The evolving legacy of Pope Pius XII: an interview with Ronald J. Rychlak

Ronald J. Rychlak is an American Catholic lawyer, jurist, author, political commentator, and professor at University of Mississippi School of Law. He holds a B.A. in economics from Wabash College and a J.D. from Vanderbilt University. He has been awarded medals for diplomatic service to the Holy See from St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI and has received numerous awards for his scholarship.

Holder of the Jamie L. Whitten Chair in Law and Government at Ole Miss, Professor Rychlak is an advisor to the Holy See’s delegation to the United Nations and a member of the Mississippi Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Known for his research on the role of Pope Pius XII in World War II, he is the author of several books, including Hitler, the War, and the Pope. On Aug. 22, I interviewed Professor Rychlak by email about the changing legacy of Pope Pius XII.

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How would you characterize the current reputation of Pope Pius XII among historians?

It has improved over the past decade or two. Certainly it is better among historians than it is among those who are only casually aware of the whole controversy about his leadership during World War II and the Shoah.

The first edition of your book Hitler, the War, and the Pope appeared in 2000 just in time to rebut journalist John Cornwell’s 1999 book Hitler’s Pope, in which he charged that Pope Pius XII was a Nazi collaborator who didn’t do enough to save the Jews. In your view, how has public perception of Pius XII shifted in the past 15 years, if at all?

Hitler, the War, and the Pope came out on the heels of Cornwell’s book, but it was not intended as a rebuttal, just a fair accounting of what happened. We were actually at the printer when I first saw Hitler’s Pope. We held up printing so that I could add 40+ pages of analysis in an epilogue. I think anyone who reads that epilogue can see the sloppiness and outright dishonesty that went into Hitler’s Pope. (Cornwell disliked it so much that in his next book he called me “the Vatican’s favorite trial lawyer.” I took it as a compliment.)

In 2005, at the urging of Catholic philosopher Michael Novak, I wrote Righteous Gentiles: How Pope Pius XII Saved Half a Million Jews from the Nazis. That book was a rebuttal, but not just to Cornwell. In it I tried to answer all of the claims that I heard being made by papal critics.

As for the shift in public perception, there is still a long way to go, but more and more historians are coming out on the pro-Pius side; the Congregation for the Causes of Saints gathered overwhelming evidence of Pius XII’s efforts to save all victims of the Nazis, especially the Jews; revelations by Ion Mihai Pacepa (my co-author on the book Disinformation) and others have shown that Pius XII’s reputation was intentionally smeared by Soviet intelligence agencies in part of a covert war against the church; and we are seeing many more Jewish and Catholic leaders speaking up on behalf of the truth. So, we are moving in the right direction.

Your book pointed out that Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 play “The Deputy” originated the claim that Pius XII did nothing to stop the Holocaust. As we can see from reading World War II-era newspaper editorials, what was wrong with that claim?

First off, I’d say that we should no longer refer to “The Deputy” as Hochhuth’s play. As explained in the second edition of Hitler, the War, and the Pope and then elaborated upon in Disinformation, that play was outlined, crafted, translated, published, produced, and promoted by Soviet operatives. Hochhuth certainly played a role as the front man, but as early as 1969, British Intelligence recognized that he was involved in some kind of pro-Soviet campaign to discredit Western leaders and heroes. Pacepa’s admission that he was part of this scheme led me and others to do research that confirmed the Soviet hand behind this play.

The Soviets were in a virtual Cold War with the Catholic Church at this time, and literature was at the heart of it. In Berlin, where “The Deputy” debuted, theaters were openly political and propagandistic. “The Deputy” was the first play produced by a theater group that was established in West Berlin for the express purpose of spreading pro-Communist propaganda to an audience that could no longer cross over into East Berlin due to the Berlin Wall. The producer was a life-long communist who openly used the theater to advance the proletariat agenda. 

The Soviets, of course, did not care that this depiction departed from the truth in significant ways. They were writing a new history; one that differed from editorials that appeared in the New York Times and elsewhere praising Pius as a staunch opponent of Hitler and a champion of Nazi victims. Unfortunately, the world’s greatest propaganda machine did significant damage to Pius XII’s reputation.

I might note that the Kremlin did not actually care about an already deceased pontiff. By discrediting any pope—particularly by linking him to the Nazis, as they had done with Mindszenty, Stepinac, Beran, Wyszinski, and numerous other churchmen after World War II—they also brought discredit on the Catholic Church, Christianity, Western values and perhaps the very concept of religion. That was a big deal for atheistic Communism.

In 2014, Pope Francis defended Pius XII in a Spanish newspaper interview, promising that sealed documents from the Vatican secret archive would show the pope had directly saved Italian Jews. As promised, the Vatican released some of those documents later that year. What did these records actually show us?

In 2014, I took part in a conference held in Rome in anticipation of the opening of those archives. Unfortunately, most of those archives remain sealed. I did, however, have dinner with the head of one of the principal archives. He assured me that the news will all be good—in other words, consistent with all of the other evidence we have about Pius XII's character and determination to help the victims.

More importantly, new evidence has been unearthed in archives outside of the Vatican. In fact, that is where much of the most interesting evidence has always been found. It was dangerous to keep papers in the Vatican. Pius and the Curia knew that Nazi forces might invade at any minute, so they were very judicious in their use of the written word. Archives outside of the Vatican, however, have proven quite fruitful.

Perhaps the most important recent revelations can be found in Mark Riebling's new book, Church of Spies: The Pope's Secret War Against Hitler. It's an amazing book that documents Pius XII's role in the conspiracies against Hitler, including those with better known co-conspirators like Bonhoeffer and Stauffenberg. I have written a bit about Pius XII's involvement with these groups, but the archival documents that Riebling found in German, Italian, and other archives are overwhelmingly compelling.

In 2014, Pope Francis also announced that Pope Pius XII’s cause for canonization had stalled due to a lack of reported miracles through his intercession. While opening the archives on Pius XII may help his image in the long run, it seems uncertain that his reputation will ever recover fully from its postwar drop. What are your own thoughts on Pius XII’s future prospects for sainthood?

