Gerald P. Fogarty
Why did Pius XII act as he did?
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Over the last few months, the question of Pope Pius XII’s conduct during World War II has again made the news. At the recent Synod on the Word of God in Rome, Chief Rabbi Cohen of Haifa said that many Jews still believe certain Catholic leaders did not do enough to prevent the Holocaust. On Oct. 9, the 50th anniversary of Pius XII’s death, Benedict XVI endorsed the beatification of the late pontiff. Meanwhile, Abraham Foxman, the U.S. director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, has called for opening the Vatican archives for the war years to ascertain whether, as Benedict stated in October, Pius actually did work secretly to save many Jews.

In fact, there already exists historical evidence to make certain judgments about Pius XII. Researchers can glean much from the archives for Pope Pius XI that were opened in 2003 and 2006, especially in regard to Eugenio Pacelli, the future pope, as secretary of state. Twelve volumes of wartime documents published between 1967 and 1981, together with other national archives and newspapers, provide an additional basis for assessing Pacelli’s behavior during wartime.

Largely because of his 1937 encyclical condemning the racial policies of the Nazi state (Mit Brennender Sorge), Pius XI has often been praised for his boldness on the eve of war. Pius XII, on the other hand, has been condemned for his relative “silence” in the face of Nazi aggression. Pacelli, critics contend, was so fearful of Communism that he sided with Hitler. Yet a close study of Pacelli’s activities as secretary of state and later as pontiff yields a different picture.

A Diplomat’s Dilemma

Eugenio Pacelli was appointed Vatican secretary of state in 1929. He was the first to hold the position after the signing of the Lateran treaties, which established the Vatican City State in order to guarantee the spiritual sovereignty of the pope. The treaties effectively ended the state of siege that had existed between the Holy See and the Kingdom of Italy since 1870. Pacelli had the task of shaping a new direction for Vatican diplomacy, yet he sometimes looked to past solutions to solve the problems he faced. He, for example, trusted concordats, such as the one he negotiated with Nazi Germany in 1933, to guarantee the legal rights of the church. The Nazis violated the agreement as early as the fall of 1933, and consistent violations led Pius XI to issue Mit Brennender Sorge. A few episodes surrounding the drafting and promulgation of this encyclical illustrate Pacelli’s anti-Nazi sentiment.

In November 1936 Pacelli returned from a monthlong tour of the United States that included a visit with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In Rome, he found, the conflict between the German church and the Nazi government had worsened. Early in January 1937, Pacelli summoned five leaders of the German hierarchy to a meeting in Rome. The six prelates developed a statement listing grievances against the Nazis and presented it to Pope Pius XI, who then signed it. Because of government restrictions, the nuncio in Berlin, Archbishop Cesare Orsenigo, had the encyclical distributed by courier and read from the pulpits of German Catholic parishes on Palm Sunday 1937. The German police confiscated as many copies as they could and called it “high treason.” In the end, the encyclical had little positive effect, and if anything only exacerbated the crisis. The American ambassador reported that it “had helped the Catholic Church in Germany very little but on the contrary has provoked the Nazi state...to continue its oblique assault upon Catholic institutions.”

The encyclical also occasioned the renewal of show trials against Catholic school teachers for supposed violations of morality. The Concordat of 1933 guaranteed the church’s right to educate, but by bringing these charges against Catholic educators, the Nazis sought to prove that the church itself was in violation of the terms of the agreement.

Cardinal George Mundelein of Chicago made the Nazi attacks on the German church the topic of his address to his clergy in May 1937. He wondered how “a nation of 60,000,000 people, intelligent people...will submit in fear and servitude to an alien, an Austrian paperhanger, and a poor one at that I am told.” The cardinal’s office released the full text to the press, which broadcast it around the world. Upon learning of the speech, Pacelli asked the apostolic delegate to the United States for a copy of the “courageous declaration.” The German ambassador to the Holy See demanded that Mundelein be reprimanded for his attack on the German head of state. Instead, Pacelli, together with the cardinals who comprised the Vatican’s advisory group on foreign relations, stood by Mundelein’s right to freedom of speech in his diocese and informed the German embassy that the problem arose from the Nazi persecution of the church. The Mundelein episode, however, provided the German government with another excuse for further attacks on the church.

