...but let's not make Pope Pius XII a villain

March 24, 1998|By Joseph Gallagher

GIVEN that the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church are not famous for public self- criticism, the recent Vatican statement of repentance for the spiritual failure of its members in the face of the Holocaust is an astonishment for which humane people can only be grateful.

Given that the Holocaust was such an unspeakable horror, it is not surprising that some Jewish leaders have found it wanting. But considering the terrors of half a century ago, almost anything said or done today would be too little and too late. But few Catholics now living could have done anything about the Holocaust, and in terms of practicality, it is the future that counts.

The Vatican document rightly admits that the New Testament itself, though most likely written by Christians with a Jewish background, has been and can still be a source of poisonous anti-Semitism. (Even the angry prophets of the Old Testament spoke fiercely and probably unfairly against their own people.)

The Vatican document rightly confesses that the history of Christian-Jewish relations has been a "tormented mostly negative" one. That history illustrates one of the most tragic instances of sibling rivalry in history.

Pope Pius XII, who died 40 years ago this year, appears in the Vatican document and in statements of disappointment about it. One can reasonably lament that he did not publicly attack Hitler and conclude that he made a terrible mistake by not doing so. But it would be grossly unfair to assert that he did not care about the Jews or, even worse, was pro-Nazi. In 1939, the Berlin Morgenpost declared, "The election of Cardinal Pacelli [Pius XII] is not accepted with favor in Germany because he was always opposed to Nazism."

A misunderstood pope

I personally believe that this uniquely burdened pope was motivated by the hope of being a mediator who could shorten the war and by the fear of making matters even worse for Jews -- not to mention Catholics. The Nazis imprisoned some 3,000 priests; more than 1,000 of these perished, and the Nazis exterminated almost two non-Jewish civilians for every Jew.

NTC Recently, a leading rabbi in Israel claimed that the "silence of Pius XII cost millions of lives." Thirty-five years ago, however, Denmark's chief rabbi declared of Hitler, "I think there is a misunderstanding if anyone believes that Pope Pius XII could have exerted any influence upon the brain of an insane man." And when Pius XII died, Israel's then-Foreign Minister Golda Meir said, "When fearful martyrdom came to our people the voice of the pope was raised for the victims."

In his first Christmas message (1939), shortly after the war began, Pius XII condemned "atrocities against noncombatants, refugees, old people, women and children acts which cry for the vengeance of God." Editorializing on his 1941 Christmas message, the New York Times wrote: "The voice of Pius XII is a lonely voice in the silence [!] and darkness enveloping Europe he about the only ruler left on the continent of Europe who dares to raise his voice at all the Pope squarely sets himself against Hitlerism."

Two years later, he affirmed that "hundreds of thousands of persons, through no fault of their own, have been condemned to death or to gradual extinction." The German ambassador to the Holy See wrote, "Here he is clearly speaking on behalf of the Jews." The New York Times once again editorialized: "This Christmas more than ever the Pope is a lonely voice crying out of the silence [!] of a continent." (This was the same amnesiac paper which in 1963, when the anti-Pius play "The Deputy" was getting world attention, penned an editorial against the "silence" of Pius XII.)

Fostering better relations

There should be no historical doubt, however, about the magnificent leadership of Pope John Paul II in the matter of Catholic-Jewish relations. He has lived in the spirit of the old rabbi who asked his students when you could tell that night was over. They gave various practical suggestions. But he rejected them all, saying, "It's when you can look on the face of any human being and see the face of a brother or sister. Because if you can't, it's still night, no matter what time it is."

The Rev. Joseph Gallagher is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Pub Date: 3/24/98

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