Like Pope Francis said, it's down to the miracles now. The cause has never been stopped. There have been some very promising reported miracles, but they have to be verified. Delay related to that is to be expected.

Vatican historians, theologians and bishops have concluded that he led a life of “heroic virtue” and that he is venerable. The Vatican's official report, the Positio, covers all the issues and stands as the Vatican's official analysis of his life. I am particularly proud that it refers to my “excellent book Hitler, the War, and the Pope” and says that my epilogue “is a detailed and well documented refutation of the falsehoods in Cornwell's book; it is a final and definitive demolition of that work.”

I expect that Pius will one day be named a saint, but I also do not expect that to end the debate. The bigger issue may be the petition to have him named as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem, which was filed a few years ago. He deserves that honor and perhaps one day will receive it.

Although you’re not a professional historian, you started writing about Pope Pius XII because you were astonished at the things people were saying about him. What are some lingering stereotypes which Americans continue to hold today about Pius XII?

When I started studying Pius XII, I did not know anything about the controversy. I looked into it because a colleague of mine said that he had been a Nazi. I've often said that if Cornwell's book had been out, I probably would have read it and stopped there. Instead, I found contradicting reports that drew me into deeper research, ultimately leading to the truth.

There are a lot of lingering falsehoods. When you read accounts by people who actually knew him, they say that Pius was a brilliant conversationalist, funny, a good card player (in his younger days), very compassionate, and someone who truly brightened a room. The false narrative developed in “The Deputy” and elaborated upon in numerous books, articles and reviews since then, has him as a cold, aloof aristocrat who cared more about papal authority than human life. It's true that he had an illness late in life that left him more distant, but until then he was recognized as a particularly warm and welcoming pope.

As for not being a professional historian, that’s true. I do, however, think that I can evaluate evidence pretty well. My book for lawyers, Real and Demonstrative Evidence, is in its third edition. Fair evaluation of the evidence is the key, not who discovered any particular document. Unfortunately, too many authors in this area have been less than honest with the evidence.

When you meet someone today who voices the opinion that Pope Pius XII “did nothing” or “didn’t do enough” about the Holocaust, how do you respond?

I suggest that they read Hitler, the War, and the Pope. If I really like them, I'll give them a copy!

Israel Zolli, the Chief Rabbi in Rome from 1939 to 1945, converted to Catholicism at the end of the war and took the name of Eugenio in honor of his close friend Pius XII, whose birth name was Eugenio Pacelli. But Yad Vashem, the state of Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, has generally been critical of the pope, refusing several nominations to honor him as Righteous Among the Gentiles. How do you reconcile the wartime popularity of Pius XII among Italian Jews with the Israeli government’s more recent ambiguity toward him?

Chief Rabbi Zolli wrote a good book about his experiences and his conversion. It’s called “Before the Dawn.”

Like everyone who was close to Pius during the war, Zolli attested to the good work that Pius did to protect Jews from the Nazis. In fact, Roman Jews put up a plaque at their synagogue thanking Pius for his help. I believe a picture of it (along with a ton of other evidence) can be found on the web page of the Pave the Way Foundation.

As for Yad Vashem, there has been some positive development. They revised a prominent plaque on Pius XII, moving from a critical assessment to a more neutral one. It's not where I'd like to see it or where I think it will end up, but it is a significant improvement. As more and more evidence comes forth to show the Soviet hand behind the smear campaign, I think even more opinions will change.

Looking at the career of Pius XII as a whole, and not merely at the record of his dealings with Nazi Germany, what do you believe were his greatest accomplishments?

Saving Jewish lives, particularly in Rome, has to rank high. In addition, I might add his role in the Cold War and fighting off a communist takeover of Italy. Numerous commentators have pointed out that his openness to ecumenism reshaped Catholic theological work and laid the groundwork for Vatican II. He encouraged women religious to study theology, scripture and psychology. He also defined the dogma of the Assumption of Mary.

In your view, what were Pius XII’s biggest shortcomings as pope?

He certainly did not devote much attention to public relations! Actually, he once said something to the effect that a statement might make him look better in the eyes of the world, but it would likely bring more suffering on innocents, so he did not do it.

What do you hope people will take away from your work on Pius XII?

I hope people recognize that I have striven to find the truth, that I documented my work, and that I reached logical conclusions as I evaluated the evidence.

You’ve written a lot on politics and law in addition to your work on Pius XII. What’s your next project?

I just edited a book called American Law from a Catholic Perspective: Through a Clearer Lens. I'm very proud of that work. We have contributions from many of the most insightful Catholic lawyers and law professors in the nation. Currently I'm writing a chapter on Pope Pius XII for a book on papal social teachings.

If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about Pope Pius XII, what would it be?

Francis once said that he gets an “existential rash” when he sees people speaking against Pius XII and the church during World War II, but I doubt that I would mention that to him.

After thanking him for all he has done, I simply would say that I—along with many others—have investigated all of the charges that have been made about Pius XII. They do not hold water. He should not hesitate to open any archives on that basis.

What are your hopes for the future?

As the father of six, my hopes are for my children, that they have peace and prosperity. I also hope that they have the drive to seek the truth, the tenacity to find it, and the courage to defend it.

Any final thoughts?

I'm sure some people will resist what I am saying. People have set ideas, and those are always hard to change. Understand, however, that during and after the war, Pius XII was recognized as an arch-enemy of the Nazis. That near-universal perception changed only after Soviet and Soviet bloc intelligence agencies—the greatest propaganda machinery the world has ever seen—went into high gear to discredit him. Many people, in absolute good faith, have been deceived by that Kremlin-directed disinformation.

You have to look past the false narrative. The truth is out there. During the war, the Nazis despised Pius XII, the Jews praised him and the rescuers cited him as their inspiration. They are the real witnesses; they are the people to whom we should listen.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

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Robert Lewis
2 years ago
I will just limit myself to one question about this article, because I've heard conflicting accounts of what the answer is: what did Cardinal-Patriarch Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli think about Pius XII's role in resistance against the Shoah of the Jews--before and after he became Pope John XXIII?
Sean Salai, S.J.
2 years ago

Thanks for reading. I don't often respond to reader questions, but I think Pius XII deserves at least to be defended against outright lies and misinformation, if not also against the claim that him speaking up to condemn Nazism and antagonize Hitler to kill more people (as Hitler did in the Night of Broken Glass when the Dutch bishops condemned him) would have somehow represented more than a moral victory--and that this condemnation might have prevented us Westerners today from self-righteously easing our guilty consciences over the Shoah by refusing to accept that the pope was powerless to stop it and instead making him a scapegoat for the deaths of 6 million people. In fact, Pius was the only European leader still speaking up against Nazism at all in his Christmas message, which the Nazis detested even if others didn't understand it. And to say diplomacy failed against Germany isn't a unique claim. To accuse Pius XII of being a Nazi collaborator because he was a veteran diplomat who used diplomacy to save people's lives, especially through his silence, is a monstrous twisting of the truth. There were many other religious leaders and diplomats involved with appeasing pre-war Germany through treaties, including Neville Chamberlain's government in Britain, and yet we don't seem to feel compelled to blame them with the same hindsight-driven venom that we level at Pius XII. In any event, our interviewee Mr. Rychlak writes elsewhere how Loris Capovilla, private secretary to Pope St. John XXIII, has expressly refuted the false claim that Roncalli was critical of Pius XII's handling of the Jewish situation. Click on this link for his article on John XXIII and Pius XII.

Dimitri Cavalli
2 years ago
I believe James Carroll, in his book, "Constantine's Sword" (2001), alleges that Pope John XXIII, on his deathbed, repudiated Pius XII. Loris Cardinal Capovilla, who served as Pope John's secretary and who recently turned 100, dismissed the allegation as a lie. Pope John's complete diaries, which chronicle his diplomatic service before, during, and after the war, and tenure as the Cardinal-Patriarch of Venice, have been published in Italy. Where's the criticism of Pius XII? In fact, when Pope John was elected, he sent a telegram to the president of Israel, pledging to take the same benevolent attitude toward the Jewish people that his predecessor, Pius XII. (The telegram is one of the volumes of the collection, "Documents on the Foreign Policy of Israel.") In another book, "Practicing Catholic," Carroll describes John XXIII's encyclical, "Pacem in Terris," as the greatest papal encyclical of all time. It's obvious that Carroll never read the encyclical's endnotes. Of 73 endnotes, 34 of them cite the wartime speeches of Pius XII, which Carroll has long denigrated as vague and morally deficient. So if much of the encyclical's source material is flawed and deficient, then logically "Pacem in Terris" has to extremely deficient as well. I guess James Carroll doesn't devote too much thought to these things.
Elizabeth Strub
2 years ago
Is the author aware of the research done by the late Robert Graham, SJ, in the Vatican Archives on Pius XII and the Germans? He was given unlimited access to any and all documentation pertaining to Pius XII and the Germans. To read more.google "Robert Graham, SJ,
Ronald Rychlak
2 years ago
Thanks Elizabeth. I am well aware of Fr. Graham's work, both published and unpublished. I also extensively used the Acts & Dicuments collection that he put together, at papal request, along with three other Jesuits. My findings are right in line with those of Fr. Graham.
Carolyn Disco
2 years ago
An opposing view, expressed by Albert Camus in a statment to the Dominican monks at Latour-Maubourg in 1948; from "The Unbeliever and Christians" in his Resistance, Rebellion and Death. “And why shouldn’t I say here what I have written elsewhere? For a long time during those frightful years [he is speaking of World War II; at that time he was a member of the Resistance in France] I waited for a great voice to speak up in Rome. I, an unbeliever? Precisely. For I knew that the spirit would be lost if it did not utter a cry of condemnation when faced with force. It seems that that voice did speak up. But I assure you that millions of men like me did not hear it and that at that time believers and unbelievers alike shared a solitude that continued to spread as the days went by and the executioners multiplied. It has been explained to me since that the condemnation was indeed voiced. But that it was in the style of the encyclicals, which is not at all clear. The condemnation was voiced and it was not understood! Who could fail to feel where the true condemnation lies in this case, and to see that this example by itself gives part of the reply, perhaps the whole reply, that you ask of me. What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest man. That they should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today. The grouping we need is a grouping of men resolved to speak out clearly and to pay up personally…." Pius' use of veiled, indirect language in his Christmas message was beyond anemic.
Robert Hugelmeyer
2 years ago
Every time Pope Pius XII clearly spoke out more and more jews and others were summarily executed including more and more Catholic Priest. This Pope did much more behind the scenes and possibly save a half million Jews from death as reflected in Ronald J. Rychlak writings.
Robert Hugelmeyer
2 years ago
Read his book "Hitler The War and the Pope" when it first came out. Well documented and supports the Pope's positive intervention on behalf of the Jews, et. al. One thing I remembered from the book was every time Pope Pius XII intervened, Hitler ordered the executions of more and more Jews and more Catholic Priests. The book made me proud to be a Catholic.
Tim O'Leary
2 years ago
The NYT editorials of the pope's Christmas speeches of 1941 and 1942 and the Nazi responses show that his anti-Nazi position was seen as unequivocal and definitive, more than any other leader in Nazi-held Europe. 1941: The voice of Pius XII is a lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe this Christmas. 1942: Pope Pius expresses as passionately as any leader on our side the war aims of the struggle for freedom... Yet, it is the contemporary archives that conclusively prove the courageous and life-saving efforts of Ven. Pope Pius XII. While it is understandable that the godless Soviets would try to reverse the unanimous acclaim of the time (including contemporary Jews, the Rabbi of Rome, the State of Israel, etc.), why some Catholics would persist in their denial despite conclusive and overwhelming evidence says a lot more about them than the holy man. There is some deep psychological or spiritual need to believe the worst of the Church and Churchmen among those so intent on departing from the orthodox teaching.
michael baland
2 years ago
Incredibly, Rolf Hochhuth still believes that he wrote the play. Oh, for the good old days when we could blame the Soviets for everything.
Tim O'Leary
2 years ago
Rolf Hochhuth is also known for being an outspoken defender of Holocaust denier David Irving, describing him as a "pioneer of modern history who has written magnificent books" and an "historian to equal someone like Joachim Fest". (Mar 2005, in Interview with German weekly Junge Freiheit). See here: http://www.fpp.co.uk/docs/Irving/Hochhuth/Times_200207.html Irving sort-of defended him with the following "What an extraordinary story about Hochhuth, and what utter rubbish; he was my best friend in those years and still is a good friend; I have two chapters about him in my memoirs. There was never a hint of Soviet influence -- which is not to say he may not have been fed a corrupt dossier in some clever way. He could be very naive." - Soviet stooges usually were. Hochhuth's next play, "Soldiers," accuses Churchill of ordering the murder of General Wladyslaw Sikorski, Prime Minister of the Polish Government in Exile and Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces. He died in a plane crash off from Gibraltar in 1943. "Unbeknownst to Hochhuth, the pilot of the plane was still alive and he won a libel case that seriously affected the London theater which staged the play." http://www.firstthings.com/article/2004/04/001-the-end-of-the-pius-wars
Robert Lewis
1 year 12 months ago
One can be called a "Holocaust Denier" by the Zionist-affiliated Western press for any number of bad reasons: one can be called a "Holocaust Denier" for contrasting the number of Jewish victims of the Shoah with those vast numbers of Slavs that the Nazis murdered in far greater numbers; one can be called a "Holocaust Denier" for questioning, as Norman Finkelstein does, the number of "survivors," and insisting that the "Holocaust" has become an "extortion industry," because six million could not have died, if there is such an enormous population of folks claiming to be "survivors" and demanding compensation for themselves or their dead relatives (Finkelstein's mother, who was actually in the camps, first pointed this out to him); one can be a "Holocaust Denier" if one points out that the Zionist leaders of the Thirties tried to negotiate a treaty with the Nazis called the "Transfer Agreement," by which the Jews of Germany would be allowed to seek refuge ONLY in Palestine. I'm sorry, but I'm tired of hearing about the semi-numinous quality of the "Holocaust Myth" (in terms of its absolutely exceptional character in human history); I think it has now become a cult promoted to deny Arabs and Palestinians their rights in the Middle East. And there are Catholic religious in the Middle East (I am acquainted with some myself) who feel the same way, and they are definitely NOT "anti-Semites." You are promoting a "guilt-by-association" logical fallacy that Hochhuth's conclusions about Pius XII--wrong though they may be--are in any way related to his sympathy for Irving, who may be a "Holocaust Denier" only to the extent that he agrees with some of the patterns of thinking about that tragic event that I've mentioned above--none of which questions that plenty of Jews were murdered by the Nazis.
