We Remember

The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965by By Michael PhayerIndiana Univ. Press. 328p $29.95

These are two very different books on a similar topic. Rychlak’s is the lawyer’s brief, Phayer’s the scholarly monograph. Both approach Pope Pius XII from the standpoint of Vatican diplomacy. Rychlak concludes that the criticism of Pius XII for not speaking out against Hitler and the Holocaust is unfair and that, put in the context of the time, the pope did all that a prudent diplomat could do. Phayer puts the question in a broader context. He addresses the church’s attitudes toward the Jews from the 1930’s through Vatican II, and expands the diplomatic question from the realm of statecraft to that of morality. Thus he considers Pius’s greatest failing to have been his attempt to use a diplomatic remedy for a moral outrage.

Ronald Rychlak, an associate dean and professor of law at the University of Mississippi, approaches his topic with the intensity of a defense attorney and the balance of a legal scholar. He seeks to set straight the record of Pius XII and the Jews in the face of the distortions he finds printed over the past 40 years, from Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy to John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope.


The first third of the book sketchily introduces the European scene after World War I and sets the stage for Hitler’s rise to power. It also introduces the career diplomat Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli and prepares the reader for his election in 1939 as Pius XII. Early in the work Rychlak establishes his view of the pope: Pius had no illusions about the Nazis. While personally repelled by the Nazi persecution of religion, Pius’s training led him to eschew the persona of the prophet denouncing evil and instead maintain the role of the diplomat preserving the rights of the church in a war-torn world. In a series of chapters covering the war years, Rychlak highlights the generally low-key efforts of the Vatican to ease the suffering of Europeans. He points out that the Vatican took a stand against persecution most strongly in Catholic areas like Slovakia, where the Pope’s words might carry greater weight, although generally they did not. In other places, like Germany itself, the decision to speak out was always affected by the expectation of retaliation, so the comments were frequently muted. Slowly, methodically and somewhat repetitiously, Rychlak builds a case refuting the charge of Vatican inactivity and indifference in the face of Nazi terror. He cites a series of examples that for him demonstrate that Pius did all that he could have done to help the Jews while maintaining the neutrality of the Vatican and safeguarding the position of the church.

The final part of the book raises and answers 10 questions that Rychlak believes address the criticisms of Pius’s leadership of the church that have arisen since the 1960’s. Here Rychlak’s legal background stands out very clearly. In closely reasoned arguments, he effectively refutes the charges that Pius was anti-Semitic, that he was influenced by Hitler, that any statement by him would have lessened the suffering of the Jews, that he was fearful of his own safety and therefore restrained in his comments and that he should have excommunicated Hitler. Less effective are his position about Pius’s being blinded by Communism and therefore winking at Nazism and about his knowledge of the Final Solution. In both cases he concludes that the pope did what he thought was appropriate as the spiritual leader of his people. For Rychlak there is great consistency in Pius’s attitudes and actions during the war. Throughout his papacy, Rychlak believes, Pius thought the best way to achieve peace was through prayer and the best way to shepherd his flock was through the maintenance of neutrality. Finally, Rychlak undertakes an almost too vigorous attack on John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope. He does an effective job pointing out Cornwell’s shortcomings, but terms like wild accusations and absurd charges undermine its balance.

Michael Phayer’s The Catholic Church and the Holocaust has a broader sweep than the title implies. It surveys the Catholic Church’s attitude toward the Jews in the context of World War II and the Holocaust, a pervasive European anti-Semitism, the cold war and the fear of Communism and the official renunciation of anti-Semitism at the Second Vatican Council. Phayer, a professor of history at Marquette University, has produced a solidly researched, carefully nuanced and compelling story of the failure of the Catholic Church to address adequately the Holocaust and its aftermath. It is less an indictment of Pius XII, though it is that, than an indictment of centuries of anti-Semitism among Catholics.

In trying to determine what would have constituted an adequate reaction by Pius and the church to the Nazis, the Shoah and the war, Phayer disputes a number of Rychlak’s conclusions. Phayer attributes Pius XII’s acts of omissionessentially failures to denounce anti-Semitism both during and after the warto three factors. Partly they stemmed from his inflexibility. While rejecting both Hochhuth’s and Cornwell’s depiction of Pius as cold and anti-Semitic, Phayer notes that Pius was by training both a lawyer and a diplomat, and this background contributed to his narrow reading of things. The diplomat also was able to separate the diplomatic from the moral realm, which led to a personal and institutional blindness that the world would later criticize. Perhaps these are good arguments against a person’s spending a whole priestly career in diplomatic service without a healthy dose of pastoral work. Finally, Phayer sees the papacy of Pius consumed with concern about the spread of Communism, which encouraged a double-standard permitting denunciation of Marxism but not of Nazism and anti-Semitism.

