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I wanted to respond to your column about the worst Catholic saint, an oxymoron if there ever was one. In this column you depart from your high standards and trot out that threadbare, tendentious canard that charges Pope Pius XI and Pius XII with anti-Semitism. To bolster your argument, you refer to John Cornwell’s 1999 book Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII. Many Jewish leaders who were contemporaries of Pius XII expressed their gratitude for Pius’s help in saving many Jews in Italy and other countries. I hope you will see fit to revisit this issue.

–John Reistroffer, Chicago

Don’t get excited, bub. For one thing, the first pope I said had been charged with anti-Semitism wasn’t Pius XI (1922-’39) but rather Pius IX (1846-’78), who oversaw the kidnapping of a Jewish child who’d been secretly baptized by his family’s Catholic maid, then raised him as his ward. As for Pius XII (1939-’58), well, readers may judge for themselves.

Though Pius XII was considered saintly while alive, his reputation took a hit in 1963 with the appearance of Rolf Hochhuth’s play Der Stellvertreter (“The Deputy”). Hochhuth depicted the pope and other church leaders as cynical appeasers who, while publicly deploring Hitler’s excesses, privately believed Germany to be the only force that could save the West from the Bolsheviks. Though the play is over-the-top in places, its portrayal of Catholic officialdom’s timidity in the face of totalitarian evil squares well enough with history that many were moved to take a second look at Pius’s papacy. Pius has powerful defenders to this day, however, and has been nominated for sainthood by Pope John Paul II. But others see it this way: The Holocaust presented the Catholic church with the ultimate challenge, and the church pupped.

Space doesn’t allow a detailed treatment, but here are a couple key issues:

Was Pius XII anti-Semitic? The evidence is sparse, but John Cornwell cites a letter in his book that gives one pause. In 1919, while Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII, was serving as papal nuncio (ambassador) to Bavaria, communist revolutionaries seized power in Munich for three weeks. Pacelli sent this account to Rome, describing a palace occupied by the reds: “An army of employees were dashing to and fro, giving out orders, waving bits of paper, and in the midst of all this, a gang of young women, of dubious appearance, Jews like all the rest of them, hanging around in all the offices with lecherous demeanor and suggestive smiles. The boss of this female rabble was [the chief revolutionary’s] mistress, a young Russian woman, a Jew and a divorcee….[Her lover] is a young man, of about 30 or 35, also Russian and a Jew. Pale, dirty, with drugged eyes, hoarse voice, vulgar, repulsive, with a face that is both intelligent and sly.” The pope-to-be might’ve had plenty of reasons to look down on the revolutionaries–a distaste for violence, for instance, or simple snobbery–but it’s difficult to read his remarks as anything other than anti-Semitic.

Could Pius XII have done more to save the Jews? The conventional argument, then and now, is no. Hitler was not about to be deterred from his murderous designs; if anything, papal complaints would have increased Nazi savagery. All Pius could do was shield individual Jews. If he harbored less-than-brotherly feelings about them, his conduct as pope didn’t betray it: No one doubts that he spared thousands from death by hiding them in monasteries and the like. In Three Popes and the Jews (1967), Pinchas Lapide, one of the pope’s many Jewish defenders, estimates that the Catholic church under Pius saved 700,000 to 860,000 Jews. But the method used to calculate these figures is dubious–Lapide simply takes the number of European Jews who survived the war, subtracts those saved by non-Catholics, and credits the remainder to Pius and company. Whatever the number, the pope wasn’t the prime mover in these rescue efforts; local clerics were the real heroes.

Let’s not quibble, though. Here’s the crux of the issue: By mid-1942, Pius could have had no doubt that the Nazis were slaughtering Jews en masse. Yet though papal representatives did lodge protests against the deportation of Jews, the pope himself made only vague appeals, never mentioning Jews or Nazis specifically. (The one time he intervened personally, in an attempt to halt deportations from Hungary in 1944, he referred only to people persecuted because of their race.) Granted, others also equivocated. The Red Cross, for example, kept silent for fear its humanitarian work would be halted. But Pius was the pope. He had a unique responsibility to speak out–no one else’s words would’ve carried the same moral authority. Just a few years later, he denounced communism and made it clear he wanted bishops in Soviet bloc countries to oppose it, even if they risked persecution. Condemnation of the Holocaust might also have provoked reprisals, and certainly wouldn’t have stayed Hitler’s hand. But if ever there was an occasion that demanded such a noble if futile gesture, wasn’t this it?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.