The Atheist Coalition of San Diego will host an author talk featuring local writer Gabriel Wilensky and his book “Six Million Crucifixions: How Christian Antisemitism Paved the Road to the Holocaust” on Tuesday, August 31 at 6:30pm at the North Park Recreation Center, located at 4044 Idaho St. in the North Park area of San Diego, California.
Monthly Archive for July, 2010
Pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church, and the cohorts of church apologists today, often argued that the pope had to remain silent about the mass extermination of Jews during the Second World War in order to prevent an even worse assault on Jews. The reality is that millions of Jews were mercilessly murdered, including over 1000 from the pope’s neighborhood, while the Vatican largely looked the other way. It’s disingenuous to claim that the pope was afraid that by speaking out on behalf of the hounded Jews things would become worse. There was no way things could have been worse; the Germans were killing about 10,000 Jews in Auschwitz every day—and that was just one of the death camps. They were not killing more because they did not have the capacity. Nothing the Pope could have done or said would have made that hell worse. Papal apologists often argue that in Holland the church’s protestation against the deportation of “non-Aryan Catholics” provoked the ire of the Germans, who not only deported all the non-Aryan Catholics, but also the Jews. But the example of what happened in Holland is misleading, for two reasons. First, because the Church’s protest was about Jews that had converted to Catholicism, that is, no longer Jews from neither a Jewish nor a Catholic perspective, and second because the Germans would have killed those converted Jews anyway. To the Germans a baptized Jew was still a Jew, so the fact that the Church spoke out did not precipitate their deportation: their ancestry did.
Sometimes the argument is that the pope was trying to protect the thousands of Jews under the protection of the Church, in the various monasteries and convents in Italy. But this is a weak argument to explain the pope’s reticence to confront the greatest crime in history, because even though it’s very true that the Nazis would have likely invaded the Vatican, raided all Church properties and deported and murdered all Jews sheltered there, that would have still been less than the number of Jews that the Germans were killing in Auschwitz every day. The pope must have asked himself the question of whether it was worth risking those lives by clearly and forcefully admonishing the faithful everywhere to refrain from participating in any way in the “Final Solution”, and yet he chose to remain silent. Ultimately, he may have saved those few thousand at the expense of several million.
The Church is the self-avowed protector of morals. Instead, they proved to be the self-avowed protector of Vatican interests. Maybe if the pope and the curia were so concerned with their well-being and/or the consequences of them being killed or kidnapped they could have moved to the relative safety of London, Lisbon or New York and broadcast and directed the faithful from there. They would not have been the first government to do that, and it would not have been the first time the papacy moved its seat elsewhere when things got uncomfortable in Rome. But the pope was obsessed with protecting Rome from bombardment. There’s a reason why the British ambassador to the Holy See, Sir Francis D’Arcy Osborne, wrote: “I am revolted by Hitler’s massacre of the Jewish race on the one hand and, on the other, the Vatican’s apparently exclusive preoccupation . . . with the possibilities of the bombardment of Rome.” Pope Pius was not in good standing with the British Foreign Office in general, actually, as after his meeting with Croatian mass murderer Ante Pavelic in 1941 the Foreign Office described the pope as “the greatest moral coward of our age.”
If the Vatican had done the right thing and had acted morally it would have forfeited its ability to protect the Vatican and its treasures, its considerable economic interests in Germany, its chance to be a peace broker, and its ability to protect people, in what I believe was their priority order. But the concept of charity and sacrifice is not new to Christianity. There were thousands of Christians across Europe, including many nuns, priests and other members of the clergy, who displayed Christian charity and helped Jews, sometimes even putting their lives at risk. Many apologists for the pope believe that all this was done at the behest and under direct instruction of Pope Pius, but as far as I know (and of course I could be proven wrong) there is no credible evidence of this. No, these people acted out of their own volition. Sure, he may have opened the doors of Castel Gandolfo and given shelter to 2-3 thousand Jews, but what about the other thousands of other church properties scattered around Europe, including his own 1000+ room palace in the Vatican? What about the other six million who were denounced, rounded up and killed by people who never heard from their pope, their bishops, their parish priests, or even by their military chaplains, that murdering Jews was a crime and a mortal sin?
Even when the Jews of Rome were deported to their deaths in Auschwitz the pope chose to remain silent. He seems to have made some private, ineffective attempt to prevent the deportation, but he chose not to stand up and impose his moral authority. As the German ambassador to the Vatican Weizsäcker reported to his superiors, “Although under pressure from all sides, the Pope has not let himself be drawn into any demonstrative censure of the deportation of the Jews of Rome.” Even though ultimately this is just speculation, I think that the pope could have stood in front of the train carrying Rome’s Jews as it was departing Rome toward Auschwitz. Even if the Germans had forcibly removed him from the tracks, the impression this symbolic gesture would have had would have been so powerful that it would have, if not halted the machinery of destruction, certainly saved many lives and firmly and honestly cemented the Church’s moral standing.
Papal apologists often dismiss excommunication as a powerful tool. Yet, the Catholic Church could have used it during the Holocaust to persuade the faithful from refraining to participate in any way in the persecution and murder of Jews. Apologists even claim that none of the Nazi leaders died as Catholics because they did not receive the sacraments during their political career. I think they are wrong, and they are misleading on both counts. The point is that these leaders were not expelled from the Church, and thus it is correct to state that they died as Catholics. Hitler even received a solemn requiem after he died. The Nazis, and particularly the SS may have tried to push Germans away from the church but the reality is that despite their strongest efforts, in December 1938 22.7% still remained in the Catholic faith and by 1940 over 95% of the German population were still tax-paying members of their respective Protestant or Catholic churches.
Excommunicating a head of state might have been a dangerous or risky thing to do, but it was the right thing to do, particularly after 1942 when the extent and nature of the genocide became known to the pope and some members of the curia. Even though I think that excommunication would not have changed Hitler or his policies, I do think that excommunication of the entire Nazi leadership, in addition to the threat of excommunication to any Catholics involved in the business of mass murder, combined with strong, specific, and clear instruction to Catholics to refrain from denouncing, deporting and murdering Jews because it was a crime and a mortal sin, may have worked toward the goal of creating a moral revolt against genocide. Even if it had failed, it would have at least cemented the Church’s moral standing. In my opinion, it would have been particularly effective for the ordinary men in the factories making poison gas, or the train engineers taking Jews to the death camps, or the members of the killing squads and their helpers in Lithuania, the Ukraine, Poland, etc. who were killing hundreds of thousands of Jews in forests and ravines there. Or SS guards in the camps. These were not strongly anti-religious men like Bormann or Hitler. These were men who were going to Mass on Sunday and murdering Jews on Monday.
For true believers in Christianity, whose church had been saying since the 15th century that there is no salvation outside the church, excommunication is an effective threat. If one truly believes in the teachings of the Church, then one must believe that if you are excommunicated and die, you won’t go to heaven. This would have been a frightening thought to a true believer, and in 1942 there were a lot more true believers in Europe than there are today. Sure, this would have been a laughable matter to Hitler but I seriously doubt the man driving the train to Auschwitz would have taken it that way. In any case, I think that what matters is also is in understanding in what way it was used by the Church. The Church used this weapon before and after the Nazi period, when it excommunicated all the communists in the world in one stroke. The Church never stopped using it because of fear. Even after Hitler came to power the strength and potential of the Church cannot and should not be underestimated. Just as the Catholic Germans were supportive of the Church’s admonition to stay away from the Nazis before the ban on membership in the Nazi party was lifted, they would have remained that way if the Church had continued to keep the ban in place or at the very least advised the faithful clearly, repeatedly and in no uncertain terms that the Nazi ideology was evil and incompatible with Catholic teachings. By not doing this the Church in essence told the flock that “Thou shall not kill” or “Do not do to others what you would not like to be done to you” did not apply to Jews.
For the layman, sometimes it’s hard to know what things actually mean. After all, one cannot be an expert on everything, so we must rely on others whom we trust. The problem of course is that even when we read information from trusted sources we may be misled. For instance, a recent article on Zenit discusses some documents recently found by Michael Hesemann from Pave the Way Foundation. I think there is a problem of interpretation in the way these documents are evaluated. In the past Mr. Hesemann also presented findings of documents in a misleading way, as he implied the Catholic Church had always been opposed to the Nazi Party. Even though it’s true the Church banned membership into the party prior to 1933, after Hitler came to power and the Vatican signed an agreement with Nazi Germany that same year the Church lifted the ban. This detail, and the fact that millions of Catholics subsequently became members of the Nazi Party and wholeheartedly supported it and its policies seems to have been conveniently overlooked in Mr. Hesemann’s reporting. See “Paving the way to disinformation”.
The new documents recently found were letters sent by the Vatican Secretary of State and later Pope Pius XII Cardinal Pacelli in 1938 to several nunciatures and apostolic delegations. In these letters, Cardinal Pacelli requested visas for “ebrei convertiti” (converted Jews), and “non-Aryan Catholics”. This of course sounds good, but not as good as Mr. Hesemann would like us to think. The reason for this is that, first, the official Nazi policy at that time was to force Jews to emigrate, so it was not so extraordinary that the Vatican Secretary of State asked for immigration visas. Second, Mr. Hesemann tells us that “converted Jews” and “non-Aryan Catholics,” are most likely euphemisms that really mean “Jews”. To support this claim, he cites another part of the letter in which Cardinal Pacelli tells the bishops that “Care should be taken that sanctuaries are provided to safeguard their spiritual welfare and to protect their religious cult, customs and traditions.” Since in Mr. Hesemann’s view a converted Jew becomes a Catholic and therefore no longer has any “customs, or traditions of their own”, this must have meant the request for visas really referred to “Jews”. For a historian who should know about the history of Catholic persecution of Jews during the Middle Ages, particularly the expulsions from several European countries, especially Spain, this is an odd thing to say. As was the case in the 15th century, Jews converted to avoid the unpleasant options of mandatory expulsion or being burned at the stake. Many of these “conversos” (converted Jews) became baptized Catholics to the outside world, while secretly retaining their “religious cult, customs and traditions” of their own. Even though many Jews became true Catholics in the Middle Ages as well as during the Nazi Era, many if not most did it because they were forced to and remained crypto-Jews. In other words, many of those converted Jews, or “non-Aryan Catholics” as they were euphemistically referred as, remained Jewish.