The major contribution of Phayer’s book is that it goes beyond the familiar ground of Pius XII and the Second World War into the cold war and beyond. He makes a persuasive case that postwar fear of Communism made a revival of anti-Semitism possible and began a period of Holocaust amnesia. Incorporating his own earlier research, he highlights the heroic work in Germany of Margarete Sommer and Gertrud Luckner, while castigating the German hierarchy for its immediate postwar efforts for the release of Nazi war criminals to help withstand the spread of Communism. He also emphasizes the about-face of that hierarchy beginning in 1959 with its acknowledgment of the church’s culpability for not having spoken out against the Shoah.

The concluding section of the book focuses on the Second Vatican Council and its repudiation of anti-Semitism. Even though the council’s document was a compromise, it was nonetheless stunning. An interesting aspect of the debate was the leadership role played by Cardinal Frings of Cologne, which illustrated the continued ambivalence of the German hierarchy. Labeled a reformer at the council, Frings opposed the power of the Roman Curia in favor of the bishops’ authority. Thus he confronted the Curia in its attempts to undermine the council’s document on the Jews. But as Phayer points out: That the issue involved Jews may have been of secondary importance to the cardinal. Nonetheless, even in its modified form, the document, Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (1965), was a startling renunciation of Christian anti-Semitism.

Together these works provide both complementary and contrasting assessments of Pius XII, the church, the Nazis and the Jews. Narrower in scope, Rychlak accomplishes what he sets out to doput Pius XII in a more balanced perspective. Phayer’s book goes beyond that and thus provides a broader, richer, more critical and more satisfying evaluation of the church and anti-Semitism in the modern world.

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11 years 12 months ago
In his review of Michael Phayer’s book, The Catholic Church and the Holocaust (4/2), Prof. George F. Giacomini fails to identify the book’s major errors. To perpetuate the myth of Pius XII’s “silence” Phayer must disregard the frequent indictments of Nazi crimes on Vatican Radio and in L’Osservatore Romano (much of this material written by the pope or at his direction). Phayer contends also that when the pope did denounce Nazi persecution of the Jews, he did so in such vague terms that few people understood him. This is false. The record shows that Pius was well understood: in Rome (where Mussolini was furious), in Berlin (where a Nazi spokesman said the Pope was “clearly speaking on behalf of the Jewish war criminal”) and in New York (where The New York Times in its wartime Christmas editorials called Pius “a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent”). Phayer’s failure to consider this evidence vitiates a central charge in his book.

Phayer’s charge that the pope’s concern with Communism led him to denounce Marxism but not Nazism and anti-Semitism is equally untrue. The six-member Catholic-Jewish commission now examining the Vatican’s wartime documents, though critical of the pope, has said they were “struck by the paucity of evidence” for Phayer’s charge. They point also to Vatican promotion of the American bishops’ support for Lend-Lease and the alliance with the Soviets. In separate audiences with diplomats from Italy (1941), Spain (1942) and Hungary (1943), Pius called the Nazis “far worse than the Soviets.”

Phayer writes that “written instructions” linking Pius XII to church rescue efforts for Jews “have never surfaced”— the identical argument used by Holocaust deniers to absolve Hitler. Phayer’s book is not the “solidly researched, carefully nuanced and compelling story” your reviewer supposed.

11 years 12 months ago
George F. Giacomini Jr.’s review (4/2) of the books by Richard J. Rychlak and Michael Phayer dealing with Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust is a commendable effort. However, he appears to go along with Phayer’s conclusion that the pope was more concerned with Communism than he was with Nazism.

Unfortunately, that allegation is a canard not in accord with recent scholarship, but more in line with the propaganda diffused by the Communists after the Second World War. In establishing the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe after World War II, these enemies of the Roman Catholic Church sought to cut down their opponents by falsely accusing church leaders of collaborating with the Nazis during the war.

An analysis more in accord with the objective evidence is David G. Dalin’s “Pius XII and the Jews,” published in The Weekly Standard (2/26). Rabbi Dalin’s conclusion that “Pius XII was, genuinely and profoundly, a righteous gentile” shows how far off the mark Phayer’s position really is compared to Rychlak’s solid history.


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