The Holocaust and the Catholic Church

Some in the Vatican want to make Pius XII a saint. If they succeed, "the Church will have sealed its second millennium with a lie"

It is appropriate that, as the Second Millennium of Christianity draws to a close"—this is John Paul II, in his 1994 apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente—"the Church should become more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children," recalling all those times in history when they "indulged in ways of thinking and acting which were truly forms of counterwitness and scandal." The sinful "children" of the Church, spokesmen insist, can include its leaders, even bishops and popes. Yet when the long-awaited Vatican document examining the record of the Church in relation to the Holocaust, We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, was published last year, it singled out for special praise "the wisdom of Pope Pius XII's diplomacy." This seemed to be a direct rebuttal to an oft-raised criticism of the wartime Pope, whose "silence" in the face of the Jewish genocide had become for many an emblem of the Church's own "counterwitness and scandal." The Vatican pronouncement came as reports surfaced that the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints was preparing to advance the cause of Pius XII toward sainthood. At the end of the millennium Pope John Paul II, in the words of an observer writing in the periodical Inside the Vatican, "is preparing, not to denounce Pius, but to canonize him."

The process of canonization is secret, and there is no official word that Pius XII is about to be beatified, the penultimate step toward sainthood. But it seems to signal something that his positive prospects are being openly discussed—even by the Vatican official in charge of promoting his cause. If Pius XII were to be named a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, more than the restoration of his reputation would result. His policy of silence about Nazi atrocities would be justified. He would be credited with the secret rescue of Jews that was carried out by many individual Catholics across Europe. (We Remember honors Pius XII for what he "did personally or through his representatives to save hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives.") By extension, Hitler's hatred of Jews would be defined as rooted in "neo-pagan" atheism, not in Christianity. The Catholic Church, and the Vatican in particular, would be listed as among Hitler's mortal enemies, and exonerated from charges of at least passive collaboration in Nazi crimes. The Church's sinlessness would be confirmed. The papal absolutism of which Pius XII was the avatar, and which faltered under John XXIII and Paul VI, would be vindicated as John Paul II's lasting legacy. If Pius XII were to be named a saint, in other words, the Catholic Church could enter the new millennium with its timeless claim to moral transcendence intact.

In this context the arrival of the first serious and complete biography of Eugenio Pacelli, Pius XII, could not be more timely. Its author, John Cornwell, a contributor to Britain's distinguished Catholic publication The Tablet, embarked on the project, as he says in the preface, "convinced that if his full story were told, Pius XII's pontificate, and the Catholic Church, would be vindicated." Cornwell, it seems, is a conventional Roman Catholic with an instinctive wish to defend the Church from accusations of malfeasance and worse regarding the twentieth-century fate of the Jews. As such, he says, he gained access to heretofore unavailable sources within the Vatican—documents from the Secretariat of State and, especially, sworn depositions gathered decades ago in the early stages of Pius XII's promotion to sainthood. "By the middle of 1997, nearing the end of my research," he writes, "I found myself in a state I can only describe as moral shock. The material I had gathered, taking the more extensive view of Pacelli's life, amounted not to an exoneration but to a wider indictment."

That indictment is made explicit in the title Cornwell has given his book: Hitler's Pope. His criticism, rooted in a painstaking examination of Pacelli's record as the Vatican's point man in dealing with the rise of Hitler in the 1930s and of his maneuvering as Pius XII during the war years, is a devastating refutation of the claim that this Pope's diplomacy can in any way be characterized as wisdom. Instead of a portrait of a man worthy of sainthood, Cornwell lays out the story of a narcissistic, power-hungry manipulator who was prepared to lie, to appease, and to collaborate in order to accomplish his ecclesiastical purpose—which was not to save lives or even to protect the Catholic Church but, more narrowly, to protect and advance the power of the papacy. Pacelli's personal history, his character, and his obsession with Vatican prerogatives combined at the crucial hour to make him "the ideal Pope for Hitler's unspeakable plan," Cornwell writes. "He was Hitler's pawn. He was Hitler's Pope."

The young priest Eugenio Pacelli was trained not as a theologian but as a canon lawyer. He was ordained in 1899 and appointed to the Vatican bureaucracy in 1901, during the pontificate of Leo XIII, who is remembered as a social liberal (his 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum was read as an endorsement of the labor movement) but who ruled the Church as a rigid authoritarian. To Leo XIII the Church was "a perfect society," and the Vatican was to be the living embodiment of that perfection. In his vision, the papacy would not only exert spiritual sovereignty over the religious lives of Catholics but also control Church activities in every nation—from the licensing of schools to the appointment of bishops. Such a vision required nation-states to relate to the Church through the Vatican rather than through local institutions.

Leo died in 1903, and was succeeded by Pius X, whom no one would mistake for a liberal. Famous for his condemnation of "modernism," Pius X continued the program of centralizing Church authority in an absolutist papacy. Two strategies served him well in this. One was the Oath Against Modernism, which every candidate for ordination in the world was thenceforth required to swear (it was still in force when I was ordained, in the late 1960s), and the other was a new Code of Canon Law, which would give the Pope unprecedented power over every aspect of Church life. Pacelli was one of two Vatican priests who spent more than a decade developing the code, which was finally promulgated in 1917. As Cornwell points out, Canon 218 defines the Pope's authority as "the supreme and most complete jurisdiction throughout the Church, both in matters of faith and morals and in those that affect discipline and Church government throughout the world."

In Europe, where the structures of Church and State were traditionally intermingled, with much overlap of political and religious authority (those schools, the appointment of those bishops), the implementation of this new Code of Canon Law required the cooperation of governments, which led to Pacelli's next assignment. The task of negotiating treaties—concordats—that recognized the freshly claimed prerogatives of the papacy fell to him. His first success, concluded in 1914, before the code was formally published, was in Serbia, where he negotiated a concordat that served the Pope's purposes but undercut the Catholic hierarchy in Austria. "The treaty implied the abrogation," Cornwell explains, "of the ancient protectorate rights of the Austro-Hungarian Empire over the Catholic enclave in Serbian territory." This change in Church-State relations effectively supported Serbia's political effort to move away from Austrian dominance. The concordat was signed on June 24, 1914. Four days later Archduke Franz Ferdinand, of Austria, was assassinated by an independence-minded Serb in Sarajevo. Cornwell comments,

The emotions prompted by the Serbian Concordat became part of the general groundswell of anti-Serbian anger.... There is no indication that Pacelli questioned the dangerous implications of the Serbian negotiations after the event. From this point of view, the episode marks the ominous beginning of Pacelli's pattern of aloofness from the far-reaching political consequences of his diplomatic actions on behalf of the Pope.
Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus