Six Million Crucifixions

Was Pope Pius XII a Saint?

by Gabriel Wilensky

The German-born pope, Benedict XVI, is moving full steam ahead in the process of canonization of the germanophile war-time pope, Pius XII. Having declared Pius XII “venerable”, the Church is now moving forward with the process of recognizing Pius XII’s “heroic virtues”.

I suppose one way to look at this is that this is simply an internal Church matter and it’s no one
else’s business who the Church calls a “saint”. But I beg to disagree. At a time in which the Vatican refuses to open the files of the Vatican Secret Archives containing the documents covering Pius XII’s pontificate, it’s impossible for scholars to assess with any level of accuracy what the Pope’s role really was during the war. The Pope’s apologists claim he was a man devoted to saving all the people oppressed and persecuted by the Germans, including Jews, while many more claim the Pope was aloof, more preoccupied with avoiding a bombardment of Rome during the war and preserving the concordat with Germany after it, than with protecting the lives of six million Jews. I subscribe to the latter view. Maybe the documentation in the Secret Archives will show otherwise, but of the eleven volumes of documents of the war period the Vatican published a few decades ago precisely to counter claims that Pius XII did not do enough, scantly any really show him doing so.

During the war, the closest the Pope could get to utter a statement in defense of the Jews was his 1942 Christmas message. This radio broadcast is presented by his apologists as his strongest condemnation and as a clear example of how the Pope spoke out in defense of the Jews. In this radio address he spoke of “the hundreds of thousands who, without personal guilt, are doomed to death or to a progressive deterioration of their condition, sometimes for no other reason than their nationality or descent.” This vague, pusillanimous and ineffectual complaint about the greatest crime in history, uttered at the end of a very long speech on other matters and without even mentioning the victims or the perpetrators by name, seemed to be the best the infallible Vicar of Christ on Earth could say to defend the Jews. There is a vast chasm between the enormity of the extermination then taking place and this form of evasive language in which the Pope scaled down “millions” to “hundreds of thousands” and reduced human rights abuses like discrimination, physical assault and ill-treatment, segregation, deportation, widespread property plunder, ghettoization, forced starvation and systematic mass murder to “a progressive deterioration of their condition.”

The Church claims that propelling Pius XII into the sainthood is a reflection of his religious actions, and that may be so. However, Pius XII was not just a religious figure: he was the pope, the leader of an international organization responsible for the care of hundreds of millions of souls, and he was the leader of a state with a fully operational government with influence on a global scale. So his actions—or inactions—cannot be measured solely based on what his contributions to the advancement of faith was. Certainly not for someone who ruled over the Catholic Church at a time when almost half the German population and the vast majority of Austrian, French, Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Latvian, Hungarian and other populations that collaborated with the Germans in executing the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” were Catholic.

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