Page 5, 15th March 2002

15th March 2002
Page 5
Page 5, 15th March 2002 — A pope who spoke too late

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Locations: Rome


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A pope who spoke too late

Pius's every action was dictated by his love for the Church, argues Gerard Noel Iwas not surprised to see some letters in

The Catholic Herald (Feb 22) concerning certain remarks I had made concerning — if only indirectly — Pope Pius XII. But I was very disappointed at the feebleness of the arguments deployed in these letters as a supposed defence of that great Pope whom I met and admired and of whose life I made a prolonged and close study.

The letters, in fact though written by well-meaning and worthy souls, display something even more harmful than feebleness. They do a great disservice to the reputation of Pope Pacelli by stressing only peripheral matters and missing the main point.

None of the examples cited give any indication of the total contempt felt by Pius XII for Nazi Germany. He made his feelings clear in an unqualified and explosive denunciation of Nazism. This condemnation of his, however, is seldom if ever quoted and that for a discernible reason.

In the course of a memorable speech to his College of Cardinals, Pius thundered that Nazism was "a Satanic spectre . . the an-ogant apostasy from Jesus Christ, the denial of his doctrine and of his work of redemption, the cult of violence, the idolatry of race and blood. the overthrow of liberty and dignity".

Nothing could have been clearer and more downright than this. Why, then, do the Pope's admirably motivated supporters never quote these words of his?

Probably in most cases, they do not know of them, the reason for this lying in the fact that they have so seldom been officially referred to.

The key lies in the timing of the Pope's pronouncement. It was made in June 1945, by which time Nazi Germany had surrendered to the allies, and Hitler was already dead.

An obvious question immediately arises: why did Pius make no such statements earlier when it is clear that these words expressed what he had long thought? The answer is starkly simple, and embraces the ultimate, and most complete defence possible for Pacelli's conduct throughout: he acted at all times in the manner in which he felt was demanded by his exalted position of Christ's Vicar and the divinelyappointed defender of His Church. The fact that some of his actions were — and still are — criticised for non-observance of other more worldly (and humanitarian) criteria is quite another matter.

The Pope ceaselessly made successful efforts to save individual Jews. numbering nearly a million. During my years in Rome I had many conversations with Eugenio (Israel) Zolli, the former Chief Rabbi of Rome. We often spoke of the herculean efforts of the Pope to save individual Jews. But his collective policy toward Jews as a whole, in the face of Nazi persecution, was a subject on which we never touched. It would have been too painful.

From Pius's own point of view his every action, however it might be misconstrued by the world, was dictated by his love for the Church. To take, even if seemingly rendered imperative on humanitarian grounds, any step that might imperil the Church was inconceivable.

After the 1933 Concordat with Germany, of which Pacelli felt proud at the time, the room for manoeuvre was limited. Pius was bound by the Holy See's solemn undertaking, in return for favours to the Church, to keep on basically good terms with Hitler's Germany. It was for this reason that the condemnations in the 1937 encyclical, Mit Brennenden Sorge, were necessarily hedged around with qualifications. It is impossible to understand this without having read this encyclical in its entirety. This is something which the writers of the February 22 letters appear not to have done.

The 1937 papal document, in other words, protested against Nazi infringements of Church rights and condemned Nazi excesses; but it fell short of denouncing the totalitarian nature of the regime and left open the possibility of reconciliation between Germany and the Church. What Pacelli feared most, after this point had been reached, was the loss to the Church of a Germany now almost entirely supporting Hitler, when Communism for him posed an even greater menace.

Hitler initially reacted with fury over Mit Brennender Sorge; but then had a brainwave. He treated the encyclical with a contemptuous silence which had devastating results. Simultaneously he remarked to his minister, Hermann Rausching, that the best method of ridding Germany of effective Christianity would be "to leave it to rot like a gangrenous limb". He added ominously "but we can hasten matters. The parsons will be made to dig their own graves. They will betray their God to us. They will betray anything for the sake of their miserable little jobs and incomes".

I had two private audiences with Pope Pius, and translated the first volume of the official documents relating to the Holy See and the Second World War. This was a laborious task and involved several revealing sojourns in Rome and an invaluable insight into the workings of the Secret Archives of the Vatican.

Pius was in that line of mighty Pontiffs — such as those of the Renaissance — to whom no amount of human suffering, however horrendous, could ultimately be comparable to the evil in God's eyes to taking some action which might endanger his Church. Hence, among other things the dungeons of the Inquisition. Such popes, including Pius, were guided by principles overtaken by the Second Vatican Council.

Since writing this, I have re-read the letters of February 22. I fear I can only conclude that such "friends" of that Holy Father, however wellmeaning, do far more harm to his reputation than his socalled "unjust" critics. I only wish one of them could have cited some statement by Pius that came near to the serenity and finality of his remarks of June 1945 but made considerably before that date. This might have changed the course of history.

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