Tim O'Leary
1 year 12 months ago
Robert - you are dissembling to defend Hochhuth and, even more egregiously, Irving. David Irving was a denier of much of accepted history on WWII. Himself an avowed fascist, most of his works defend Hitler (he claimed Hitler to be the "biggest friend the Jews had in the Third Reich," said Hitler could not have known of the plans to exterminate European Jewry (it was all Himmler's and Heydrich's fault), denied the logistic feasibility of the Holocaust, etc. etc.). He was even convicted in an English court, in a libel case, of deliberately misrepresenting historical evidence in order to promote Holocaust denial. The court found that Irving was an active Holocaust denier, antisemite, and racist, who "for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence". Re Hochhuth, it is not guilt by association, but guilt by their common beliefs and interpretation of history. You didn't address Hochhuth's second lie re Churchill, which is just as damning for his credibility.
Ronald Rychlak
1 year 12 months ago
Not only did Hochhuth frequently defend his friend David Irving, in the 1960s (after The Deputy), the two worked together. Irving was sort of a research assistant for Hochhuth. In 1969 (after the play about Churchill), British intelligence produced a top-secret document speculating about whether they were working together against the West on behalf of the Soviets. That document, now declassified, is reprinted in the 2010 edition of Hitler, the War, and the Pope.
Nicholas Clifford
1 year 12 months ago
I was unaware of all these allegations about Hochhuth and the notion that "The Deputy" was part of a Soviet disinformation campaign (whether H. knew it or not). I would like to see some harder evidence, though. I followed the "disinformation" link in the piece below,and was led to Pacepa's book published by WND (which I'd never heard of either). I then poked around the WND website, a site that does not exactly inspire confidence (among other things there's an article saying that in light of the ISIS attacks we should a) close our frontiers; b) go out and buy guns mmediately; and c) by implication, support D. Trump, who's got it right on such issues. None of this proves that the allegations are false. But I'm a historian by trade, and I'm trained to like a little more hard evidence than is given here.
Ronald Rychlak
1 year 12 months ago
I have a chapter devoted to this issue in the 2010 issue of Hitler, the War, and the Pope.
Bill Mazzella
2 years ago
I don't think there is any question that Pius XII helped many of the Jews In Rome. The question is did he do enough and was he as solicitous for the welfare of the Jews that he could have been. Also the following excerpt from Posner's work seems to show anti-semitism. Since Rychlak is following this thread I would like to know what he thinks about Posner's work. "When Pacelli was in Germany after World War I, there were violent pro-communist demonstrations. Pacelli wrote to the Vatican Secretary of State about how the three red leaders were all Jews. That experience helped form his later view that socialism, communism, and Jews were all intertwined. He described a trip by a colleague to meet representatives of the new Bolshevik government that controlled Munich. “An army of employees were dashing about to and fro, giving out orders, waving bits of paper, and in the middle of this, a gang of young women, of dubious appearance, Jews like all the rest of them, hanging around in all the offices with lecherous demeanor and suggestive smiles. The boss of this female rabble was Levien’s mistress, a young Russian woman, a Jew and divorcée, who was in charge. . . . This Levien is a young man, of about thirty to thirty-five, also Russian and a Jew. Pale, dirty, with vacant eyes, hoarse voice, vulgar, repulsive, with a face that is both intelligent and sly.” (Max Levien was head of the Munich Soviet movement.) See also Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope, pp. 295– 96. Defenders of Pius, like Jesuit historian Pierre Blet, counter that the letter to the Vatican Secretary of State was probably only signed by Pacelli, as such matters were often prepared by one of the Nuncio’s aides. Of course, that overlooks Pacelli’s micromanagement. It would have been out of character for Pacelli to send such a letter to his superiors without signing off on every word." Posner, Gerald (2015-02-03). God's Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican (p. 572). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Tim O'Leary
2 years ago
The false witness goes on. Does anyone really believe the thesis of Posner's book - that the pope was only concerned about making money? One has to have a very warped view of human nature to believe such stuff. Yet, some Catholics are taken in by these crazy conspiracy claims. By the way, Stalin was the first to use the term "Hitler's Pope" - trying to discredit the pope in order to cover his oppression of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. But this back-and-forth is like an endless game of whackamole. Read Joe Bottum's review of the numerous books that use partial or mistranslated quotes and innuendo to attack Pius XII (http://www.firstthings.com/article/2004/04/001-the-end-of-the-pius-wars).
Robert Lewis
2 years ago
I personally do not believe that Pacelli was any more "anti-Semitic" than Pius XI or Churchill or Roosevelt or other members of Europe or America's elite cultures were, at the time. I also do not believe that Pius XII was a vulgar, "bankster"-loving and corrupt ecclesiastic (although the Catholic Church DOES have and always HAS had such careerists. and Pope Francis obviously agrees with me). I also completely agree with the argument that all of Pius XII's efforts to counter the Holocaust of the Jews DID incite Nazi atrocities. However, to all of those exculpations of a pope who I believe NOT to have had the "heroic sanctity" that SHOULD be the major qualification for canonization, I respond with two simple questions: "Why do the highest-ranking clergy of the Apostolic and Roman Catholic Church wear red? Isn't it in order to be mindful of the martyrs?" and "To WHOM does a pope of the Apostolic and Roman Catholic Church owe primary allegiance? Isn't it to the Body of Christ, rather than to non-Catholics or Jews?" And the follow-up questions is this: "What do you suppose would be the status and reputation of the Body of Christ now, in its period of obvious decline, if its leader had put his life on the line to declare the Shoah to be an inadmissible sacrilege that it was the DUTY of all Catholics to actively oppose? Don't you think that such a Faith might now have something like the 'cult-status' that the Holocaust has among the bien-pensants of the West?" How many Catholic Germans would have revolted against Nazism upon being treated with the spectacle of the martyrdom of a pope? Personally, I think it might have stopped the genocide in its tracks.
Bill Mazzella
2 years ago
"How many Catholic Germans would have revolted against Nazism upon being treated with the spectacle of the martyrdom of a pope? Personally, I think it might have stopped the genocide in its tracks." Robert, that is probably the best way to put it that no one can disagree with. The Catholics in Germany would definitely acted differently. Just as Italy was very different after the pope withdrew the ban on voting.
Tim O'Leary
2 years ago
I can agree that Pope Pius could have engineered martyrdom for himself. From what his expressed concerns were at the time, I think he was more concerned about avoiding martyrdom of millions of others. Maybe, it was the wrong choice. But a saint could indeed make that judgment. But, look at our present time. ISIS and Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda are building up atrocities and creating martyrs. Should Pope Francis march into one of their camps? Is that the advice you are giving?
Robert Lewis
2 years ago
Oh, come now: that's a straw man, if I ever saw one. You know perfectly well that ISIS does not control Europe, and that any pontification against them by Francis would not be nearly the equivalent of Pope Pacelli's denunciation of fascism, which DID control much of Europe, including that pope's homeland.
Sean Salai, S.J.
2 years ago

