Among the most heated debates of the last 40 years has been the debate over Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust. What did he do when the greatest evil of his day engulfed Christian Europe? Was he “Hitler’s Pope,” as the name of a widely read book about him charged? Was he too reticent in speaking out against Nazism and the Nazi extermination of Europe’s Jews? Was he perhaps even a Nazi sympathizer? Or was he in fact a great friend of Europe’s Jews who did whatever he could to save tens of thousands of Jews, especially in Italy, opening up the doors of Church institutions to hide Jews?
It is not my aim here to offer an answer to that debate. But the attacks on Pope Benedict XVI may help shed new light on some of the motives for the attacks on Pius XII. It is true that we have always known that most, if not all, of Pius’s critics were/are on the political/religious Left. But this no more discredited their critiques of Pius than the fact that the vast majority of Pius’s defenders were on the political/religious Right discredited their defense.
But recently the critics have lost credibility. If the same people who attack Pope Pius XII for his silence regarding the greatest evil of his time are largely the same people who attack Pope Benedict XVI for confronting the greatest evil of his time, maybe it isn’t a pope’s confronting evil that concerns Pius’s critics, but simply defaming the Church.
After all, has not Benedict done precisely what Pius’s critics argue that Pius, and presumably any pope, should have done—be a courageous moral voice and condemn the greatest evil and greatest manifestation of anti-Semitism of his time?
Take The New York Times editorial page, for example. It is written by people who condemn Pius for his alleged silence and now condemn Benedict for not being quiet. According to the Times, Benedict will only create more anti-Western Muslim violence. But that was exactly the excuse defenders of Pius XII so often offered for why Pius XII did not speak out more forcefully—that he was afraid it would only engender more Nazi violence. Yet Pius’s critics have (correctly) dismissed that excuse out of hand.
Another example is Karen Armstrong, the widely read ex-nun scholar of religion. She has written of Pius XII that his “apparent failure to condemn the Nazis has become a notorious scandal.” Moral and logical consistency suggest that she would welcome a pope who did confront today’s greatest evil. But she has joined those condemning Pope Benedict. She wrote (putting these arguments in the mouths of affronted Muslims with whom she sympathizes): “the Catholic Church is ill-placed to condemn violent jihad when it has itself . . . under Pope Pius XII, tacitly condoned the Nazi Holocaust.”
The argument is so illogical that only those who attended graduate school or Catholicism-bashers could find it persuasive. First, how do you condemn the silence of one pope when confronted with the greatest evil of his time and condemn another pope when confronting the greatest evil of his time? Second, if indeed the Church is guilty of condoning evil in the past, why does that render it “hypocritical” (her term for Benedict’s condemnation of Islamic violence in God’s name) to confront evil in the present? If my grandfather was a murderer, am I a hypocrite for condemning murder?
And as expected, the author of the above-mentioned critique of Pius XII, “Hitler’s Pope,” John Cornwall, has also condemned Pope Benedict, describing the pope’s words about Muhammad and Islamic violence as “incendiary” and “abrasive” (presumably calling Pius XII “Hitler’s Pope” is neither incendiary nor abrasive); and writing disparagingly of Benedict “having said that dialogue with Islam was difficult.”
The pope could have chosen a better way to warn about Islamic violence in God’s name than by citing a Byzantine emperor’s sweeping indictment of Muhammad and Islam. But he had the courage to do precisely what the critics of Pius XII bitterly complain Pius XII did not do—use the power of religion and the prestige of the papacy to focus the world’s attention on the greatest evil and greatest outburst of Jew-hatred since the Holocaust.
I have followed the arguments surrounding Pius XII and his behavior during the Holocaust all my life, and as a newly appointed member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, I particularly feel the need to attain clarity on this issue. But the condemnations of Pope Benedict by virtually every major critic of Pius XII lead me to wonder whether the critics really want popes to confront evil or just want popes to think like they do.
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