1942: No Longer on the Defensive

In the second week of October 1942, Stalingrad was still standing, if cruelly battered after 80 days of siege and starvation. Ottawa announced that U-boats had torpedoed eleven vessels in the St. Lawrence Seaway. The Polish newspaper Nowy Swiat noted that the Germans had forbidden priests to wear crucifixes, since such was “not in harmony with the spirit of the age.” All candlesticks and liturgical vessels in Polish churches were to be confiscated. The previous month, the head of the Czech Orthodox Church, Bishop Matthias Gorazd, was tortured and executed on charges of complicity in the attack on SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich, and the Church was formally dissolved, its revenues confiscated by the Reich in the first instance of the Nazis actually abolishing a Church.

Catholic newspapers in England mentioned in passing the death of Rev. Leo Paul Ward, son of Wilfrid Ward and brother Maisie. The 46-year-old priest had died during his return from Japan, where he had been a missionary. All such papers ran advertisements from the Ministry of Food, in which a caricature named Potato Pete gave recipes for replacing bread and saving shipping space for military cargo. By giving the body warmth, potatoes could also save coal for the war effort.

The Vatican Radio broadcast (in German) an attack on the German press, comparing it to “scorpions lurking in the darkness.” The Nazi newspapers would make man “a mere brute and a tool of this contradictory propaganda which seeks good through evil, order through disorder, and human dignity through its negation.” From another flank, the Mussolini newspaper Regime Fascista pointed its purple prose at the editor of L’Osservatore Romano, who was “an old acquaintance of the most pig-headed political world” and who had made the Vatican newspaper “the favorite reading matter of the Masonic dark corners of the anti-Axis front.”

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Gen. Jay Smuts arrived in London from South Africa and echoed the optimistic tone of Winston Churchill’s recent address in Edinburgh, as well as one of Franklin Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” in which he described increasing odds against the Axis. Even the Frankfurter Zeitung admitted that “hopes are now centered on how the United Nations will lose the war, and not on how Germany will win it.” General Smuts cited the importance of the combat in the African theater. Arthur Cardinal Hinsley published a long essay on the future of Africa in relation to the Atlantic Charter. He likened Africa to “a grand piano which has suffered from neglect or abuse. The white and black keys represent the European and Native Africans. Will they ever be made to produce harmony, and if so, how?” A Nazi victory would be disastrous for the indigenous tribes, whom they call “semi-apes.”

Pope Pius XI had defended the equal capacity of the African, given equal opportunity. There were only about 430 Catholic priests in Africa; they faced a daunting array of 700 languages and populations diverse as Hottentots and Bushmen, Bantu, Nilotics, and the Madagascar people, who were in fact “not of Negro type but Malayan.” In a period of transition, “outside control in Africa is a guardianship which will invite the progressive co-operation of the native population.” Cardinal Hinsley quoted a letter of Roosevelt to the Catholic hierarchy of the United States: “In victory we shall seek the establishment of an international order in which the spirit of Christ shall rule the hearts of men and of nations.” This would be achieved only through missionaries, who “had the largest share in promoting the moral and physical welfare of the native populations.”

The bishops of Provence, with the exception of the bishop of Marseilles, did not distinguish themselves in opposing the Vichy government. But the bishop of Rodez, Msgr. Charles Challiol, forbade his priests to participate in Pierre Laval’s “Légion des Combattants“; and Pierre-Marie Theas, bishop of Montauban, called for “national liberation from the Swastika.” On September 12, Archbishop Jules-Gerard Saliege of Toulouse had decried the “heart-rendering” scenes in concentration camps. “Jews are men and women. Foreigners are men and women. . . . They are brothers as much as any others . . . . France, my beloved Fatherland . . . chivalrous and generous France, I am convinced you are not responsible for these horrors.”

Joseph Goebbels ordered the Nazi Party Department for Public Enlightenment to publish 10 million copies of a pamphlet for distribution in Europe and Latin America, condemning the Vatican’s attempt to protect Jews. The pamphlet said that 18 popes since the twelfth century had promoted policies similar to that of the Nazi Party, but only Pope Pius XII had intervened on behalf of the Jews, and much of the Catholic world would turn against the “pro-Jewish pope.” Presumably in response, the Boston Pilot quoted Pope Gregory the Great: “We forbid you to molest the Jews or to lay upon them restrictions not imposed by the established laws; we further permit them to live as Romans and to dispose of their property as they will; we only prohibit them from owning Christian slaves.” The Pilot also listed among protectors of the Jews Popes Sixtus IV, Clement VII, Eugenius III (encouraged by St. Bernard), Gregory IX, and Pius XI, who famously declared — within a stone’s throw of the Fascists — “Spiritually, we are all Semites.” It added that Pius XII had employed Jewish scholars in the Vatican library.

When words failed, Bishop Felix Roeder of Beauvais chose another course. German officials had ordered the Jews of Beauvais to register at the municipal headquarters. On the strength of his claim to have had a distant Jewish ancestor, the bishop formally processed through the streets to register his own name, wearing full pontifical vestments, and preceded by an acolyte carrying the cross.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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