After the Renaissance Popes—whose notoriety is mostly deserved—arguably the most controversial Pope in the history of the Catholic Church is Pope Pius XII, whose coronation occurred this week (March 12) in 1939. As Pope during WW II, Pius’ notoriety stems from his reputation as a toady to Nazi Germany who was silent while the Jews of Europe were systematically murdered. One biography of him, “Hitler’s Pope,” says it all.
The criticisms are mostly garbage, although it is fair to say Pius could have been more vocal in personally condemning Nazi atrocities. But Pius’ church career was as a diplomat—in 1930 Pius XI appointed him Cardinal Secretary of State—so he was trained to work quietly behind the scenes and to speak in generalities and with circumlocution. Also, according to those close to him, Pius sincerely worried that if he publicly condemned the Nazis it would lead to harsher reprisals against the Jews.
That is an explanation, not an excuse. If clarity was called for, publicly he was not clear.
Pius was also criticized for favoring Germany over the Soviet Union, refusing to denounce Hitler for invading Russia in 1941, and criticizing Hitler’s invasion of Poland in vague language. One explanation—again, not an excuse—is that the Soviets were atheists, whereas Germany had a thriving church that, at the time, Hitler had not interfered with. Also, Pius’ critics note that when Germany was near defeat in 1944, he asked the United States not to treat Germany so harshly that it left the Soviet Union free rein to dominate Eastern Europe. If that deserves criticism it was also uncanny prescience.
But to claim, as his critics do, that Pius was anti-Semitic and did nothing to combat the Holocaust is simply untrue. From 1941 until 1944 the church under Pius was responsible for saving more Jews from Nazi persecution than any other institution. By some estimates the church saved more than 800,000 Jews by sheltering them in church facilities, including the Vatican, as well as issuing fake Baptismal certificates, and so on—both directly and indirectly on Pius’ orders. He even authorized ransom money to save Jews in Rome from Nazi persecution. And Vatican Radio, which he controlled, clearly, bluntly and regularly criticized the Nazis, once saying that the “barbarism,” “degradation” and “state of terror” that the Nazis imposed on Poland equaled, and even exceeded, that of the Communists in Spain.
In response to these actions, Israel Zoller, the Chief Rabbi of Rome during the war, converted to Catholicism after the war, even taking Pius’ birth name, Eugenio, in his honor.
In sum, Pius was no toady to Nazism. Rather he was a defender and a champion of its primary victims.