Pacelli and the Anschluss

Pacelli’s handling of the case of Cardinal Theodor Innitzer of Vienna is a further illustration of his anti-Nazi feelings. In March 1938 Innitzer embraced the Nazis’ entry into Austria and led the hierarchy in urging Austrian Catholics to vote for the Anschluss. The nuncio to Vienna, Archbishop Gaetano Cicognani, the brother of the apostolic delegate to the American hierarchy, informed the American embassy that the Vatican did not support Innitzer’s position. According to the nuncio, Innitzer had undermined the German bishops in their opposition to Nazism. In the name of the pope, Pacelli summoned Innitzer to Rome for a meeting. Arriving in the evening of April 5, Innitzer had a long meeting with Pacelli that journalists described as a “stormy session.” The next day, the Austrian met with the pope, who treated him more gently as a wayward son. Innitzer then issued a new statement basically retracting his earlier one and upholding the rights of the church. His penance did not last long: when he returned to Vienna he flew the swastika over his cathedral. By the following fall, however, Innitzer had broken with the Nazis and became an object of their attacks.

In the meantime, Pacelli sent a memorandum to Joseph P. Kennedy, then ambassador to the United Kingdom, whom the cardinal had met during his American visit, to say that Innitzer had originally spoken without the Vatican’s knowledge or approval and had now issued a new statement, which was enclosed. Pacelli asked Kennedy to pass the information on to Roosevelt, as Charles Gallagher, S.J., wrote in America (9/1/2003). Kennedy also had the document sent to the State Department, which published it in Foreign Relations of the United States in 1955.

Aside from archival documents, there are other indications of Pacelli’s aversion to the Nazi agenda. In May 1937, when the Mundelein affair had just begun, U.S. Ambassador William Phillips met Pacelli at a dinner arranged by the Irish ambassador to the Holy See. Phillips recorded in his diary how enthusiastic the cardinal was about his trip to the United States and his visit with Roosevelt, but “he talked mostly about his difficulties with Germany. He mentioned that these were growing worse every day and he foresaw the time before long when the entire German people would become ‘pagans.’” Phillips characterized Pacelli as having “great personal charm and is a man of force and character with high spiritual qualities, an ideal man for Pope if he can be elected.” When Pacelli was elected, Phillips opined that his choice of name “is an intimation to the world that he intends to pursue the strong policy of Pius XI.” Phillips’s wife, Caroline, wrote that Pacelli’s election was “to the joy of everyone except perhaps Hitler & the Duce.” Phillips added a further note that he hoped Roosevelt would appoint a representative to the coronation “to show the respect and admiration which all Americans must feel for the new Pope.” In an unprecedented action, Roosevelt appointed Kennedy as the first American representative at a papal coronation. Subsequently, on Dec. 24, 1940, he appointed Myron C. Taylor as his personal representative to the pope, a substitute for formal diplomatic relations.

Reasons for Silence

Pacelli’s years as pope have been the subject of intense scrutiny. Was he silent because of insensitivity to the plight of Jews and other victims of Nazi aggression, such as Polish Catholics? A review of the available historical data points to a different conclusion.

In June 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and Roosevelt immediately announced the extension of Lend Lease to this new victim of aggression. If Catholics supported this policy, did it mean they were cooperating with Communism, which had been condemned in 1937 in Divini Redemptoris? In a radio address from Washington funded by the State Department, Bishop Joseph Hurley of St. Augustine, a former Vatican official, drew the distinction between cooperation with Communism and aid to the “Russian” people. This created some public controversy among the American bishops, but the Vatican ultimately adopted Hurley’s position as its own.

