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A Righteous Gentile

Responses to the critics of Pope Pius XII.

By 6.7.05

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The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII
Edited by Joseph Bottum and David G. Dalin
(Lexington Books, 282 pages, $29.95)

SEVERAL MONTHS AGO, the German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, a leftist, sparked considerable outrage in Europe when he praised the work of David Irving, Great Britain's notorious Holocaust denier. In 1963, Hochhuth got his start with The Deputy, a play that demonized Pope Pius XII as a cold-blooded Nazi sympathizer who refused to condemn the Holocaust. During his pontificate (1939-1958), however, the pope earned substantial praise for opposing the Nazis and saving many Jews during World War II. The Deputy, which was performed around the world, succeeded in permanently transforming the pope's image.

Following The Deputy, authors such as Guenther Lewy, Saul Friedlander, and Carlo Falconi published books that, to varying degrees, backed up Hochhuth's portrait. The pope's defenders such as Jacques Nobecourt, Pinchas Lapide, and Jeno Levai responded with books of their own, but were unable to restore his reputation. Upset that the Roman Catholic hierarchy wasn't changing with the times on such issues as artificial contraception and abortion, anti-Catholics and Catholic dissidents found the allegations against the Vatican politically useful and often repeated them.

In the last ten years, the debate over Pius XII's conduct during the Holocaust has intensified. Many new books have been published. Among Pius XII's critics are Catholics such as John Cornwell (Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, 1999), J. Michael Phayer (The Catholic Church and the Holocaust: 1930-1965, 2000), Garry Wills (Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, 2001), and James Carroll (Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, 2001). Recent Jewish authors who are critical of the Vatican include Susan Zuccotti (Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy, 2001), David I. Kertzer (The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism, 2001), and Daniel Goldhagen (A Moral Reckoning: The Catholic Church's Role in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair, 2002). Another critical book, The Hidden Encyclical of Pius XI (1997), was co-written by two Belgians, Georges Passelecq, a Catholic monk, and Bernard Suchecky, a Jewish historian.

In The Pius War, an impressive collection of previously published reviews, a team of scholars, journalists, and lawyers reveal the shortcomings of these books, which often escape the attention of gullible reviewers in the liberal press.

THE TWO CO-EDITORS OF this book, Rabbi David G. Dalin and Joseph Bottum, both published comprehensive reviews of many of the new books. "The technique for recent attacks on Pius XII is simple," Rabbi Dalin observes. "It requires only that favorable evidence be read in the worst possible light and treated to the strictest test, while unfavorable evidence is read in the best light and treated to no test."

In her book, Susan Zuccotti seeks to discredit the many tributes Pius XII received from Jews by insisting that most, if not all of them, were all motivated by ignorance and dishonesty in praising him. Zuccotti's tactics alarm Rabbi Dalin, who warns, "To deny the legitimacy of their gratitude to Pius XII is tantamount to denying the credibility of their personal testimony and judgment about the Holocaust itself." Based on his reading of the evidence, Rabbi Dalin concludes that Pope Pius XII should be honored as a "Righteous Gentile."

A German scholar, Rainer Decker, looks at John Cornwell's over-hyped Hitler's Pope. Despite Cornwell's claim that he conducted extensive research in the Vatican's archives, a check of the book's endnotes shows that the author relied mostly on secondary sources. In addition to Cornwell's highly selective use of sources, Decker identifies many omissions, errors, and distortions of fact in the book. It wouldn't be cruel to ask Cornwell, "Who do you think you're fooling?"

Robert Louis Wilken is unimpressed by James Carroll's Constantine's Sword. Wilken points out that Carroll does not really tell us anything new because he extensively relies on the work of others, including Cornwell. "Constantine's Sword is a six-hundred-page indictment of the Church for its attitudes toward and treatment of the Jews, deploying historical information to support its accusations," the reviewer writes. "It is an effort not to understand but to use history to advance a tendentious agenda."

The publicity that Cornwell's book received overshadowed J. Michael Phayer's The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, which appeared about a year later. In his review, the Rev. John Jay Hughes finds that Phayer's book, which rejects the extremism of Cornwell and Hochhuth, is deficient in numerous areas. In his 1942 Christmas message, the pope made a brief, but direct reference to the Holocaust. "In reality, no one, certainly not the Germans, took it as a protest against their slaughter of the Jews," Phayer writes. According to Father Hughes, Phayer conveniently neglects to mention a report by the Reich Central Security Office (RHSA), which described the pope's address as "one long attack on everything we stand for. Here is he clearly speaking on behalf of the Jews." Although this report appears in several secondary sources, none of the aforementioned critics bother to mention it.

IN HIS REVIEW, NEW YORK super-attorney Kevin M. Doyle examines Passelceq and Suchecky's The Hidden Encyclical of Pius XI. In June 1938, the ailing Pope Pius XI commissioned three Jesuits to draw up an encyclical that would condemn racism and anti-Semitism. The authors assert that the final draft of the encyclical was delivered to the pope a short time before his death on February 10, 1939. The encyclical was never published, which the authors believe prevented the Church from adequately opposing the Nazis' anti-Semitism. Doyle faults the authors for engaging in constant speculation and raising unproven suspicions against Pius XII and other Vatican officials in trying to determine why the encyclical was never published.

As Doyle points out, this encyclical was not perfect. "[C]riticism, not only of the Church but also of the Allies and Jewish leaders, has too often ignored the moral complexities faced by people of good will who lived and struggled in Hitler's shadow," Doyle writes. "The Nazi juggernaut displayed a diabolical genius for retaliation, recrimination, and retribution. While devoid of conscience, it discerned ethical pressure points cleverly enough to ensnare potential resisters in unconscionable dilemmas. To ignore this not only subverts truth but keeps us from today learning from the Holocaust."

The two co-editors commissioned William Doino, a veteran Catholic journalist, to draw up an annotated bibliography for The Pius War. Doino's contribution, which takes up more than half of the book, is an extraordinary achievement. He lists and discusses numerous primary and secondary sources. Few books, articles, and even noteworthy letters to the editor escape Doino's attention. Scholars and journalists will find Doino's annotated bibliography an important tool for research.

Many of the anti-Vatican books discussed here and others are quickly becoming obsolete. In February 2003, the Vatican began the process of opening its archives from 1933-1945. Many of the documents that have been gradually emerging from the archives confirm the Vatican's opposition to Nazism and anti-Semitism. (Doino mentions some of the new documents.) The Pius War will stand the test of time because its contributors have the facts on their side and Pope Pius XII's tendentious critics don't.

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