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Rabbi Daniel F. PolishSeptember 21, 2023
Pope Pius XII gives a blessing at the end of a radio message Sept. 1, 1943. (CNS photo) 

The words I am about to share emerge from my pen with difficulty. They may be hard for you to read. They have been hard for me to write. But friends, real friends, talk to one another frankly and tell each other hard truths. Certainly, friends are always curious about their friends’ opinions and insights.

The recent revelation of the existence of a letter from a German Jesuit to Pope Pius XII in 1942, informing him of the veracity of the reports that Jews, along with others, were being murdered at an industrial rate, has evoked some deeply painful considerations for me. To my mind, it makes it impossible for any of us to imagine or to maintain the hope that the pope never spoke out about the Holocaust while it was being enacted because he simply did not know what was happening. After this letter, all of us must contend with the implications of the fact that he knew—and he did nothing.

All of us must contend with the implications of the fact that Pope Pius XII about the death camps—and he did nothing.

I am reminded of the searing image in Eli Wiesel’s The Town Behind the Wall of the “good German” who stood in his window and watched impassively as his Jewish neighbors were being rounded up, “watched and watched, and did nothing.” The reader is left with the tragic understanding that this man was willingly complicit in the evil and was one of what Daniel Goldhagen called “Hitler’s willing executioners.” Dare we now wrestle with the implication that the leader of the Catholic Church might be understood in the same light?

I am struck by the fact that just a few days before the German Jesuit’s letter became public, another document was “found” and presented to us with much fanfare: a definitive list of the names of the Jewish men, women and children who were hidden in, and saved from death by, convents throughout Italy. That document reminds us of the great good done by many individual Catholics and Catholic communities. (My grandmother’s sister was saved by being hidden under the floorboards of the home of a pious Catholic family.) The actions of these Catholic communities remind us that we must never forget that in the midst of that valley of death and wickedness, some human beings, including many Catholic human beings, showed that they could rise to heights of moral greatness.

But I could not help but muse about the coincidence of these two “revelations” coming one on the heels of the other. I hope that someone in authority did not see to it that the list of Jews saved by Catholics would “happen to” find the light of day just before the shattering news of Jews abandoned by the most consequential Catholic came to the surface, intending it as a kind of pre-emptive inoculation. At the very least, the juxtaposition of the actions of the many Catholics who resisted evil and the one who did not suggests the need for some soul-searching about one piece of Catholic theology.

I know it is inappropriate for a member of one tradition to venture an opinion about the teachings of another. And yet, in the interest of true dialogue, I offer this. Unlike any religious tradition with which I am familiar, the institution of the church itself seems to be a significant aspect of Catholic faith. In such a formulation, the church itself is perfect and can do no wrong. Thus it was when John Paul II issued his famous apology to the Jewish community for the long history of the church’s fraught relations with Jews and Judaism, he was careful to apologize for the evils done by “some sons and daughters of the Church,” holding the church itself at some distance from those evils. Some interpreters of the pope’s apology explained that what the pope meant was that while human members of the church participated in wickedness, the church itself could in no way be held accountable.

In the light of this recent release of documents, perhaps we are forced to offer a different formulation. Conceivably we can now say that “sons and daughters of the Church” rose heroically to acts of great goodness, but the church itself—to the extent that the pope embodies the church—was complicit.

Which touches on one final, painful, irony. It is often assumed that the pope’s indifference arose from some form of antisemitism or anti-Judaism, whether reflexive or unconscious or conscious in origin. But it is equally plausible to assume that it was motivated not by a specific disinterest in Jewish lives but by a desire to protect the institution of the church itself. If this is so, the pope was motivated by a calculus that put institutional considerations before human lives, which prioritized the institution over a professed commitment to the sanctity of life.

Some might argue that such prioritizing the welfare of the institution is understandable, even admirable. Yet the extent to which such a value system leads to wickedness has become tragically manifest in more recent times, when that very perspective has ravaged the lives of pious Catholics and has inflicted grave harm on the sons and daughters of the church itself. Can we not say that that same set of priorities that may have looked disinterestedly at the lives of the Jews of Europe most likely accounts for the tragically slow official response to the sex abuse scandals that have been roiling the church for decades? Like the Jews of Europe, the young Catholics scarred by their experiences are the victims of the reflex to circle the wagons around the institution, to protect the church itself even at tragic human cost to victims of grievous wrong.

The revelations of these past few days are painful for Jews. Undoubtedly, they are painful for many Catholics as well. What we can hope is that they will not result in our distancing us from one another but will offer a profound new opportunity for us to strengthen our ability to speak candidly with one another, to search for deeper understandings of one another, and to labor unflaggingly together to build structures that help members of both communities achieve greater heights of human decency and compassion. Out of our shared pain, perhaps we can join in the work of strengthening the human capacity for moral heroism.

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