Scholars speaking in favour of Venerable Pope Pius XII and his wartime record managed to convince a significant number of people that the Pontiff did the best he could to save Jewish lives from the Holocaust, even if they failed to win over the majority of the audience at a recent lively debate in London.
The Intelligence Squared debate, held last Wednesday in front of a large audience of participants, heard four scholars debate the motion: “‘Hitler’s Pope’: Pius XII did too little to save the Jews from the Holocaust”.
Speaking for the motion were the British historian Viscount John Julius Norwich and UN jurist Geoffrey Robertson. Speaking against were William Doino, a leading expert on Pius XII and his wartime record, and Professor Ronald Rychlak, a law professor at the University of Mississippi and also a leading scholar on Pius.
The “Oxford style” debate, in which scholars debate the motion and the audience votes at the beginning and at the end, predictably provoked some heated discussions.
Doino and Rychlak spent much of the evening presenting fact after fact in defence of Pius XII in an attempt to counter the so-called “Black Legend,” but their opponents were master performers who managed to convince many in the audience through sheer force of rhetoric and style.
“Those in favor of the motion made an eloquent argument and gave a superb performance,” conceded Gary Krupp, founder of the Pave the Way Foundation which has been at the forefront of clearing Pius’s name. But he added: “Unfortunately, it was totally based on erroneous mistranslated rhetoric, which has been repeated over and over again. The documentation we have posted online discredit each of the statements made by Robertson and Norwich.”
“I also find it outrageous,” Krupp continued, “when the revisionists make such eloquent conclusions about what Pius XII should have or could have done. They seem to be oblivious to the reality that the Pope acted in the middle of ground zero, under a constant threat against his Church and his life. I wonder, what did the Archbishop of Canterbury do to save Jews from the safety of London?”
Professor Rychlak and William Doino share their reflections on the debate below.
“Of course I was disappointed that the vote did not come out our way, but the room began about 3-1 against us and it ended about 2-1 against us, so there was some positive movement.
I had spent the two days prior to the debate at an international conference on Pius XII at the Sorbonne. At that conference, even the “critics” agreed that the term “Hitler’s Pope” was indefensible. Similarly, it was agreed that no one can seriously argue that he was anti-Semitic, and the facts show that he was in contact with and advanced the cause of the anti-Hitler resistance in Germany.
To move from that group of well-informed scholars who were discussing the latest archival findings to a debate over evidence that has long-since been disproven was somewhat problematic. Our opponents hit us with a slew of false charges that we felt obliged to rebut, but that put us on the defensive and made it hard to set forth the strong affirmative case that we have. I wish that I had been able to present our affirmative case, but that’s the way it goes when debating a pre-set resolution at a formal debate.
A few days after the debate, I spoke at the chancery at University College London. Several people there were aware of the debate and were actually quite happy that the vote came out as well as it did.”
“I think the debate went better than expected, considering the challenges Professor Rychlak and I faced. It was clear, given the pre-debate vote, that we began very heavily outnumbered, with a large amount of skeptics – if not very active critics – of the wartime papacy in the audience.
But by the end of the night, we were able to more than double the number of our original supporters (which, percentage-wise, at least, was more than the opposition gained), and win over a healthy number of “don’t knows,” even as there still remained, as was inevitable, those with opposing viewpoints (For a supportive British comment about how our side did, check out this tweet (second tweet) by clicking on here.)
Our opponents basically repackaged and recycled the now thoroughly-disproven claims of John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope. Because of the strict time limitations, and the structure of the debate, we were not able to answer every outdated error–though we answered many– or present all the evidence we have, so much of which is new and compelling. But I do believe we effectively conveyed our main points:
–that Pius XII, well before he became pope, and well before the Second World War and the Nazi Holocaust broke out, was issuing major warnings about the madness of Hitler, and the evils of racism and anti-Semitism;
—that in the critical six months between his election as pope (March, 1939) and the outbreak of World War II (September 1939), Pius XII issued impassioned appeals to try to prevent the War (and therefore the Holocaust, which the War made possible) from ever happening
—that Pius XII was emphatically not “silent,” and did in fact condemn the Nazis horrific crimes–through Vatican Radio, his first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus, his major addresses (especially his Christmas allocutions), and the L’Osservatore Romano
–that Pius XII intervened, time and time again, for persecuted Jews, particularly during the German occupation of Rome, and was cited and hailed by the Catholic rescuers themselves as their leader and director.
