When it comes to the role of the churches and of Pope Pius XII during WWII, the world seems to be divided into three camps: those who are neutral or don’t care, those who defend the actions of the churches and the Pope at all costs and sometimes by twisting and stretching facts to make them fit with their position, and by those who think that the churches and the Pope simply accepted the fate of the Jews as something they deserved and/or as an acceptable casualty of war. Most of the times apologists for the churches or the Pope accuse those in the latter group of not “getting it” and of being unable to see that the Pope worked tirelessly to save Jews.
Actually, I think we “get it” all right. I think it’s them that are failing to understand. Why would millions of people around the globe, including the world’s foremost Holocaust scholars and historians fail to be persuaded by their arguments and their documentation? Do they ever ask themselves this question? Are we all malicious, bigoted, or just plain stupid? Apologists for the Pope gather documents and testimonials, and organize symposiums to discuss all this. But none of the most respected Holocaust scholars ever attend these symposiums. Why is that? Historians go to symposiums and conferences all the time, and they would jump at the possibility to get exposure to new documents. But as the defenders of the Pope bitterly complain, mainstream scholars do not attend their symposiums. Not even via teleconference. So, it isn’t a financial reason. No, they simply do not want to attend. Why do you think that is? Could it have something to do with their belief that the research performed by the apologists is poor? Could it be that mainstream scholars believe the interpretation of the data the apologist are presenting is wrong? Could it be these scholars suspect the affidavits they’ve got? Could it be they suspect their motives? Could it be they see an attempt to mislead the layman by presenting facts to mean things they don’t mean?
The reason why papal apologists are not getting traction with mainstream scholars is because scholars think that discussing history with them is akin to discussing religion with religious fundamentalists. In essence, it’s a futile effort, like arguing with someone who believes the Earth is flat. No amount of evidence, no amount of argument and disputation seems to move them form their preconceived, immutable position. So, no reputable scholars want to join them in their symposiums because they do not want to lend their prestige to the event, and because they know they would be talking to a wall.
I think the world would change its mind about Pope Pius if his defenders found that he had acted like the leaders in the Danish and Norwegian Lutheran Churches or the Orthodox Church in Bulgaria, or even like some of his own bishops in the Catholic Church in France, for instance. When the Germans were about to deport Bulgaria’s Jews, the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church successfully mobilized the faithful to prevent just that. When the Germans were about to deport Denmark’s Jews, the leaders of the Danish Lutheran Church mobilized the faithful to prevent just that as well. In a letter of protest sent to the German authorities before the deportations from Denmark began in October 1943, which was read from the pulpit in churches in Denmark, Bishop Hans Fuglsang-Damgaard, with the support of all the Danish Church’s bishops, said:
“Whenever persecutions are undertaken for racial or religious reasons against the Jews, it is the duty of the Christian Church to raise a protest against it for the following reasons:
. . . Because the persecution of the Jews is irreconcilable with the humanitarian concept of love of neighbors which follows from the message which the Church of Jesus Christ is commissioned to proclaim. With Christ there is no respect of persons, and he has taught us that every man is precious in the eyes of God. . . .
. . . race and religion can never be in themselves a reason to deprive a man of his rights, freedom or property. . . . We shall therefore struggle to ensure the continued guarantee to our Jewish brothers and sisters [of] the same freedom which we ourselves treasure more than life.
. . . We are obliged by our conscience to maintain the law and to protest against any violation of human rights. Therefore we desire to declare unambiguously our allegiance to the word, we must obey God rather than man.”
Scholarly and world opinion about Pope Pius XII would change in his favor if he were found to have publicly said something like this. His moral standing would be restored if he was found to have spoken plainly and clearly through pastoral letters, encyclicals, Vatican Radio broadcasts or through his bishops from the pulpits of all churches so everyone would know that he specifically instructed the faithful to act, not just to save Jews, but to stop denouncing, hunting them down, deporting them, and murdering them.
But not through veiled messages no one understood. Not through secret missions. Not through silence, which was interpreted as tacit approval. There was nothing “heroic” about the Pope’s supposed “discreet” behind the scenes work on behalf of the Jews. There was nothing “heroic” about his silence, and even less of his obtuse, vague messages. As a consequence of the Pope’s inaction (or at least ineffective action), the Germans deported over 1000 Roman Jews to their deaths with what was perceived to be carte blanche from the Pope. As a consequence of what Bishop Fuglsang-Damgaard and all the Danish Lutheran Church’s bishops did, and what Archbishop Krill and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church did, the Danish and Bulgarian people were mobilized to save Jews, which was accomplished in a myriad ways by regular people, without vast resources, and in front of and in defiance of Nazi eyes. These people surely feared the Gestapo as much as anyone else. Yet the Danes and Bulgarians spoke out, they told the faithful in no uncertain terms what was happening and what they should and should not do, they mobilized, and as a result almost all Danish and Bulgarians Jews survived the war. And the saddest part of this story? The rescue of Denmark’s Jews took place two weeks before the deportation of the Jews of Rome. Pope Pius chose not to follow this proven example.