The Church and the Holocaust

September 20th, 2009

Pius XIIThere has been a lot of speculation about the actions of the Catholic Church and Pope Pius XII (at left, as Nuncio in Berlin in 1927) in regard to the Holocaust during World War II.  Some feel that the Church did more than it got credit for; others condemn the Church’s reluctance to criticize Germany and its wholesale slaughter of millions of Jews and others.  Still others point to the staunch anti-communism of Pius XII and other factors as indicators that the Church traded official silence on fascist excesses for protection of the Church and in furtherance of its political objectives.

It would be too simple to say that the Vatican struck a deal with the Germans and Italians. The Church had dealings with both governments, and the Vatican tried to maintain an essentially neutral position during the war. No doubt, there was a justifiable element of concern for the very survival of the Church. However, Hitler and the Nazi leadership were wary of the Vatican and always considered it an enemy, and no conciliatory gestures the Church made changed that perception.

The role of the Church during WWII is very controversial, and even researching it requires great caution. There is a broad range of seemingly authoritative history that can be used to substantiate virtually any position.

Pope Pius XII, like Pius XI before him, made statements and took actions that were not favorable to the Nazis or their treatment of Jews and others. However, those actions were not very effective, partly because the Pope didn’t throw the full weight of his papacy behind them. There were many other Catholics, including priests, nuns, monks, brothers, and lay people, who courageously defied the Nazis and tried to protect Jews, and many of them paid with their lives. In Italy, where the treatment of Jews during the Holocaust was generally better than in some countries but worse than others, there’s no doubt that the influence of the Church saved the lives of many.

There were other actions by senior Catholic leaders that were reprehensible. For example, Theodor Cardinal Innitzer, in Austria, openly supported the Anschluss and personally went to meet Hitler when he arrived in Vienna. August Cardinal Hlond, who was then Primate of Poland and openly anti-Semitic, wrote a pastoral letter urging Polish Catholics to boycott Jewish businesses. And perhaps worst is the role of Archbishop (later Cardinal) Aloysius Stepinac in Croatia, a fascist state during World War II that allied itself with the Nazis. Archbishop Stepinac was a supporter of the Holocaust in Croatia which resulted in the murders of perhaps as many as 600,000 Serbs, Jews, Roma (Gypsies), and others. Even today, Stepinac is seen as a hero by some in Croatia, the Vatican still supports him, and a Catholic school in New York is named for him. 

Perhaps the best summary is this: The Catholic Church, especially at lower levels, made some effort to save Jews and others during the Holocaust, but it didn’t do enough. If ever there was a time for the Pope and his Church to put it all on the line in forceful opposition to evil, this was it. In that respect, the Church failed. As a result, many died who might not have. Remember that Hitler and the Nazis were very conscious of public opinion, they took great pains to justify their actions, and they attempted to hide their worst acts. If the Pope had repeatedly stood up to the Nazis and announced, firmly and unequivocally before the world, “In the name of God, you may not do this!” there is a good chance they would have been more circumspect and as a result would not have been able to kill so many.

Additional reading:

Remembering the Holocaust, Opinion Forum
Auschwitz and the Holocaust, Opinion Forum
Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust, Jewish Virtual Library
Pope defends wartime predecessor of anti-semitism charge, Telegraph
The Holocaust and the Catholic Church, James Carroll, The Atlantic
The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965, Michael Phayer
Hitler’s Pope, John Cornwell

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4 Responses to “The Church and the Holocaust”

  1. Brian Bagent |

    The failures that led to WWII as well as those that lengthened it are numerous.

    If Neville Chamberlain…

    If FDR…

    If Pope Pius XII…

    If Charles de Gaulle…

    If the Treaty of Versailles…

    If my aunt had testicles, she’d be my uncle.

    The Latin Rite Church has had problems in the past, they continue to have problems today. I have a difficult time laying much blame for the atrocities of WWII at the feet of an organization that hasn’t had any military power in over 300 years. The NAZIs were a great many things, and wanted to appear to be something other than they were. I don’t have much doubt that they would have had an irrational yet plausible answer for Pius even if he had been more outspoken.

    I think what Pius did (or did not do) was more a crisis of faith on his own part, but it is difficult to institutionalize a crisis of faith, because in the end, faith is an utterly individualistic practice. The Pope could have shown better leadership, but if you are a Christian, you have to accept the fact that your actions (or inactions) are yours alone.

    When (if) you stand in judgment, you are not going to be asked about the failings of this Pope or that priest, you are going to be asked about your own failings. The ordained may have more things to answer for at that time (for what C.S. Lewis called “the weight of glory”), but that does not mitigate what the lay person has to answer for in his own turn because the layman also bears the weight of glory as well.

    In fact, Catholics (and most of the Eastern Rite Churches as well) attest to this every time they celebrate the Eucharist (…forgive me for the things I have done, and for the things I have failed to do…).

  2. larry |

    The murder of so many innocents has so embarrassed humankind that the actions of those that acted in opposition are lost in history. These questions about how the Catholic Church reacted to the Holocaust surface ever so often, usually brought on by some other agenda that will benefit it’s presence. I’ve often wondered why so little is asked about the action of others that might have helped the Jews.
    Todays piece about the Holocaust is most likely an attempt to show that others besides our own government have on occasion turned away from the Jews and Israel. This nation has supported Israel since it’s founding in 1948. Not until now has any President displayed so little concern for the country or the people.Hence the replay once again of the Holocaust versus the Catholic Church. The Pope did it so its okay if we do it too.

  3. Tom |

    “Todays piece about the Holocaust is most likely an attempt to show….”

    As the absolute authority on the motives behind this article, I assure you that your assumption is as far off the mark as it could possibly be. In fact, the logic behind that assumption completely eludes me.

    The Catholic Church, with the Pope as its head, provides spiritual leadership and moral guidance to about one of every six people in the world, with influence far exceeding that of any other single source of religious leadership. Its voice of moral authority is particularly powerful in the Western world. One of the enduring questions in Holocaust studies is the role of the Church and Pius XII during that period. I share the view of many scholars that Pius XII could have and should have done more to oppose the mass murders of the Nazis and those they influenced. That’s what the article is about.

    This article is of a piece with two earlier articles, Remembering the Holocaust and Auschwitz and the Holocaust.

  4. larry |

    My choice of words failed completely to convey my thoughts.

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