The Tragic Heroism of Pope Pius XII

There are commentators on the sports channels whose numbing dialogues would never be confused with the Algonquin Round Table.  These are the so-called Monday Morning Quarterbacks. Some historians quarterback that way.  Pope Pius XII, hailed in his lifetime as a protector of persecuted people, has suffered  in reputation from lax minds who never exercised themselves in the great contests of civilization.

There is increasing evidence that attempts to misrepresent the Pope as feckless and even criminally compliant, began as the work of Communist propagandists, seminally in East Germany at the direction of Moscow.  This was taken up later by people either uninformed or polemical. An impressive number of works have been published recently to correct this, and to them I can only add from my own studies a few details in the anguish of the most terrible years of the 1940’s.

As a child, Eugenio Maria Giuseppi Pacelli  was moved by the early Roman martyrs, and told his uncle that he wanted to be a martyr, but “without nails.” As Pope, his crucifixion without nails began when the diplomat confronted the Evil One who has two faces and hides one.  Pacelli became well aware  that the strengths of diplomacy can strain the apostle, which is why the only one of the Twelve Apostles who was a diplomat, hanged himself.  As a youth sensitive by nature and tutored at home because, according to his sister, he could not take the bad food in seminary, he had the gifts and limitations of a rarified formation. The grandson of an Interior Minister in the Papal States was reared in an intensely clerical world, and one far removed from the nuclear age he would live to see.  He was born on the day that Rutherford B. Hayes was declared president, and  three years before Newman was made a cardinal.  That early environment cultivated his lifelong propensity for baroque effusions, such as his display after the bombing of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, which greatly annoyed the historian Philip Hughes, an admirer, for its contrast to papal serenity during other more distant and rebarbative devastations.

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The Fascist propagandist, Farinnaci,  saw the Vatican and its Pope as an enemy in his crosshairs. In 1942, he wrote: “Undoubtedly, we could not agree with the Vatican Wireless broadcasts of sympathy for Jewish Poland; the telegram sent to the Protestant Queen Wilhelmina; the considerable contribution made to the Holy See a few years ago by the Jews; …the appointment of Jews to posts in the Vatican City, almost in defiance of our anti-Semitic (and therefore Catholic) policy.”  To corroborate Farinacci’s case, Jewish prisoners in an Italian concentration camp in Tossica, sent a letter to the Pope who was  a “revered personality who has stood up for the rights of all afflicted and powerless people.”

Around Christmas of 1942, the Vichy government in their collaboration with the Nazis under Laval as head of government distinct from Petain as chief of state, complained about the “Vatican cliques” who “fly up in the air every time it is a question of the descendants of Christ’s Murderers.” On September 2, The New York Times headlined: “Laval Spurns Pope—25,000 Jews in France Arrested for Deportation.” Laval had already exploded in anger against Monsignor Valerio Valeri, dean of the diplomatic corps in France, for speaking out against the government’s anti-Semitism and deportations of Jews.

On September 12, 1942, ten days after German troops entered Stalingrad, exiled Poles and Belgians sent a plea to the pope to condemn Nazi war crimes.  The Pope did not respond, possibly because in the previous year when he had condemned the racial legislation of the new pro-Nazi republic of Slovakia, the German SS retaliated with mass executions of 3,500 Jews in Lodz, Poland.

Also in 1942, Joseph Goebbels published ten million copies of a pamphlet condemning the Vatican’s attempt to protect Jews by enabling hundreds to flee Poland for Spain and Portugal, and sequestering many in the Vatican. For such acts, The Pilot, then an influential Catholic newspaper in Boston, compared Pius XII to other papal protectors of Jews:  Sixtus IV, Clement VII, Eugenius III, Gregory IX and Pius XI.

The journals of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, formerly a German  spy in Spain and later a counter-spy for the Allies, explain not only how he had persuaded Franco not to allow German troops to attack Gibraltar through Spain.  A devout Catholic, he also foiled Hitler’s attempt to kidnap or assassinate both Pius XII and King Victor Emmanuel after the 1943 arrest of Mussolini at the king’s orders.

From a different perspective, in June of 1942, Bishop Veglia in Yugoslavia, lamented Vatican silence about Italian atrocities among the Croat and Slovene populations annexed to Italy: “…the people are, alas, more and more losing trust in the Catholic Church and loyalty to the Holy Father, while on the other hand they are being thrown into the arms of Communism, in which they are beginning to see the only element which will defend them in the forests against the cruelty of the Italian elements.”

On Christmas Eve, 1942, Pius XII famously broadcast a message to the world, nuanced by his mindfulness of the failed strategies of Pope Leo X with the German princes, and Pope Pius V with Queen Elizabeth I.  The New York Times said of the Pope: “This Christmas more than ever he is a lonely voice crying out in the silence of a continent.” Bishops took up the message and, for instance, Archbishop Gounot in Tunisia, anticipating the Allied landings in French North Africa, denounced the Vichy persecution of Jews.

