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Should the Pope push through the canonisation of Pius XII?

A new book suggests the wartime pope used all the means within his power to help Jews

By on Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Pius XII prepares to give a radio address in 1943 (CNS)

Pius XII prepares to give a radio address in 1943 (CNS)

I have been reading a rather curious and interesting book, Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 by (Father) George William Rutler. Fr Rutler is a parish priest in Manhattan, New York and well-known for his erudite and quirky essays and other writings. His book is about World War II and the reason he has chosen those particular years to focus on is because an old priest-friend left him a mass of cuttings, journals and other papers on this period when he died.

Fr Rutler quotes freely from these sources, including The Tablet (then run by the brilliant and orthodox Catholic journalist, Douglas Woodruff), L’Osservatore Romano and The Jewish Chronicle. They make an interesting collection of contemporary commentary on the international politics of the day, dominated by the War. In particular, and running through the book, are references to the activities, speeches and broadcasts of the wartime pope, Pius XII.

Fr Rutler’s book is keenly relevant on this subject – not least because of an article written on June 14 by the veteran Vatican-watcher and journalist, John L Allen, of the Boston Globe. In it he suggests that “the best thing for Catholic Jewish ties right now might be to canonise Pius XII tomorrow and get it over with.” As is well known, the cause for Pius’s canonisation has been bogged down for years over the controversy surrounding his wartime record: could he or could he not have done more to help the plight of the Jews in Europe who were being at first persecuted and finally exterminated by the Nazis?

Allen isn’t arguing for or against the historical papal record. Citing the examples of St Maximilian Kolbe, who before canonisation was alleged to have sponsored anti-Semitic publications in Poland, and St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, who, as the former Edith Stein and a convert, was seen by some Jews as an invitation to proselytism, he points out that after their canonisations the controversies surrounding them largely died away. Alluding to Pope Francis and the on-going cause of his wartime predecessor he concludes, “If you know you’re going to do this eventually, then do it now because sometimes the only way around a problem is straight through it.”

Obviously Allen is writing slightly tongue in cheek. I can’t see Pius XII being raised to the altar, as the phrase has it, any time soon, But Rutler’s book does deepen one’s sympathy for his predicament in those appalling years of the war: Europe (including Italy) was in the hands of murderous thugs who would stop at nothing, including mass murder, to achieve their objective. The Pope, as Stalin pointed out, had no divisions; he only had his moral and spiritual authority to sway events. From the pages of Rutler’s book, citing events that were taking place at the time and without the special pleading of a retrospective viewpoint, it is clear Pius XII was using all the means within his power to help the Jews.

Rutler cites The Jewish Chronicle, which reported that the Apostolic Nuncio in Germany – the papal representative – had made strong representations in Berlin against the Nazi killing of Jews. These were rejected by the German government as having no bearing on “Internal German policy”. The Apostolic Nuncio on France, also formally protested to the Vichy Government against the imprisonment of Jews. Pierre Laval, head of the Vichy government, rejoined that he “could not be influenced by the Holy See.” Later, the New York Times ran the headline, “Vichy seizes Jews; Pope Pius ignored.”

So it goes on. Another cutting from The Jewish Chronicle is quoted again: “The extreme Nazi organs in Germany have been expressing great dissatisfaction at concessions made to the Vatican…which have enabled about 300 Jews to leave Nazi-occupied countries, including the ghettoes of Poland, and go to Spain and Portugal.” Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, was furious with Pius XII and at the Vatican’s attempt to hide Jews.

Rutler indicates the difficulties of Pius’ position – and not only concerning the plight of Jews: he was also criticised by the Polish bishop Karol Radonski, now in exile in London, “for not speaking out more strongly about the situation in their homeland, while those bishops remaining in Poland urged the Pope not to say anything that might cause only reprisals.”

The book also quotes a letter of April 30 1943 to Bishop von Preysing, in which the Pope “described with unusual candour the theory of nuance he had deliberately equated with prudence in his public statements: ‘We give to the pastors who are working on the local level the duty of determining if and to what degree the danger of reprisals and of various forms of oppression occasioned by Episcopal interventions…seem to advise caution. Here lies one of the reasons, why We impose self-restraint on Ourselves in our speeches…The Holy See has done whatever was in its power, with charitable, financial and moral assistance.’”

If Pius XII had spoken more frankly and showed less “self-restraint” it might have helped his later legacy – but it would certainly have also occasioned more savage reprisals by the Nazis. Rutler’s book brings together some additional proofs, if they are needed, and from Jewish sources, of the very real “charitable, financial and moral assistance” of the wartime pope. Perhaps, as John Allen suggests, there is now a case for simply getting on with the process of his canonisation.

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