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What the "Silent Pope" Said By: Dimitri Cavalli
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, May 26, 2009

It was inevitable that the controversy over Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) surfaced during Pope Benedict XVI's trip to Israel. Some Jewish leaders and Israeli officials thought Pope Benedict should have finally apologized for Pius XII's "silence" during the Holocaust. What they and other Vatican critics always fail to do is consider what the "silent" pope actually said, and, more importantly, how his statements were interpreted at the time.

For example, on October 27, 1939, Pius XII issued his first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus. On November 1, the Palestine Post, a Jewish newspaper in Jerusalem, described the encyclical as "an oblique condemnation of the spirit of ruthless aggression dear to Nazism," and expressed outrage that it was censored in Germany. In his memoirs, Francios Charles-Roux, the French Republic's Ambassador to the Vatican from 1932 to 1940, recalled that the encyclical condemned "exacerbated nationalism, the idolatry of the state, totalitarianism, racism, the cult of brutal force, contempt of international agreements... all the characteristics of Hitler's political system."

In his 1939 Christmas message, the pope said, "Atrocities and the illegal use of the means of destruction, even against non-combatants... cry for the vengeance of God..." In the same speech, the pope also articulated his conditions for a "just and honorable peace," which included the right to life and independence for all nations, disarmament, the rebuilding of international institutions, recognition of "divine law," and the protection of all racial minorities. In his diary, Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, wrote that the pope's speech was "full of bitter, covert attacks against us, against the Reich and National Socialism. All the forces of internationalism are against us. We must break them."

On March 24, 1940, Pius XII observed that during the war, "the laws which bind civilized people together have been violated; most lamentably, undefended cities, country towns and villages, have been terrorized by bombing, destroyed by fire, and thrown down in ruins. Unarmed citizens, even sickness, helpless old age, and innocent childhood have been turned out of their homes, and often visited with death." In his 1941 Easter message, the pope called on the belligerent powers to respect the rights of all civilians.

On December 25, 1942, the pope condemned the treatment of "hundreds of thousands who without any fault of their own, sometimes only by reason of their nationality or race, are marked down for death or progressive extinction." Both sides understood what the pope was talking about. In his January 20, 1943, letter to Msgr. Arthur Hughes, the apostolic delegate in Egypt, Chaim Barlas, the representative of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, wrote, "The highly humanitarian attitude of His Saintety [sic] expressing His indignation against racial persecutions was a source of moral comfort for our brethren." Two days later, a report by Germany's Reich Central Security Office complained: "In a manner never known before, the Pope has repudiated the National Socialist New European Order.... Here he is virtually accusing the German people of injustice towards the Jews, and makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals." If Pius XII was "silent" in the literal sense of the word, then how did Barlas and the Reich Central Security Office reach these conclusions?
Besides speaking out, Pope Pius XII also took direct action. In 1940, he acted as an intermediary between a group of German generals who wanted to overthrow Adolf Hitler and the British government. In a surprise move in 1941, he allowed American Catholics to support the extension of military aid to the Soviet Union. On the pope's orders, the Vatican's diplomatic representatives in many Nazi-occupied and Axis countries frequently assisted many endangered Jews. In Rome, Vatican protests stopped the Nazi roundup of Jews in October 1943, and thousands of Jews found shelter in Catholic institutions and the Vatican itself.

In the last decade, Pope Pius XII's reputation has been undergoing a serious rehabilitation. In Europe, many scholars have published books that affirm that he opposed the Nazis and helped many Jews and other Nazi victims. Jewish scholars such as Rabbi Dalin and Sir Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill, have also defended him. By contrast, John Cornwell, the British author of the over-hyped book Hitler's Pope (1999), has withdrawn some of his more extreme charges against Pius XII and now admits that Vatican-sponsored initiatives saved many Jews. Although anti-Catholics and Catholic dissidents will no doubt continue to repeat the false allegations against Pius XII in order to discredit the Catholic Church, many people of different faiths have gradually rediscovered that Pope Pius XII was an extraordinary leader who publicly upheld human rights for all people in the face of great evil and put basic Christian principles into practice by helping to alleviate the suffering of many innocent people.

Dimitri Cavalli is a freelance writer from New York City. He is planning to write a book on Pope Pius XII.

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