Mr. Lewis, have you read "Silence" by Shusako Endo? Martin Scorcese is making a movie out of it. It tells the story of some Jesuit missionaries who apostasized during the 17th century expulsion of foreigners and their Christian religion from Japan, where the Japanese rulers threatened to torture and kill native-born Christians if the priests did otherwise. You see, after the deaths of the Japanese martyrs on Nagasaki beach, the Japanese realized that making martyrs of the priests was only encouraging resistance among Japanese converts. They also realized that the missionaries were not afraid of their own deaths. And simply expelling the clergy wasn't enough for the shoguns; the Japanese wanted to make examples out of the priests and those who followed them by forcing them to renounce the faith. So they started torturing people in horribly slow ways, without actually killing them, until they renounced Christ. And then they started threatening the captured Jesuits, not with their own deaths but with the torture and deaths of Japanese Christian families. It's a historical fact that the Portuguese-born Jesuit provincial then apostacized and became a Buddhist, collaborating with the government to expel the remainder of the missionaries. Now you might say these priests should have spoken out boldly against the evil persecution, allowing those innocents to die alongside them, and argue that they could never be saints. You may even call it cowardly weakness whenever a Christian in any situation refuses to take a bold stance that will get others tortured and killed as well as himself. But as Endo does, I call it human compassion. Furthermore, I would say that any Christian who would speak out against evil with the full knowledge that others (not merely himself) may suffer and die in threatened retaliation for his words is acting irresponsibly. There are many ways to fight evil and I believe the diplomacy of Pius XII, i.e. the holding back of comments he knew would cause others to die, saved lives during the war and was saintly in its own way. To argue that the only saintly response to evil is to speak the truth, regardless of who gets hurt for your words, seems like dangerous extremism to me.

Bill Mazzella
2 years ago
Sean, there is a difference between Angelo Roncalli giving fake baptism certificates to French Jews and a leader-disciple of Jesus refusing to condemn a glaring genocide happening before one's eyes. Instead of condemning Hitler Pius made his bishops swear an oath of loyalty to the Third Reich. Before that there were many courageous bishops speaking out against Hitler. But your response shows how we have a mediocre clergy. What was Jesus thinking leaving all those disciples living in intense fear?
Tim O'Leary
2 years ago
What an incredible comment! You think getting a diplomatic agreement to prevent the outlawing of the Catholic Church -way back in 1933, many years before the "glaring genocide" - is judged by you as an act of cowardice in the face of (the future) genocide. Bill - You have an amazingly skewed view of lot's of things - but this is ridiculous. But, what exactly is motivating you to distort the good works of Pius XII? Where in your soul is this gullibility coming from?
Robert Lewis
2 years ago
But, you see, Father, I actually don't agree with you, and I DON'T believe that there's an equivalence between the situation of the Jesuits in Japan, and Pope Pius XII Pacelli's position in modern Europe. Japan was not a Christian country. Germany was, and half of all Germans were Catholics. The ability of the German Catholic episcopate to stop the euthanising of the physically and mentally disabled speaks volumes about the ability of the Catholic Church in Germany to speak truth to power. I think that the greater number of lives would have been spared if the world had been treated to the spectacle of a pope willing to be martyred. As I said, I believe the Holocaust of the Jews would have been stopped by the consequences, which very well might have included massive desertions among the officer corps of the Wehrmacht, which was full of Catholics.
Sean Salai, S.J.
2 years ago

