Further remarks on Pacelli

Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli, Pope Pius XII

In The Daily Beast, former Catholic priest, Boston Globe columnist and Distinguished-Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University Jim Carroll analyzes the legacy of the WWII-era pope, who Joseph Ratzinger recently moved towards sainthood.

Carroll argues that while Pacelli was “no war criminal,” the public record of his actions paints him as a “timid, if anguished, figure—a man who had come to loathe Hitler, but who restricted what opposition he could muster to inconsequential gestures behind the scenes.” Carrol indicts the pope for his omissions, including a refusal to remark on the mass arrest of Rome’s Jews, and more broadly the failure to set a resistant example for millions of German Christians:

Pius XII is not to be held responsible in any way for the millions of Catholics, and other Christians, who, in the absence of his challenge to conscience, either actively participated in the genocide or did nothing to inhibit it. Neither is he charged, more perplexingly, with any responsibility for those senior Catholic officials who helped run the infamous post-war “rat line,” enabling the escape of Nazi war criminals (like Adolf Eichmann) to Latin America.

He knew early on of Hitler’s plan for the Final Solution of the “Jewish problem,” and never raised his voice against it. The Vatican counters this indictment by honoring him, for example in its 1998 declaration “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” for “personally or through his representatives” having saved “hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives.” It is true that thousands of individual Catholic clergy and lay people acted independently to help Jews to survive, whether nuns in Vichy France, monks in Tuscany, or functionaries in the Vatican itself—yet they are remembered as agents of the pope, acting at his orders.

 Pacelli’s concrete actions, including signing the  Reichskonkordat, thus making the Vatican the first nation-state to  to enter into a bilateral treaty with Hitler, are also considered:

In addition to giving Hitler enormous prestige when other governments were wary of him, that treaty, not incidentally, protected the rights of the Catholic Church in Germany while explicitly (and secretly) indicating the church would have nothing to say about the fate of Jews (unless they had accepted baptism). Pius never renounced the treaty.

Carroll concludes with speculation that Ratzinger’s national guilt and theology motivate his decision to honor Pacelli:

Pope Benedict’s action this week seeks to destroy the evidence, which is the point. If he were to have his declaration hoisted as a sign, it would say: “The Holocaust was the work of a few Nazis, period.” In fact, that has been a theme of his controversial papal statements on the subject. In Cologne, in 2005, he told an audience of German Jews that Nazi anti-Semitism “was born of neo-paganism,” as if it were unrelated to the long history of Christian anti-Judaism, embodied in the “Christ-killer” slander, and preached from nearly every Christian pulpit nearly every Good Friday for more than a thousand years. Speaking at Auschwitz in 2006, Benedict blamed the Holocaust “on a ring of criminals,” an exoneration of the larger German nation that is almost unheard of among the impressively self-critical Germans of Benedict’s generation. At the death camp, he went on to make the astonishing claim that by eliminating Jews, the Nazis were “ultimately” attacking the church. He complained of God’s silence, but not of the previous pope’s.

One needn’t lay particular guilt at the feet of the young Joseph Ratzinger for his having joined the Hitler Youth or having served in the Wehrmacht. Teenage Germans were not operating as free agents during the Third Reich. It is the mature Ratzinger who prompts troubling questions with his determination to rewrite history—precisely to protect what he would call the “hierarchy of truth” over which he presides. According to this schema, faith is over reason; Christian faith is over other faiths (especially Islam); Roman Catholicism is over other Christian faiths; and the pope is supreme over Roman Catholics, infallible in matters of “faith and morals.”

But the failure of Pius XII to pass the decisive moral test of the 20th century undercuts this hierarchy, and any meaningful claim to papal infallibility—which is why his failure must be denied at all costs. The evidence must be destroyed. That is why Pope Benedict and his circle go beyond defending the ineffectual Pius XII against slanders that say he was worse than others of his time, to declare him nothing less than an exemplar of “heroic virtue,” worthy of canonization.


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