Professor Henry Kamen of Oxford was one of the fiercest detractors of the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition (currently known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). Then Pope John Paul II allowed him into the Secret Vatican Archives which led to the publication of The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1998). Neither Hillaire Belloc nor William Thomas Walsh, fine Catholic apologists, ever managed to destroy la leyenda negra of the Inquisition to the extent that this Jewish scholar has. It has not disappeared as a bogeyman from popular culture, but certainly no self-respecting historian countenances the nonsense that used to pass for “knowledge” about the Inquisition.
Is this what we can expect from the latest round of the opening of the Vatican archives? Perhaps. In this instance, however, we are no longer battling the propaganda of the Protestant Reformation over issues that most of our secularized world finds rather irrelevant. Rather, we are up against an insidious, long-lasting effort to make the Catholic Church co-responsible for what Western public opinion holds as the most heinous crime in history: the Holocaust. It was Nazi Germany’s comprehensive and unprecedented project to exterminate every Jewish man, woman, and child in Europe, resulting in about six million deaths. Revisionist historians, playwrights, and pundits have long tried, if not to assign blame, then at least a degree of responsibility to Catholicism as an “ideology” and Pope Pius XII as the pontiff in charge. For some, he was simply “Hitler’s Pope.”
But was he? Of course not. Former Romanian communist secret police Securitate General Ion Pacepa, upon his defection, revealed that the campaign against Rome was initially engineered by Moscow. This was no less than a classic KGB disinformation campaign, led by the Soviet intelligence service’s own General Ivan Agayants, and its disseminators were communist agents of influence. But it spread far and wide thanks to the always reliable and ubiquitous progressive useful idiots—people eminent scholar Paul Kengor calls “dupes.”
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Even before the demise of the USSR, the anti-Catholic strain in Holocaust studies acquired a life of its own and blossomed in the febrile swamps of Western liberalism. Some of it rubbed off even on such superb scholars as the pioneering Raul Hilberg, who at first tied the Shoah to Christianity, and then ended up defending Pope Pius XII. Hilberg falsely extrapolated his anti-Christian conclusion from the research of the incredible Norman Cohn. The latter discovered an exterminationist anti-Jewish fanaticism among some of the antinomian, gnostic sects in medieval Bavaria and Hungary. Hence, Hilberg’s initial impression that Christianity stood behind the Holocaust. Nothing can be further from the truth. Christian theology’s animus against Judaism must not be denied, but it never postulated exterminating Jews. Rather, it focused on converting them. Further, blaming Christianity in general, rather than extremist heretical sects in particular, as the source of the exterminationist horrors is like ascribing the blame for Communism on Judaism by projecting the Sabbatean totalitarian fantasies onto the Jewish people at large. This sort of dichotomy is sheer nonsense, as Hilberg eventually realized himself.
All this should be crystal clear. But it is not. Instead, we are still stuck with “Hitler’s Pope.” Much of it stems from the general secularizing drift of Western civilization. The Catholic Church is everyone’s favorite whipping boy and reductio ad Hitlerum remains the preferred method of the Left to destroy its opponents morally, according to the sagacious Leo Strauss.
As Catholic journalists Grzegorz Górny and Janusz Rosikoń explain in their highly entertaining (as well as richly illustrated and authorized) Vatican Secret Archives: Unknown Pages of Church History (San Francisco and Warsaw: Ignatius Press and Rosikon Press, 2020) the “secret archives” have long been secret in name only. For example, already in 1964, Pope Paul VI authorized a quartet of historians, led by Fr. Pierre Blet, SJ, to research Pope Pius XII in response to the scurrilous and sacrilegious play Der Stellvertreter (The Deputy) that launched the narrative of “Hitler’s Pope.” Its author, former Nazi-turned-Communist, Rolf Hochhuth, accused the Roman Pontiff of “passivity and indifference” in the face of the Holocaust as well as collaboration with the Third Reich.
Art tends to be more powerful than reason as evidenced by numerous emulators of Hochhuth. It mattered little that Fr. Blet and his team published a twelve-volume work (1965–1981) to debunk the mendacity. Fr. Blet even wrote a separate, relatively short opus on the topic. Further, in 1983, John Paul II permitted Fr. Peter Gumpel full access to research Pope Pius XII for the purpose of his beatification process. His task took him 30 years to accomplish. Again, there was no smoking gun—no “Hitler’s Pope.” On the contrary, the pontiff stands vindicated. Although he was a prudent diplomat and not a fiery crusader, he nonetheless saved countless Jews from the Holocaust.
Granted, those researchers were Church insiders. Nevertheless, the fruit of their labor was persuasive enough to elicit serious scholarly support. The voices of informed scholarship—Sir Martin Gilbert and Jonathan Steinberg—made little difference, however, on the continuous barrage of propaganda against Pius XII and the Catholic Church. Pop culture, punditry, and quack history tend to intimidate and bury the truth, at least temporarily. The mendacious narrative has metastasized and there is no stopping it.
Thus, Pope Francis has resolved to allow access to the Vatican Secret Archives to an outside team. Over 200 researchers applied to be a part of this process. Until now, there have been only two archivists assigned to the project which, originally, was to be completed in 2028. We are talking about 16 million pages of uncatalogued documents in a few scores of crates. Reportedly, there are copious lists of records attesting to the papal aid to Jewish people all over Europe. From producing fake baptismal certificates and false passports to undertaking numerous clandestine interventions and setting up hiding places as well as running a robust underground railroad for the fugitives, Rome and the Holy Father did what they thought was the maximum for the suffering multitudes.
Now the new team will descend upon the archives. Catholics should not be afraid of the truth. They should not be surprised that there has been an ongoing effort to explain the enormity of the crime of the Holocaust, nor that it involves their Church. They should also be prepared for a coming cacophony as the mainstream liberal media amplify the leaks with customary prejudice. This issue must be sorted out. The truth shall set us free.
Admittedly, only the Lord knows what the new team will unearth and how its members will interpret it. Let us hope they follow the logocentric method that allowed Professor Kamen to write his rigorous monograph about the Inquisition and thereby give it the justice it had long deserved.