A portrait of Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who became Pope Pius XII, is seen at St. Ignatius Jesuit Retreat House in Manhasset, N.Y. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

Wicked slander against Pius XII

  • March 6, 2012

Recently on my Sun News television show, The Arena, I interviewed a man called Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. He is best known for being Michael Jackson’s spiritual adviser, for writing a book called Kosher Sex and for aggressivly promoting himself.

Mea Culpa — I should never have had him on my show. The discussion became heated and gained enormous publicity, mainly due to the man’s apparent obsession with me and what I said. Most of this is irrelevant, but one thing does deserve to be discussed. Boteach stated that Pope Pius XII was “One of the most wicked men of the 20th century.”

That the person who said this is not to be taken seriously is not the point. This view, or certainly a less extreme form of it, is sadly common. It is wrong, damaging and horribly unjust. I have written and spoken about this issue extensively, but if anybody is looking for a single volume I strongly recommend a book by a credible and admired rabbi, David G. Dalin, entitled The Myth of Hitler’s Pope.

A few facts to understand and remember: Cardinal Pacelli, the future Pius XII, drafted the papal encyclical condemning Nazi racism and had it read from every pulpit; the Vatican used its assets to ransom Jews from the Nazis, ran an elaborate escape route and hid Jewish families in Castel Gandolfo; the World Jewish Congress donated a great deal of money to the Vatican in gratitude, and in 1945 Rabbi Herzog of Jerusalem thanked Pope Pius “for his life-saving efforts on behalf of the Jews during the occupation of Italy.”

In Israel the feeling was just as strong. When Pius XII died in 1958 Golda Meir, then Israeli Foreign Minister, delivered a moving, heartfelt eulogy praising and thanking the pontiff for his work for the Jewish people. Indeed until the 1960s few people doubted that the pope and the Catholic Church had been on the side of light in those terrible years of war.

It was only after German author Rolf Hochhuth wrote his play The Deputy that attitudes began to change. He alleged that the Vatican collaborated with the Nazis. What is seldom mentioned is that Hochhuth defended Holocaust denier David Irving, and has been accused in Germany of anti-Semitism. This, however, was the 1960s, with its fetish for anti-establishment rhetoric and, within Catholicism, a certain post-Vatican II ambivalence and reluctance to defend the Church against fashionable accusations.

It’s true that the Pope did not issue the outright attack on the Nazis that some in the Church wanted, but this has to be considered in the light of hundreds of millions of Catholics living under Nazi rule. Also, and this is deeply significant, when the Dutch bishops made a public statement condemning Nazi anti-Semitism, the Germans responded by arresting and murdering every Dutch Jewish convert to Catholicism they could find. The group included Edith Stein, who was dragged from her convent to the slaughterhouse of Auschwitz. She was gassed in August 1942.

Hundreds of thousands of Catholic religious and lay people risked their lives and sometimes gave them to help the Jewish victims of Nazism, and to a very large extent their sacrifices have gone uncelebrated, even ignored. But not by all. Joseph Nathan, speaking for the Hebrew Commission, said at the end of the war, “Above all, we acknowledge the Supreme Pontiff and the religious men and women who, executing the directives of the Holy Father, recognized the persecuted of their brothers and, with great abnegation, hastened to help them, disregarding the terrible dangers to which they were exposed.”

And there is another who has also been targeted for attack and libel. His name is Israel Zolli and he was the Chief Rabbi of Rome. In 1945 he became a Roman Catholic and part of his conversion was based on his admiration for Pius’ sheltering and saving of Italian Jews. A free and civilized society must allow and respect religious conversion, but this poor man has been victimized, just as has Pope Pius XII.

The truth remains the truth however, but some truths can be more painful and controversial than others.