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.