New book continues dispute about Pius XII's wartime acts

Pope was anti-Semite, Catholic author writes

September 26, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Those who knew Eugenio Pacelli describe him as a man of asceticism, piety and humility.

Such is the Vatican's confidence in the saintliness of the man who as Pope Pius XII presided over the Roman Catholic Church during the Second World War that the process of his beatification is nearing completion.

But a book by British author John Cornwell paints quite a different picture.

In "Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII," Cornwell, a practicing Catholic, depicts Pius as a man with "a secret antipathy toward the Jews" who was silent during the Holocaust.

"That failure to utter a candid word about the Final Solution in progress proclaimed to the world that the Vicar of Christ was not moved to pity or anger," Cornwell writes. "From this point of view he was the ideal Pope for Hitler's unspeakable plan. He was Hitler's pawn. He was Hitler's Pope."

Cornwell says he has previously undiscovered proof of Pius XII's anti-Semitism and criticizes the pope for negotiating a pact with the Third Reich that curtailed Catholic political activity -- a force that might have opposed the Nazis.

Vatican criticism

Not surprisingly, the book has drawn a barrage of criticism from Vatican theologians.

"It is not an historical work," said the Rev. Pierre Blet, a French Jesuit and author of the new "Pius XII and the Second World War according to the Archives of the Vatican."

"You could find some details [to criticize Pius], but the whole conception is completely wrong. [Cornwell] is not an historian, it is clear," he said.

The Rev. Peter Gumpel, a German Jesuit who is a Vatican supervising judge of Pius XII's canonization, called Cornwell's book "a moral lynching" and "a nasty caricature of a noble and saintly man."

"Mr. Cornwell can say whatever he wants, but no serious scholar will take it seriously," said Gumpel, who provided the author with access to depositions taken 30 years ago for Pius XII's beatification.

Cornwell's latest work has attracted some praise.

Cambridge University church historian Eamon Duffy wrote that "Cornwell's gripping and impassioned book presents an indictment that cannot be ignored."

Rabbi Marvin J. Heir, dean of the Simon Weisenthal Center in Los Angeles and a vocal opponent of Pius XII's beatification, called the book "startling."

"Cornwell was shown documents that none of us ever saw, because the Vatican archives are closed to all except people who are considered, quote unquote, trustworthy," Weir said.

Few questions raised

Few questions were raised about Pius' courage or morality during his papacy or immediately after it.

As the Vatican points out, many Jewish leaders sent telegrams of condolence on his death in 1958.

Those leaders included future Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir: "We share in the grief of humanity. When fearful martyrdom came to our people, the voice of the pope was raised for its victims."

The first widely circulated work that criticized Pius' wartime actions was the 1963 play "The Deputy," by German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, which portrayed the pope as a cynic who was more interested in Vatican riches than the plight of the Jews.

"That play by Hochhuth provoked a tendency in the culture to reread what happened," said Cardinal William H. Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore, who was a seminarian and a young priest in Rome toward the end of Pius' reign. "But it's a tendency that doesn't correspond to the facts."

Heightened debate

The debate over the papacy of Pius XII has heightened in recent years, with works being written both in support and in condemnation of him.

Cornwell, who wrote a favorably received 1989 book, "A Thief in the Night," debunking conspiracy theories about the untimely death of Pope John Paul I, had heard the criticisms and says he set out at first to defend Pius XII.

"This was something I'd always suspected was a mistake," Cornwell said in a telephone interview from his home in England. "I felt that history had given him a bad deal."

After extensive reading of materials on Pius' life, Cornwell went to Rome in early 1997 to begin research on some primary documents, namely the depositions taken for Pius' beatification, and the archives of the Vatican Secretariat of State.

It was at the latter that he found what he calls his "bombshells."

The first was a letter written in 1917 by Pius, then papal nuncio in Munich, Germany, refusing to help Jews import palm fronds for the Feast of Tabernacles.

The other letter, written in 1919, describes the dealings of Pacelli's aide with a group of Communists who led an uprising and installed a brief socialist republic in Munich. In the letter, Pacelli repeatedly states that the revolutionaries are Jewish and seems to be disgusted by their personal habits and hygiene.

"The description of them as Jews is punctuated by epithets as to their physical and moral status, which is associated with them being Jews," Cornwell said.

Cornwell describes being "morally shocked" by his discovery.

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