On Dec. 17, 1942, eleven allied nations, including the Soviet Union, condemned the Nazi extermination of Jews. Critics have noted that Pius XII refused to sign the declaration, but they do not mention the reason for his refusal. The cardinal secretary of state, Luigi Maglione, explained that if the Holy See was to maintain its policy of “impartiality,” it would also have to condemn by name the Soviet Union, which had also committed atrocities. In his Christmas allocution a week later, however, the pope called for a postwar reconstruction of society on a Christian basis. To prevent future war, he urged humanity to make a vow to all the victims of the war, including “the hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or to a slow decline.” Many critics have claimed that the pope was so vague that it was not clear that he meant the Jews. Even strong papal supporters like Vincent McCormick, S.J., an American in Rome and former rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University, thought the allocution “much too heavy...& obscurely expressed.” McCormick suggested that the pope should abandon his German tutors and “have an Italian or Frenchman prepare his text.” Harold Tittmann, Myron Taylor’s assistant who resided in the Vatican, also reported that the statement contained vague generalities, but added that the allusion to the Jews was clear enough that the German diplomats boycotted the pope’s midnight Mass.

Pius did have an abstract manner of speaking. In this, he may have been guilty of pope-speak or Vaticanese, the use of which was not unique to him. For example, on Oct. 25, 1962, in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis, John XXIII gave a radio address in which he called on the world’s leaders to negotiate rather than resort to war, but he never mentioned Cuba or Kennedy or Khruschev. Everyone at the time understood the context.

Other documents provide a broader context for understanding the actions of Pius XII. On Feb. 18, 1942, William Donovan, then director of the office of Coordinator of Information, forerunner of the Office of Strategic Services, informed Roosevelt that he had set up a State Department liaison for the Vatican and that Amleto Cicognani, the apostolic delegate, had paid him a long visit and pledged to turn over all information gained through diplomatic channels. Unfortunately, there is no further documentation on this issue, but it would be unlikely that information was transmitted in writing. Another provocative document is Harold Tittmann’s report in June 1945 that Josef Mueller, a leader of German resistance, told him that throughout the war Pius XII had followed the advice of the resistance not to attack Hitler personally because the German propaganda machine would construe it as an attack on the German people.

With this survey, I have attempted not to argue that Pius was not silent in regard to the plight of the Jews and other victims, such as the Poles, but rather to deny that this silence was due to indifference. When he was secretary of state, Pius learned that public protests had little effect on Hitler. As we have seen, the charge that he ever sided with Hitler out of fear of Communism is groundless. Many historians, including this writer, have asked that the Vatican open the Pius XII archives, but I suspect that the archival material will only add more shades of gray to a man who was trying to govern the church during an unprecedented period of inhumanity.

Listen to an interview with Gerald P. Fogarty, S.J.

Gerald P. Fogarty, S.J., holds the Loyola Chair of History at Fordham University in New York City.

