The Church and the Holocaust

January 29th, 2013

By Tom Carter

International Holocaust Remembrance Day, created in 2005 by a UN General Assembly resolution, coincides with the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp by Soviet forces on January 27, 1945. This is the third of a series of three articles being re-published to observe this solemn day of remembrance.

There has long been speculation about the actions of the Catholic Church and Pope Pius XII 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:

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
Hitler’s Pope, John Cornwell

(Other articles in this series: Remembering the Holocaust, Auschwitz and the Holocaust)

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2 Responses to “The Church and the Holocaust”

  1. Jan |

    Not only Jews in Europe were targeted by the Nazis, so were American GIs were Jewish. I met a WWII vet recently who survived the beach head assault at Normandy but was wounded by a grenade and captured. A German army doctor took one look at his dog tags and hide them, amputated the mangled leg and saved his life. If a German was willing to do that on the battlefield, the Pope could have done more.

  2. Tom Carter |

    Thanks, Jan. That makes the point very well. The Pope had tremendous influence and undoubtedly could have saved many lives had he been willing to firmly stand up to the Nazis. The fact that he did less than he could have might be a reflection of pro-Nazi bias on his part, as some have said. In my opinion, though, his main concern was the political and economic welfare of the Church. That attitude has prevailed throughout history and today can be seen in the Church’s response to recent scandals.

    Of course, this doesn’t diminish the courage and self-sacrifice of many priests and lay Catholics who did as much as they could in opposition to the Nazis. It’s just unfortunate that they had to act without the kind of leadership and support they should have received from the highest level of the Church.

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