Reportedly one of the letters Pacelli sent reads, “Do not engage in saving only Jewish people but also synagogues, cultural centers and everything that pertains to their faith: the Torah scrolls, libraries, cultural centers, etc.” Supposedly this shows that the cardinal was not only trying to save Jews but also their cultural heritage as well. Maybe so, although one must ask the question of why the Vatican felt the need to use cryptic messages and euphemisms if in the end they were going to try to save even buildings. How could they hide that from the Nazis?
For some reason, Pave the Way Foundation and its supporters claim that historians who oppose the Pope-Pius-as-saint point of view do not recognize the threat to the Vatican and the pope. Oh, really? I do not know why they think this, or why they think it’s relevant. They claim that “In many cases the historians are ignorant of the unique Vatican language sometimes using ancient Latin to express the hidden meaning of these requests.” Maybe the Vatican felt that Germany, the most cultured nation in Europe at the time, could not find someone versed in ancient Latin. The Vatican is a state, and had a network of prelates and diplomats in every theatre of war still intact at the end of WWII. It had a double-encryption process for diplomatic communication. Sure, they feared for the safety of the Vatican, the Roman curia and the pope, but they must have known Hitler would not be so stupid as to kill the pope. They had no need for obtuse language and cryptic, ambiguous messages, and in any case there was no place for ambiguity when confronted with the greatest crime in the history of Man.
No, unfortunately the reality was different. The Foundation is wrong when it claims that to the Church “the terms non-Aryan Catholics, non-Aryans, and Catholic Jews all indeed meant Jews.” To the Nazis, who defined Jewishness as a trait inherited through blood, this was true. To the Church, who in the past had gone as far as kidnapping Jewish children who had been surreptitiously baptized and therefore had become irrevocably Catholics, those baptized Jews were no longer Jews but rather Catholics.
Even if the true intent of Cardinal Pacelli had been to save Jews, and not just those who had converted to Catholicism, the reality is that most of the beneficiaries of the Catholic Church’s charity were the ebrei convertiti, that is, Catholics. Even when the Vatican made inquiries and complained about deportations of Jews, most of the times it wasn’t about Jews per se, but rather about “non-Aryan Catholics”. This referred to baptized converted Jews or, again, from a Catholic perspective, Catholics. In 1942 the Nazis decided to forcibly annul marriages between Aryans and non-Aryans. Since according to Catholic doctrine marriage is indissoluble, Cardinal Bertram wrote a letter in the name of the German episcopate to the Ministry of the Interior requesting that the ministry withdraw the planned divorce ordinance. Pope Pius XI had made a similar request of Mussolini. The Holy See made several other attempts to save Jews in mixed marriages, not because they were Jews, but because as opposed to the Nazis it considered those “non-Aryan Catholics” Catholics.
After the deportation of the Jews of Rome, Vatican officials made inquiries about the whereabouts of the Jews, but most of these inquiries were about specific “baptized non-Aryan” individuals, however. The archbishop of Ferrara had asked the Holy See to intervene on behalf of “non-Aryans”, especially those in mixed families. The official reporting this in internal correspondence within the Vatican Secretariat of State went on to mention some potential actions the Holy See could take, knowing that they would be totally ineffective and they would fail. That request for help, however, was aimed at Jews in mixed marriages, and not Jews in general. With undisguised cynicism he showed no intention of intervening on behalf of the Jews, but rather was simply trying to preserve appearances by taking some token action he could report to the archbishop of Ferrara as well as future critics. He concluded: “if nothing else, it will always be possible to say that the Holy See has done everything possible to help these unhappy people.” This pattern was repeated many times, and as revealed by an internal Vatican memo, was intended to make it appear that the Vatican was working toward the goal of saving Jews. In reality, as the Jesuit Father Tacchi Venturi described these token actions, “A step like this by the Holy See, even if it does not obtain the desired effect, will without doubt help increase the veneration and gratitude toward the August Person of the Holy Father.” Which—not coincidentally—is exactly what we are seeing today with the work of papal apologists like Pave the Way Foundation.