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Dan Hannula | 1/1/2009 - 1:03pm
I am struck by the dual arguments of so many Catholics that we must take a nuanced approach to judging the actions (and non-actions) of Pius in dealing with a totalitarian tyrant like Hitler, yet the laity (Catholic voters) must follow an uncompromising, non-nuanced approach to politicians acting in a complex democracy, like Kerry and Biden. Curious.
michael baland | 12/20/2008 - 11:47pm
"Why did Pius XII act as he did?" Because he cared more about the Vatican than he did about the lives of millions of Jews.
patrick | 12/19/2008 - 6:38pm
the catholic church in the first half of the 20th century is a problem that the church has not really addressed but rather ducked, and for now has gotten away with it. of course there were those for the right side but what of those who accommodated, and waffled and obfuscated to the wrong side. this is where pius 12 sits. this is where benedect sits today. the church must survive. this is the bottom line. i have seen this vatican attitude at all times. is this the bottom line of the church of christ? that is the question. Second, does the opposition to the political elites and or dictarships of the moment really interest the eternal catholic church? why are we so afraid? the bottom line seems to be we have not bs and maybe we should put some women into the church to compensate for this b-less celibate bunch in rome.
Tzvee | 12/15/2008 - 9:17pm
with all due respect to a scholar your interpretation of the pope's motives vis a vis the jews appears to me to be apologetic and slanted, not critical and dispassionate
Rev. David Dubuque | 12/15/2008 - 6:02pm
One reason Catholics are so closed minded and ignorant is that they are prevented from seeing anything but what is approved by their "gatekeepers" (such as my prior post).
Rev David Dubuque | 12/15/2008 - 2:05pm
Despite their feigned shock at abuses such as the pedophilia scandals - which never seems to be aroused until AFTER the media and the courts have made it totally impossible to continue denying those scandals - Catholics, and their clergy in particular, will NEVER stop trying to whitewash its scandalous behavior no matter how shocking, because doing so would rip away its claim to being the "one, true church", the "mystical body of Christ", the church against which Jesus promised, the gates of heaven could never prevail". Anybody who wants to see how LAME all these excuses are need only Google "RCscandal". There, you will find - not only the evidence against "Hitler's Pope" and the "one, true church" - but a refutation of the many arguments constantly regurgitated by apologists such as Jesuit priest Gerald P. Fogarty for these moral pygmies who constantly use the names of God and Jesus Christ to persuade millions to stick with them, no matter how far from God they may stray.
Thomas Dally | 12/13/2008 - 10:49am
Was the Vatican asked to sign the statement condemning the Nazi extermination of Jews, dated 17 Dec. 1942? The Vatican was not an Allied power. How does one be "impartial" to a moral outrage?
Edison Woods | 12/10/2008 - 3:48pm
Does anyone really believe that the Nazis stopped murdering the physically handicapped or mentally ill because of world opinion? I do not. I think they simply continued to murder them in secret. Why after all, should they spare one group of victims as opposed to another? The truth is they did not. As for Pius XII I think he did his best in a hard situation which is more than many others did at the time and later. Furthermore, readers of this article should not be surprised to learn that Pius XII was anticommunist. He is after all a Christian. And of course, the criticism of Pius XII is simply yet another attempt to undermine Christianity as a whole not just the Holy Roman Catholic Church. His beatification by a German born Pope is proof if any were really needed that Pius XII was and still is a true Christian leader.
martin horgan | 12/7/2008 - 1:55pm
Important article. @ John Pilmaier -- German clergy protested just about every Nazi thing, including antiSemitism, at various points with few results. The euthanasia protests worked because there was a general revulsion, even internally by some Nazis, on an affair not involving state security and Nazi fanaticism (Jews and other totalitarian issues were seen as high state security and fundamental issues by the rabid Nazis). In the 1920s, the German church forbade Nazi party membership. As a result of the alleged superpowers of a Catholic clergy appeal, the Nazis, led by obedient Catholic A. Hitler, disbanded and failed to take control of Germany. Further, excommunication of IRA members about 1920 stopped the Irish troubles in its tracks, and open Papal condemnations of communism later prevented Poland from having a communist government. Alternate history, those, but we live in the legacy of the real one. There are reasons why some protests work more than others. Telling Nazis that they could merely warehouse rather than kill "Aryan racial defectives", who may be relatives of powerful Germans, is different in its effectiveness and backfire potential from telling the Nazis loudly and in general terms that they must stop harming those they, the Nazis, regarded as fundamental enemies in a literal and figurative war of survival, as defined in the core of their sincerely and fanatically held satanic ideology. Papal and other appeals on aerial bombardment for example had barely an impact, if any, on the practice that both Allies and Axis viewed as survival necessities for their nations, regimes, and destinies. Because one type of narrow appeal on a domestic issue worked did not make it politic or likely that a broader appeal to psychotics, or their intimidated enablers, on the core issue of their psychosis in a wartime totalitarian state of controlled information would do any good, if not evoke outright worse reaction. Ii is always impressive how much power is alleged to be had in a militantly secular age of global warfare and totalitarianism, over violent German Nazis, by a gentle bespectacled religious Italian egghead diplomat preaching pity, and his small team of acolytes of an increasingly deemed nonexistent God who became a Jew, and whose uniforms included a yarmulke.