Mr. Lewis, I'm not saying the situations of Germany and Japan are equivalent. I'm only saying, like Endo, that it's irresponsible for a religious leader to risk the lives of others for the sake of a public stance that may not be effective. It's easy to be a martyr when your own life is the only thing on the line. When your words put others in danger of being killed, any rational person will admit it's a different and more complex situation that is no longer as black-and-white as you suggest. If you could go to bed with a clean conscience after making a speech that you know will likely cause others to die, then I admit you're a bolder man than many clergy. While I appreciate your perspective, I do not accept the argument that the words of Pius would have made any practical difference. As you know, Italy is predominantly Catholic, while Germany is half Protestant. So your claim that Germans would have overthrown Hitler in protest of a move against the Vatican is speculative, a sort of "what-if" game. The French, coming from a more Catholic nation, did not rise up against Napoleon after he invaded the papal states and took Pius VII prisoner when that pope--who initially tried to appease the dictator--continued to refuse many of his imperialist demands. Sure, the Italians hailed Pius VII as a martyr after he returned to Rome when Napoleon was defeated, but this "martyrdom" didn't actually affect the outcome. Again, I'm not saying these situations are equivalent, as the stakes and circumstances were very different. My point is that Pius XII cared too much about people to gamble their lives on the speculative power of his own martyrdom. What's certain is that it took a tremendous amount of courage for Pius, who vehemently despised the Nazis, to bite down on his tongue precisely when he wanted to speak up. In many current-day rants against Pius XII, I sense a lot of anger toward church leadership seething beneath the surface. Not all of that anger is unjustified by any means. But I believe it's unjust to project one's anger at recent church leaders onto Pius XII, condemning him because he didn't have the "courage" to get others killed for words which were unlikely to change anything. I also sense a collective angst and guilt over the Holocaust that drives us to search for scapegoats rather than accept the responsibility we all share for letting it--and many other ongoing genocides--happen in our world. With an evil as unspeakable as the Holocaust, I suspect it relieves our collective guilt a bit to fault the pope for not doing more to stop it, as if he possessed some special power to stop it that he only failed to exercise out of cowardly fear. But is that right? Personally, I find it unrealistic and even hubristic to suggest that any single religious leader, even a pope, could have stopped the evils that Hitler carried out with mere words. We may not like to admit it, as it exposes our weakness as a church, but Pius was just as powerless as every other peacemaker to stop what Hitler did. And yet he saved many lives under extreme circumstances. That seems pretty heroic to me.

Robert Lewis
2 years ago
So, am I to take it, then, Father, that you disapprove of the German Catholic bishops who threw down the gauntlet to Hitler over those the Nazis wanted to euthanize? What about the "innocent" lay people who worked in their chancellries? Weren't they putting them in danger? Actually, apart from the issue of Pius XII Pacelli's canonization, I am a little exasperated over all this saint-making that has gone on in the Roman Catholic Church of late. It's expensive; the money for it is being wasted by corrupt Curia officials, as is being presently revealed, and too much of it is being done on a politicized time-table. Isn't it true that John Paul II Wojtylwa canonized more people during his pontificate than all previous popes COMBINED?! And isn't it true that he regularly suspended the canonical requirement for miracles for any and all except martyrs? What's the rush toward this highly dubious canonization? If Pius XII Pacelli is a saint, let him wait the hundreds of years that Joan of Arc had to wait, and let him produce the adequate number of miracles that have always been previously required. These canonizations of dead popes and bishops at a higher rate than devout lay people smacks of the "clericalism" that Pope Francis ridicules.
Sean Salai, S.J.
1 year 12 months ago

As you put it earlier, Mr. Lewis, the cases are not equivalent. The German Catholic bishops, German Protestant bishops, and Pope Pius XII (who supported the bishops by condemning euthanasia in an encyclical, showing his willingness to stand up to Hitler when he knew it wouldn't cause others to die) felt reasonably certain they could generate effective popular resistance to the euthanasia policy (without disproportionate risk of retaliation) because it reached publicly into the daily lives of ordinary Germans through their social service institutions. It was a government-sponsored evil that was happening right in front of churchgoers in their hospitals; how could they ignore it? As in just war theory, where it's only a responsible moral action to fight back against evil aggressors if there's a "reasonable chance of success," the brazen public nature of the euthanasia policy gave religious leaders a strong opportunity to stir up popular outcry, or else they would not have acted. There was no such guarantee of effective public resistance in the case of the extermination camps, which were located away from the general German population and involved a widespread propaganda campaign to cover up what was really happening there. The German government was very open about the euthanasia campaign, allowing people to attack it; the Holocaust, by contrast, was the product of a massive government conspiracy that involved official denial of what was happening. With the Holocaust, the Nazis made a calculated decision to neutralize any public protest in Germany by refusing to admit what they were doing. Objectively speaking, the German bishops and Pius were far likelier to incite popular resistance to an official euthanasia policy that the government supported than to an unofficial mass murder that the government denied. And for Pius XII to act responsibly against Hitler, the probability of success always needed to outweigh the possible negative consequences of his actions for innocent people. My point was not that it's always irresponsible for a religious leader to put other people at risk, but that it's irresponsible to do so when such a large number of people will die without any clear hope of success, as I suggested in my post. The defaming of Pius as a coward because he only acted against Hitler when he was reasonably certain it wouldn't cause widespread lethal retaliation, as in the euthanasia example, is unjust. It asks us to accept the insane premise that this pope--a brilliant diplomat who understood global realpolitik--somehow knew he could stop Germany from murdering millions of innocent people by simply speaking up more loudly, but failed to do so out of self-centered fear. But above all else, as Mr. Rychlak's interview and books indicate, this kind of narrative simply does not hold water against the established historical evidence.

