May 17, 2004


The End of the Pius Wars (Joseph Bottum, April 2004, First Things)

There was a curious moment during the exchanges about A Moral Reckoning in which Daniel Goldhagen appeared to admit that he had gotten the details wrong, but the point remained untouched. At one level, that makes no sense: He was writing an argumentative essay, after all, and if his evidence fails, so must his conclusion. But at another level, it makes perfect sense. However successfully the reviewers refuted the Pope’s detractors, the sum of all those well-publicized attacks, from Cornwell on, has had a tremendous impact on what people think—the tropes they use, the pictures they form, the things journalists think they can get away with saying, the images pundits believe will prove useful when they wish to strafe a particular target.

In the public mind at the present moment, there’s almost nothing bad you can’t say about Pius XII. The Vatican may end up declaring him a saint—the slow process of canonization has been winding its way through the Roman curia since the mid-1960s—but the general public has gradually been persuaded that Pius ranks somewhere among the greatest villains ever to walk the earth. Nearly every crime of the twentieth century seems to be laid at this man’s feet. Disapprove of the war in Vietnam? Well, according to a Ft. Lauderdale newspaper, Pius XII was “the main inspirer and prosecutor” of that war. Hate racism? An article in 2002 painted him as a slavering racist who mocked the Moroccan soldiers fighting for the Free French. Another had the young Pacelli denouncing black American soldiers for “routinely raping German women and children” after World War I.

Worse, he signed for the Vatican a hitherto-unknown “secret pact” with Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The Catholic hierarchy has suppressed all copies, so nobody knows what it said, but it must have been bad—although it scarcely seems necessary, since (a French author assured us in 1996) the Vatican and Germany began secretly working together all the way back in 1914 to bring about a German domination of Europe. Perhaps it doesn’t matter that this contradicts other theories floating around these days: that Pius XII was secretly working with Mussolini to achieve an Italian domination of Europe, for instance, or that he was secretly plotting with hard-line anti-Soviets to make the Protestant United States and Great Britain the world’s great powers. The point is that there is simply no depravity one can put past the man. He suppressed the anti-Nazi encyclical that Pius XI on his deathbed begged him to release. He was deeply implicated in the German’s massacre of 335 Italians in the Ardeatine Caves. He expressly permitted, even encouraged, the S.S. to round up Rome’s Jews in 1943.

At the root of all this lies the fact that Pius XII was, fundamentally, a follower of Hitler, a genocidal hater of the Jews in his heart and in his mind, and once we recognize him as a Nazi who somehow escaped punishment at the Nuremberg trials, we can see the origin of all the rest. He was Hitler’s Pope, in the title of John Cornwell’s book. The Holocaust happened Under His Very Windows, in the title of Susan Zuccotti’s. Pius XII represents the highest pitch of Papal Sin, in Garry Wills’ title. Modern times is defined by The Popes Against the Jews, in David Kertzer's--and just so nobody misses the point, the drawing on the dust jacket of Michael Phayer's book features a Nazi with whip and a Catholic priest standing on the body of a Holocaust victim.

Meanwhile, the Times of London named him “a war criminal” in 1999. The next year the television program 60 Minutes insisted there was “absolutely” no difference between the writings of Pius and the writings of Hitler. Daniel Goldhagen called him a “Nazi collaborator” who “tacitly and sometimes materially aided in mass murder”—which was relatively mild compared to Goldhagen’s other description of the Pope as a willing servant of “the closest human analogue to the Antichrist” and a man whose Church’s two-thousand-year history is nothing but preparation for the Holocaust’s slaughter of the Jews.

Forget the often-denounced “silence of Pius XII” about the Holocaust. Pacelli didn’t just accept Hitler; he loved the Nazi leader and agreed with him about everything. Did you know that shortly after World War I he gave the starving Adolf Hitler money because he so much approved the young man’s ideas? (This, by the way, is from a book that also reveals how Pius XII was merely the puppet of his Vatican housekeeper, Sister Pascalina.) Perhaps avarice to increase Vatican finances is what made him force reluctant Swiss banks to confiscate Jewish accounts. But only enduring belief in Nazi ideas can explain why Pius was the chief funder and organizer of the Ratline that helped hunted Gestapo agents escape to South America after Hitler’s defeat.

