spirit of self-sacrifice. Maximilian Kolbe is the archetypal example chosen by the Papacy itself. He offered to take the place of a Jewish father picked for execution.

The pope at Christmas 1942 could have made the same offer.

The Papacy surely cannot simultaneously claim both the moral sovereignty due to Christ and the right to run away from crucifixion. When it does so it leaves the whole church, for which it claims to speak, open to a charge of fundamental hypocrisy.

I deliberately speak of the Papacy rather than of Pius XII because, as Cornwell’s book clearly shows, Pius XII was the ideal servant of an ideology of the Papacy. That ideology insists that a strong church demands the centralisation of authority.

But the record shows that this arch-centralist was, to a significant degree, morally paralysed by the Holocaust as was much of the church he led. This was precisely because he felt responsible for the whole church and because most Catholics were (and still are) trained to wait upon the Pope.

When Pius XII is defended in terms of his own inability to influence the behaviour of European Christians and Catholics in history’s greatest spiritual crisis then papalism itself is admitted to be spiritually sterile.

Papal authority, it is argued, simply cannot exist in such a crisis, the very moment when a spiritual leadership is most required. That is the central truth to be learned from that terrible time.

But those who wish to canonise Pius XII are determined to ignore that truth, even though their own defence of him, and of the institution he served, is founded on an insistence that he was, in that desperate situation, impotent. Where does faith in God come into that?

Thus the gibe of “cafeteria Catholicism”, so often used by papalist Catholics against their opponents, comes truly home to roost. Catholicism in 1942, as represented by the Papacy, chose physical survival before self-endangerment, and in so doing left to isolated individuals the burden of proving that followers of Christ must expect, sometimes, to have to follow him into the tomb.

That is the unacknowledged backdrop to the millennium, this Gethsemane of every pope who, starting with Peter, dodges the crucifixion. It counsels not the canonisation of popes, but humility and penitence, and a decentralisation of initiative. We Catholics will only grow up when we are taught that, in the end, like Kolbe, we may be called upon to stand alone for the truth, because the Papacy (for whatever reason) cannot be expected to do so.

When the Papacy rises to the challenge of teaching us this explicitly, rising above the self-indulgent jingoism of canonising the last pope who proved it, then alone will it become worthy of some of its less grandiose self-entitlements. In the meantime it will merely go on excusing Pius XII by removing from his shoulders the ultimate moral and spiritual obligation that must surely accompany the exclusive title “Vicar of Christ”.

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