Ronald Rychlak
2 years ago
Thanks for the question, Bill. I just wrote a review of the new book Church of Spies. It begins: “Pope Pius XII and the Nazis: far too many writers have wandered into this fascinating subject without bringing anything new to the table. Many of the late pope’s critics have simply repeated information that appeared in already discredited books and articles….” I was thinking of Posner’s book when I wrote that. His book is primarily about the Vatican Bank. I don’t know how good that research is; I thought his book on the JFK assassination was quite good, but he got Pius XII all wrong. Posner, particularly in the passage that you quote, is simply parroting John Cornwell, who built his book around two letters, one from 1917 and another from 1919. The one you quote here is from 1919. Let me quote at length (sorry, but it is important) from my own book, Hitler, the War, and the Pope (revised ed. 2010): "Bolshevik revolutionaries temporarily took power and tried to set up a Soviet republic in Bavaria [in 1919]. Their leaders occupied the royal palace and began operating what might best be described as a rogue government. They created a “Red Army” that killed about 325 people. Of particular concern to all diplomats in Munich was that the Bolsheviks violated the sovereign immunity of foreign missions and representatives…. Many foreign dignitaries left Munich, but Pacelli stayed at his post and became a target of Bolshevik hostility. One time, an angry mob descended on Pacelli's car, screaming insults and threatening to turn the car over. On another occasion, in true gangland style, a car sprayed Pacelli's residence with machine-gun fire. When he called in a protest, he was told to leave the city that night or he would die. Not only did he stay, he even 'mounted the pulpit at the Munich cathedral against the orders of the Red committee.' Concerned for the people under his charge, Nuncio Pacelli sent his assistant, Monsignor Lorenzo Schioppa, to meet with the leaders of the new government. Schioppa, accompanied by a representative from the Prussian legation, met with the head of the Republic of the Councils of Munich, Eugen Levine. Their hope was for Levine (incorrectly identified as Levien in the later report), 'to declare unequivocally if and how the actual Communist Government intends to recognize and oversee the immunities of the Diplomatic Representatives.' Of course, their position demanded that they make a plea, not a demand. The meeting did not go well. The only 'commitment' that the representatives could get from Levine was that the Republic of Councils would recognize the extra-territoriality of the foreign legations 'if, and as long as the representatives of these Powers... do nothing against the Republic of the Councils.' Schioppa was warned that if the Nuncio did anything against the new government, he would be 'kicked out.' Levine made it clear that 'they had no need of the Nunciature.' Pacelli wrote a letter back to Rome, reporting on this meeting. Cornwell translated a few sentences from that letter and set them forth as 'proof' that Pacelli was an anti-Semite…. The key passage, as translated by the critics, described the palace as follows: ... a gang of young women, of dubious appearance, Jews like all the rest of them, hanging around in all the offices with lecherous demeanor and suggestive smiles. The boss of this female rabble was Levien's mistress, a young Russian woman, a Jew and a divorcee, who was in charge.... This Levien is a young man, of about thirty or thirty-five, also Russian and a Jew. Pale, dirty, with drugged eyes, hoarse voice, vulgar, repulsive, with a face that is both intelligent and sly. To the critics, these words (taken from Schioppa's report to his superior, Pacelli) prove that Pacelli was an anti-Semite. In truth, this translation is grossly distorted. It uses pejorative words, instead of neutral ones that are more faithful to the original Italian. For instance, the most damning phrase in the translation, 'Jews like all the rest of them,' turns out to be a distorted, inaccurate translation of the Italian phrase i primi. The literal translation would be "the first ones" or "the ones just mentioned." In context, "also Jewish" would have been appropriate. Similarly, the Italian word schiera is translated by Cornwell as "gang" instead of "group," which would be more appropriate. Additionally, the Italian gruppo femminile should be translated as "female group" or "group of women," not "female rabble" (though in the new edition of Hitler’s Pope, Cornwell tries to justify this translation as being “true to the overall drift of the letter.”) This letter was published in its original Italian in 1992. Church historian John Conway - an Anglican and a distinguished scholar - reviewed the book in which it was included for the Catholic Historical Review. Neither he, nor anyone else at that time, suggested that the letter was anti-Semitic. Considering the centrality of this letter to Hitler's Pope, one might have expected (and editors should have demanded) that Cornwell publish it in full. That did not happen however, perhaps because when the entire letter is read in an accurate translation (reprinted in Hitler, the War, and the Pope), it is not anti-Semitic. The tone of anti-Semitism is introduced only by a calculated mis-translation. Any disrespect reflected in the language that was actually used (as opposed to the mis-translation) would not stem from racial or even religious differences, but from the Bolshevik activity in Munich. There was clear animosity between the Church and the revolutionaries, and those revolutionaries are the focus of the comment, not all Jewish people. In fact, this letter was describing the leaders of a rogue government that presented a threat to the nunciature! It was written 14 years before Hitler came to power and the Jewish persecution began. The language used to describe a similar event in 1943 might well have been very different." My book has footnotes and reprints documents in the appendix. It also talks about the 1923 letter from Pacelli warning about “right wing radicals” and “followers of Hitler and Ludendorff,” who were persecuting Catholics and Jews. In that letter the future pope praised the “learned and zealous” Cardinal Archbishop Michael Faulhaber of Munich whom the radicals attacked because he “had denounced the persecutions against the Jews.” By the way, the new book Church of Spies, which I referenced above, portrays Pius XII and an absolute hero. Posner wrote an endorsement for it. Go figure.
Bill Mazzella
2 years ago
Thank you for your response, Ronald. Nice to see that you work on presenting what you understand as true without ad hominem evasiveness. Posner seems to think that those who defend Pacelli do not deny the passage. Rather they say it was written by a subordinate with Pacelli unaware of its tone. Others respond that Pacelli was a micromanager and was well aware of its contents which he wrote. Posner believes that Pius made a better Secretary of State than pope since his use of diplomatic language is inadequate for the leader of the Catholic world. Posner is not as accusative as Cornwell. But he does draw a strong narrative which indicates that Pius cared more about the physical structures of the churches of the Vatican than the millions of Jews who were massacred by the Third Reich. Further, until Nostra Aetate the leadership of the church, along with many of its members, was quite anti-semitic. It is hard not to conclude that Pius and many other Catholics felt that this was just punishment for the "killers of Christ." Using that famous scripture passage: "his blood be on us and our children." Posner wrote more of an appraisal than an endorsement of The Church of Spies imho.
Tim O'Leary
1 year 12 months ago
Back of the Book quote from Gerald Posner: "deeply researched and fresh account," and "delivers an important and compelling addition" sure seems like a positive endorsement, imho. Here is Posner's full text: “Mark Riebling takes readers into the seldom-explored, mysterious world of Vatican espionage with a deeply researched and fresh account that reads like a spy thriller. The crackling narrative of Church of Spies delivers an important and compelling addition to the debate over the legacy of Pius XII, the most powerful and complex Pope of modern times.”
Robert Lewis
2 years ago
Because of the philo-Semitism of the bien-pensants of the West, in the aftermath of the Shoah of the Jews, most modern historians are unwilling to consider that there certainly WAS a direct link between atheistic Bolshevism and the anti-clericalism of "liberal" European Jewry. If Pius XII Pacelli instinctively felt that Soviet Communism was a greater threat to the Catholic Church in Europe than fascism, he had legitimate cause to think so. However, that DOES NOT excuse his failure to publish his predecessor's ringing condemnation of the massacres. Pius XI was just as much an opponent of Communism, but he was able to see what Nazism was leading to. Let's be clear: Pope Pacelli associated revolutionary socialism with irreligious and atheistic European Jewry, and he had every right to think that way; he did NOT have a right to fail to make a sharp distinction between innocent and devout Jews and their state-terrorist co-religionists. This contains a lesson for us now: a mistake similar to Pius's is being made regarding Muslims in Europe and in America.
Ronald Rychlak
1 year 12 months ago
Tim and Dimitri have answered some of the question raised by others, but let me address a few points on the merits. Robert complains of Pius XII’s “failure to publish his predecessor's ringing condemnation of the massacres.” This is a reference to the so-called "hidden encyclical" of Pope Pius XI. The typical version is that Pius XI was prepared to make a strong anti-Nazi statement. He wrote the statement, but he died before releasing it. For some nefarious reason (the reasons vary) Pope Pius XII, decided not to issue it. Critics argue that had Pius XII not "hidden" this encyclical, much Jewish suffering would have been avoided. That is an interesting concoction, but it does not stand up to historical analysis. The true story is that Pope Pius XI did plan to issue an encyclical on the events in Europe. He asked the American Jesuit John LaFarge to work up a draft. LaFarge, in turn, sought help from two other Jesuits, Fathers Gustav Gundlach of Germany and Gustave Desbuquois of France. With their help, LaFarge wrote a draft encyclical. Although it was long thought otherwise, we now know that the LaFarge draft did indeed make it to Pope Pius XI before his death. We also know that the pope rejected the draft because of its anti-Semitism (which went along the pre-Nostra Aetate lines that Bill wrote about in the comments). It argued that the rejection of Christ by the Jews caused them “to perpetually wander over the face of the Earth.” It also made negative comments on Jews’ business ethics and morals. Had the Holy See published this document, it certainly would have played right into Hitler’s anti-Semitic propaganda and been a permanent embarrassment to the Church. Instead, Pope Pius XI scribbled something to the effect of “I don’t want to use this” on the LaFarge paper, near the anti-Semitic section. When Pope Pius XII became pope, he agreed that it was time for a papal statement on world events. Working with Fr. Gundlach, he drafted a new encyclical that drew heavily on LaFarge’s earlier work but eliminated the anti-Semitic sections. The resulting encyclical, Summi Pontificatus (Darkness over the Earth), was released on October 20, 1939 (just weeks after the outbreak of World War II). Summi Pontificatus made reference to “the ever-increasing host of Christ's enemies” who “deny or in practice neglect the vivifying truths and the values inherent in belief in God and in Christ” and want to “break the Tables of God's Commandments to substitute other tables and other standards….” Pius charged that Christians who fell in with these enemies of Christ suffered from cowardice, weakness, or uncertainty. He quoted Scripture to explain that within the Church all people were the same; there was “neither Gentile nor Jew.” A headline in the London Daily Telegraph read: “Pope condemns Nazi theory.” The New York Times gave it a three column, above the fold headline that said: “Pope Condemns Dictators, Treaty Violators, Racism; Urges Restoring of Poland.” The story explained: “It is Germany that stands condemned above any country or any movement in this encyclical.” Fr. LaFarge wrote in America magazine that it was obvious that Summi Pontificatus applied to the Jews of Europe. He was only concerned that Americans might not realize that it also applied to racial injustice in the United States. The Germans also understood the Pope’s message. “This Encyclical,” wrote Heinrich Mueller, head of the Gestapo in Berlin, “is directed exclusively against Germany, both in ideology and in regard to the German-Polish dispute; how dangerous it is for our foreign relations as well as our domestic affairs is beyond dispute.” Reinhard Heydrich, leader of the SS Security Office in Warsaw, wrote: “This declaration of the Pope makes an unequivocal accusation against Germany.” French planes dropped 88,000 copies of the encyclical over Germany in a propaganda battle. Of course, the Nazis suppressed free speech and controlled the press. As such, this and other Church statements did not reach many Germans, certainly not enough to create a movement. On at least one occasion, a papal statement was edited to make it appear that the pope was endorsing the German position. That one did reach the populace. By the way, in Mark Riebling’s new book, “Church of Spies,” he writes about Summi Pontifictus and notes that it was Pius XII’s last public use of the word “Jew” during the war. Riebling explains: “The last day during the war when Pius publicly said the word ‘Jew’ is also, in fact, the first day history can document his choice to help kill Adolf Hitler.” Riebling does a good job documenting that Pius ceased making statements at the request of the conspirators from within Germany. He was working with them in their efforts to assassinate Hitler.

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