–that he instructed the bishops and nuncios in all the Nazi-occupied lands to take a strong stand against the racial persecutions
–that he inspired the Catholic faithful everywhere
– that he was profusely praised by the Jewish community itself, both during and after the War, and especially at the time of his death, and that these testimonies stand, despite efforts to minimize or explain them away.
We also documented – though not nearly at the length we wanted, again because of time constraints – the Soviet Communist campaign to defame Pius XII, which began in order to turn people away from the Church.
Anything we were not able to cover is more than addressed in our respective books, Hitler, the War, and the Pope by Professor Rychlak, and The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII (the anthology in which my 80,000 word annotated defense of Pius XII appears) – copies of both which were fortunately made available to the crowd at the end of the debate.
There were three other things I found revealing about the debate:
First, although our opponents repeatedly accused Pius XII of being “silent” during the Holocaust, this is what the Times of London–where our debate took place–declared in an editorial on October 1, 1942, in the very midst of the War: “A study of the words which Pope Pius XII has addressed since his accession in encyclicals and allocutions to the Catholics of various nations leaves no room for doubt. He condemns the worship of force and its concrete manifestation in the suppression of national liberties and in the persecution of the Jewish race…”
Commenting on the wartime Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, the Times continued: “Its generous and honorable citation of ‘forbidden’ Italian authors and its maintenance of the standard of Italian humanism against those of neo-paganism; its plain warnings as to the significance of Nazi-race-worship–all these tend to show where sympathy lies at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church. The millions of believers, lay and clerical, who maintain a stout front against the oppressions of Nazism and fascism in their own or in other countries themselves testify that the sympathies found at the heart of the vast system permeate the whole.”
Second, our opponents mentioned the Nuremberg War Crimes trials, but made no mention of the fact that Pius XII was a strong supporter of them, and in fact met with the lead prosecutor, Robert Jackson, providing the tribunal with evidence to help prosecute the Nazi war criminals. One of Jackson’s deputies, Robert M.W. Kempner-himself a victim of Nazi persecution– became one of Pius XII’s strongest supporters, and answered the charge that Pius supposedly “never made an energetic protest” against the Holocaust. In fact, said Kempner, “the archives of the Vatican, of the diocesan authorities and of Ribbentrop’s Foreign Ministry contain a whole series of protests–direct and indirect, diplomatic and public, secret and open.” (From the forward to Jeno Levai’s book, Hungarian Jewry and the Papacy: Pius XII Did Not Remain Silent (London Sands, 1968), pp. IX-X)
Third, in the question and answer period, someone asked what St. Peter must have thought of Pius XII when he met him at the Gates of Heaven. There wasn’t any time left to address the gentlemen’s query, but had there been, I would have said:
“I am sure St. Peter was well aware of Pius XII’s high character and conduct, particularly during the War; but if he needed any further proof, he wouldn’t have to cite any Catholic sources, but simply listen to the wartime Jewish community itself. The 1943-1944 American Jewish Yearbook affirmed that Pius XII ‘took an unequivocal stand against the oppression of Jews throughout Europe.’ On February 18, 1944, Rabbi Maurice Perlzweig, the political director of the World Jewish Congress, wrote in a letter to the apostolic delegate in Washington: ‘The repeated interventions of the Holy Father on behalf of Jewish Communities in Europe has evoked the profoundest sentiments of appreciation and gratitude from Jews throughout the world. These acts of courage and consecrated statesmanship on the part of His Holiness will always remain a precious memory in the life of the Jewish people.’ And on February 28, 1944, Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog, of Palestine, sent this message to Pius XII and the Church: ‘The people of Israel will never forget what His Holiness and his illustrious delegates, inspired by the eternal principles of religion which form the very foundations of true civilization, are doing for our unfortunate brothers and sisters in this most tragic hour of history, which is living proof of divine Providence in this world.”
I do think history is moving gradually in favor of a much more responsible and sympathetic view of Pius XII, as more and more evidence appears. Of course, this is occurring in the context of the complex history of the Church, with all its light and shadows, particularly regarding interfaith relations. Fortunately, the Catholic-Jewish relationship has developed over the years and is now very strong– and I pray it remains so, as I said at the end of the debate, hoping to end on an encouraging note.”
This post first appeared in the National Catholic Register.