Pius XII’s actions spoke louder than words

  • June 28, 2011

The conduct of Pope Pius XII during the Second World War, specifically in regard to Jews and the Shoah, has been a bone in the throat of Catholic-Jewish relations for some time now. Recent developments may point, however tentatively, to the possibility of a way forward.

In late June, the Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, Mordechay Lewy, made a remarkable statement in the course of the ceremony in which Fr. Gaetano Piccini was named “Righteous among the Gentiles” — a designation given to those who were heroic in saving Jews during the Shoah. Ambassador Lewy noted that after the Nazis rounded up Jews in Rome in October 1943 for deportation to the death camps, Catholic convents and monasteries opened their doors to shelter Jews — something risky and dangerous under Nazi occupation.

“There is reason to believe that this happened under the supervision of the highest Vatican officials, who were informed about what was going on,” he said. “So it would be a mistake to say that the Catholic Church, the Vatican and the pope himself opposed actions to save the Jews. To the contrary, the opposite is true.”

Lewy added that the fact that the Vatican couldn’t stop the deportation of Jews from Rome’s ghetto on Oct. 16-18, 1943 “only increased the will, on the part of the Vatican, to offer its own sites as refuges for the Jews.”

Those sites included the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, where Jews were given refuge. The private papal apartment was turned into a nursery, and several dozen babies were born in what was, in effect, the bedroom of Pope Pius XII. So the Israeli ambassador was clearly right to observe that all this could not have happened without the authorization and encouragement of Pius XII.

Indeed, for this reason Pope Benedict XVI robustly defended Pius XII last year, saying that Pius was “one of the great righteous men and that he saved more Jews than anyone else.”

Most Jewish organizations throughout the world take a contrary view, saying that Pius XII remained silent and indifferent in the face of the Shoah. A minority view, but not insignificant, hold that Pius XII was actually complicit, or at least facilitated, the Shoah.

So it was remarkable for a senior Israeli official to praise Pope Pius XII. The remarks garnered immediate global attention, causing Lewy to further explain himself two days later.

“I am aware this is going to raise some eyebrows in the Rome Jewish community but this refers to saving Jews, which Pius did, and does not refer to talking about Jews, which he did not do and which Jews were expecting from him,” Levy said.

The blowback from Jewish voices was immediate and intense. So much so another two days later, Ambassador Lewy partially withdrew his remarks.

“Given the fact that this context is still the subject of ongoing and future research, passing my personal historical judgment on it was premature,” he said in a statement.

Nevertheless, the exchange advanced the possibility of lowering the temperature of the Pius controversy. It is no longer in any doubt that Jews in Rome and in Italy were sheltered in large numbers by Catholic institutions. That this could have gone on, under Nazi occupation, without the direction of the Holy See is not possible. So it is true what Benedict XVI has said about Pius XII — his directions likely saved more Jews than anyone else.

Lewy’s formulation — praise for what Pius did, but questions about what Pius said — acknowledges this, while still keeping open for discussion the question of Pius’ public interventions. Critics say that had Pius delivered a fulsome and explicit condemnation of the Shoah, it might have saved more Jews, or at least given them comfort. Defenders counter that Pius spoke clearly, if diplomatically, against attacks on Jews, and anything more forceful would have lead to fearsome reprisals against both Jews and Catholics, causing more Jews to be killed.

That is ground on which disagreements can be had and discussed civilly. If the accusation is that Pius XII was a moral coward or worse, a moral monster, the only possible response is that the critics are guilty of a grotesque slander. Such an exchange only hardens positions. Yet if the accusation is that while acting as best as he could privately, Pius ought to have done more with his public voice, then a reasonable disagreement can be had about the prudence of the path he chose.

The longstanding tension over Pope Pius XII will not be resolved soon, but these comments are a step — a small step, but a hopeful step — that the frozen positions may well begin to thaw.

(Fr. de Souza is the pastor of Sacred Heart of Mary parish on Wolfe Island and chaplain at Newman House at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ont.)

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