In Belgium at the start of 1943, the Germans would not let Cardinal van Roey publish the Pope’s Silver Jubilee address, and the Italian government banned the film “Pastor Angelicus” about the life of the Pope. In that same January, the London Tablet commented on the tendency to think that more would have been accomplished by a louder protest from more bishops:  “If there exists a vague atavistic memory that once Popes and Bishops spoke, and wicked Kings trembled, that salutary thing happened because the public opinion of the day had a much fuller and deeper sense of the rights and importance of spiritual authority.  Modern men, who have for so long applauded the narrowing down and emptying of that authority as the emancipation of mankind from the thralldom of superstitions, can hardly be surprised if, as a rule, prelates in the modern era tend in prudence to limit themselves to the field indubitably conceded to them by public opinion.”

In a letter to Bishop von Preysing on April 30, 1943, Pius XII described with unusual candor the theory behind his subtlety “We give to the pastors who are working on the local level the duty of determining if and to what degree the danger of reprisal and of various forms of oppression occasioned by episcopal declarations…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.” The U.S. diplomat Harold Tittman recorded how anti-Nazi resistance leaders consistently had urged the Pope to follow this policy.

In May of 1943, the secretary of the Jewish Agency for Palestine asked the future Pope John XXIII, “to thank the Holy See for the happy outcome of the steps taken on behalf of the Israelites in Slovakia.”  At the same time, the Pope granted an audience to Dr. Kazimierz Papee, the informal representative of the Polish government in exile to the Holy See.  As recounted by the historian Dariusz Libionka, and mentioned in his own journal, Papee had expressed to the Papal Secretary of State, Luigi Cardinal Maglione, his exasperation with the Pope’s hesitancy to speak about the Polish situation in other than diplomatic language. According to Papee, the Pope abandoned diplomatic reserve to berate him: “I have listened again and again to your representatives about our unhappy children in Poland. Must I be given the same story again?”  In his memoir, “Pius XII I Polska,” Papee recalled that the Pope raised his arms in the air as he reprimanded him.  Pope John XXIII had Papee removed, at the start of his pontificate. In the same week of this strained conversation, the Nazi-controlled Radio Paris  broadcast: “As soon as the Fuhrer assumed power in 1933, the Vatican let loose its hostility…National Socialism tried to settle all conflicts with the Church; the Church rejected the hand offered to her. May she bear the responsibility for this in the annals of history.”

The German  ambassador to the Holy See, Baron Ernst von Kessel, was by all accounts, even that of Churchill, secretly sympathetic to the Allies,  He was convinced that Hitler intended to occupy the Vatican, which he thought would be disastrous, especially if the Pope were shot “fleeing while avoiding arrest.”

That did not happen, and Pius XII became  a “martyr without nails.”  No Monday Morning Quarterback with any self-respect can say that Pius XII did not try his best, and indeed did more than most of the players on that historical stage of the war years, conspicuously in contrast to the mendacity of President Roosevelt in his whitewashing of the Katyn Massacre and the short shrift he gave to the resistance leader Jan Karski. Churchill, whom Pius first met in London in 1911 during a Eucharistic Congress, called him  “the greatest man of our time.” During an audience in 1944, Churchill was surprised at the vehemence with which the Pope urged strict justice for war criminals. An eloquent defender of capital punishment in Thomistic terms, Pius told a Swiss reporter: “Not only do we approve of the [Nuremburg] trial, but we desire that the guilty be punished as quickly as possible, and without exception.”  The diplomat in Pius was frustrated by the position of Monsignor Jozef  Tiso as chief of the Slovakian state. A Nazi puppet, Tiso always wore clerical dress and never suffered canonical censure. The Pope received him privately in audience more than once.  But diplomacy worked when Tiso yielded to the Pope’s sixth formal plea to stop deportation of thousands of Jews.  After the war, Tiso was hanged in his clericals as a war criminal.  However, nothing was done to the Herzegovenian Franciscans in the Ustashe center near Medjugorge, whose complicity in the killing of hundreds of Serbian women and children was described by Cardinal Tisserant as an abomination.

Pius XII’s diplomatic character was his triumph with civilized men and his anguish with barbarians. Had he died a martyr with nails, his legacy could not have been suborned by demagogues. Diplomats tend to live longer than prophets, but to fault diplomacy for not having done what a longer view judges should have been done, can be a self-serving form of detraction.  American Indian wisdom has it that you should not judge a man until you have walked two moons  in his moccasins. It is harder to walk in the Shoes of the Fisherman, for there is a rare succession of those elected to do that. The tension between diplomacy and prophecy was the stuff of tragedy, and that made Pius XII a man of his time, which was the most tragic in the annals of man.


  • 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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