Regardless, the Pope was manifestly an anti-Semite of the first water—John Cornwell declared his views “of the kind that Julius Streicher would soon offer the German public in every issue of his notorious Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer”—except when Pius is said to have merely allowed Hitler free rein, accepting the murder of the Jews as the price to be paid for getting Germany to war against the greater menace of the godless Communists in Soviet Russia. These notions are not necessarily contradictory. In a 1997 essay, the widely published Richard L. Rubenstein concluded: “during World War II Pope Pius XII and the vast majority of European Christian leaders regarded the elimination of the Jews as no less beneficial than the destruction of Bolshevism.”

All of these claims are mistaken, of course—and more than mistaken: demonstrably and obviously untrue, outrages upon history and fellow feeling for the humanity of previous generations. But none of them are merely the lurid fantasies of conspiracy-mongers huddled together in paranoia on their Internet lists. Every one of these assertions has been made in recent years by books and articles published with mainstream and popular American publishers.

And when we draw from them their general conclusion—when we reach the point at which Rubenstein, for example, has arrived—then discourse is over. Research into primary sources, argument about interpretation, the scholar’s task of weighing historical circumstances: All of this is quibbling, an attempt to be fair to monstrosity, and by such fairness to condone, excuse, and participate in it. After printing the opening salvo of Goldhagen’s offensive against Catholicism, the publisher of the New Republic announced that Pius XII was, simply and purely, “a wicked man.” And once one has said that, one has said all that needs to be known.

It was here that the Pius War was lost—and lost for what I believe will be at least a generation—despite the victories of the reviewers. The question of “why now?” is an interesting one. Philip Jenkins understands it as not particular to Pius XII at all, but merely a convenient trope by which American commentators express what he calls an entirely new form of anti-Catholicism. Others see it in a continuum of more old-fashioned American distaste for the Whore of Babylon that dwells in Rome, spinning Jesuitical plots. Ralph McInerny linked it darkly to contemporary hatred of the Church’s stand against abortion. Noting the predominance of a certain sort of Catholic author in these debates, Justus George Lawler suggested the root lay in a “papaphobia” that has turned against the entire idea of authority. David Dalin argued that it was finally about John Paul II: an intra-Catholic fight over the future of the papacy, with the Holocaust merely the biggest club around for opponents of the current pope to use against his supporters.

All of these are quite interesting. None are quite persuasive. What the real cause may be, I cannot decide for myself. But it is into a world of public and scholarly opinion formed by books like Hitler’s Pope that every new attempt to consider the issue must enter. Relatively mild efforts to praise the Pope (such as José Sánchez’s Pius XII and the Holocaust in 2002), like relatively mild criticism (such as Martin Rhonheimer’s November 2003 essay in First Things), are as clueless about the situation in which they appear as the proverbial visitors from Mars. Indeed, there is something willful and maddening in their tone of Olympian detachment. In a world of imbalance, what but pressure on the other side can restore the balance that a true scholar is supposed to love? I am convinced that we will not achieve anything resembling historical accuracy until all present views have been cleared away—and thus, that the job for every honest writer who takes up the topic now is to correct the slander of Pius XII.

Like all such controversies, it has nothing to do with the facts and everything to do with hating the faith. One favorite illustration of this is the oft repeated idiocy--heard always from folks who deny everything from the Deluge to loaves and fishes as anti-scientific--is the one about blood flowing ankle-deep after the Crusaders took Jerusalem. That's not a claim any rational person would be sanguine about making.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 17, 2004 2:25 PM

What a bunch of silliness. Everyone knows it wasn't a mere pope responsible for the evils of the world. It was Leo Strauss! Tsk Tsk.

Posted by: kevin whited at May 17, 2004 2:31 PM

Kevin: Duh: Strauss was Leo XII. Or Pius XII. Or whoever; it doesn't matter.

On a related (but, in fairness, not identical( note: Come on, Harry. tell us How Pius XII Ate the Flesh of Jews and High-Fived Hitler.

Posted by: Chris at May 17, 2004 2:38 PM

You don't have to penetrate the Vatican archives to know what Pius XII DID NOT do.

When the sheep were under terrible pressure and could have used direction from the shepherd, he and his bishops kept silent.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at May 18, 2004 2:31 PM
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