mch | 12/7/2008 - 1:53pm
Important article. @ John Pilmaier -- German clergy protested just about every Nazi thing, including antiSemitism, at various points with few results. The euthanasia protests worked because there was a general revulsion, even internally by some Nazis, on an affair not involving state security and Nazi fanaticism (Jews and other totalitarian issues were seen as high state security and fundamental issues by the rabid Nazis). In the 1920s, the German church forbade Nazi party membership. As a result of the alleged superpowers of a Catholic clergy appeal, the Nazis, led by obedient Catholic A. Hitler, disbanded and failed to take control of Germany. Further, excommunication of IRA members about 1920 stopped the Irish troubles in its tracks, and open Papal condemnations of communism later prevented Poland from having a communist government. Alternate history, those, but we live in the legacy of the real one. There are reasons why some protests work more than others. Telling Nazis that they could merely warehouse rather than kill "Aryan racial defectives", who may be relatives of powerful Germans, is different in its effectiveness and backfire potential from telling the Nazis loudly and in general terms that they must stop harming those they, the Nazis, regarded, as fundamental enemies in a literal and figurative war of survival, as defined in the core of their sincerely and fanatically held satanic ideology. Papal and other appeals on aerial bombardment for example had barely an impact, if any, on the practice that both Allies and Axis viewed as survival necessities for their nations, regimes, and destinies. Because one type of narrow appeal on a domestic issue worked did not make it politic or likely that a broader appeal to psychotics, or their intimidated enablers, on the core issue of their psychosis in a wartime totalitarian state of controlled information would do any good, if not evoke outright worse reaction. Ii is always impressive at how much power is alleged to be had in a militantly secular age of global warfare and totalitarianism, over violent German Nazis, by a gentle bespectacled religious Italian egghead diplomat preaching pity, and his small team of acolytes of an increasingly deemed nonexistent God who became a Jew, and whose uniforms included a yarmulke.
Leonard Martino | 12/5/2008 - 9:58pm
Pius XI cannot be faulted for signing a concordant with Nazi Germany in 1933. If he had refused, it would most likely have been interpreted as a hostile act by the Nazis. It can only be interpreted as having been agreed to under duress. Too many critics, out of naivete or hostility to the Catholic Church fail to realize the power that totalitarian states exert. Such is true of the the current Pope, who was drafted into the German armed forces during the war. Even persons in "free" countries that resisted conscription during wartime were harshly treated.
john pilmaier | 12/5/2008 - 8:42pm
I would hardly consider this article well balanced. You indicated that Pius recognized that public protest did little to affect Hitler. You neglected to remind readers that when the clergy protested the Nazi euthanasia against the mentally ill and handicapped the Nazis stopped the program. The Nazis were very much affected by public opinion and condemnation by the clergy. There is no excuse for the actions of the church during this period.
J. Michael Parker | 12/5/2008 - 5:25pm
Thank you for Father Fogarty's interesting and insightful article, "A Pope In Wartime" and the podcast interview with him. With regard to the concordat between the Holy See and Nazi Germany, it might bear mentioning that concordats were needed not with countries that respected the Church's rights but precisely those that didn't respect them. I have seen it written -- and it makes sense -- that Pope Pius XII wanted the concordat with Nazi Germany so that the Church would have a basis for international protest of Nazi violations, which he expected -- and which in fact occurred almost immediately. There is information in the public domain about Pius XII's sympathy with the Jews and Jewish gratitude for this after WWII and at his death in 1958. This seems to have been all but ignored by the pope's Jewish critics, Why do they want the archives opened if they don't look at evidence that is already available?
Bill Rydberg | 12/5/2008 - 4:44pm
Well researched, with facts that I had not read before. Thank you for a balanced, well written article. Is it true that a man who was once the Chief Rabbi of Rome during the war years converted to Catholicism after the war; and eventually became a Catholic Priest; even choosing for himself the Religious name of "Eugenio"? Blessed Pius XII pray for us all!