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The Unhealed Wounds: The Catholic Church and the Holocaust

In March 1998, a Vatican commission on Jewish-Catholic relations published We Remember: A Reflection of the Shoah. The delicate document went further than any previous statement to recognise the Catholic Church’s passivity during the wartime genocide of European Jews, acknowledging ‘past errors and infidelities’ from the faithful led astray by anti-Semitism and the ‘heavy burden of conscience’ that befalls Christians that did not do more to prevent the atrocities.

We Remember hoped to ‘heal the wounds of past misunderstandings and injustices’ between Catholics and Jews. Instead, it sparked a furious and unfinished volume of scholarly research investigating the role of the Church during the Holocaust. Two camps have arrived at diametrically-opposed conclusions about whether the Church did all it could or the least possible, often from the same limited evidence (Lawson 2005). Their historians have been variously accused of sensationalism, defamation, lousy history, Soviet disinformation and ulterior motivations.

Piercing questions of ‘bystander historiography’ have further complicated the discussion (Lawson 2005). Should we judge the Catholic Church as a political or moral institution? Against which criteria do we assess what it did and did not do? What are the limits of ‘what-if’ historical debate? Much has been said – and much remains to be said.

Piercing questions of ‘bystander historiography’ have further complicated the discussion

What has been said

For decades, it was uncritically assumed that the Vatican was unaware of the Holocaust and that whatever information it had was scarce, contradictory or unreliable (d’Ormesson 1963; Giovannetti 1963; ADSS Vol. IX).

The Vatican’s wartime archives, released between 1965 and 1981, roundly dispelled this myth. They revealed that it received reliable intelligence from May 1942 (ADSS Vol. VIII), including details about death camps and gas chambers (ADSS Vol. IX). Allied reports also briefed it from mid-1942 (Cornwell 1999).

So why, with this knowledge, did the Church not do more to resist the Holocaust?

For sure, Catholics facilitated Jewish emigration, assisted and funded refugees, and falsified baptismal certificates. Churches and Catholic institutions sheltered Jews, including 3,000 at the papal summer residence (Zuccotti 2000; Dalin 2005). Estimates of Jewish lives saved by the Church range from a couple of thousand to closer to a million.

Nevertheless, the prevalence of such schemes varied considerably by region. Surveying these differences in Italy, Zuccotti (2000) challenged the assumed wisdom that Pius XII had issued a written directive to shelter Jews – despite priests, nuns and others recollecting the order (Rychlak 2002).

Perhaps the scale of the interventions renders papal ignorance unlikely; or the written directive was destroyed for good reason; or whether it existed is inconsequential because Catholics knew the Pope’s intentions. Notwithstanding, it constitutes part of a broader indictment: the Church’s response was marked by a curious silence from its leadership.

Pius XII’s only public reference to the Holocaust came at the end of his Christmas Eve 1942 broadcast, in which he prayed for the ‘hundreds of thousands, who…by reason of their nationality or race, are marked down for death or gradual extinction’. The remark infuriated the German state and was discussed for months in Vatican publications.

Pius XII’s only public reference to the Holocaust came at the end of his Christmas Eve 1942 broadcast

Could an earlier, explicit denunciation have proved more effective? The Vatican feared that it would have further endangered Jews, including those sheltered in its properties (Rychlak 2000; Lawson 2005). In some countries, episcopal protests correlated with a higher proportion of deported Jews (Lapide 1967). Perhaps underhand assistance saved more lives than an open confrontation with Berlin could have hoped (Burleigh 2006).

The Church also faced impossible constraints. First Italian then German soldiers surrounded the Vatican; they controlled its communications, maintained active spies, and purportedly plotted to kidnap the Pope (Cornwell 1998; Zuccotti 2000; Kertzer 2014). Outside the Vatican’s walls, any papal protest could have resulted in a widespread reprisal: a fifth of Polish Catholic priests were killed in concentration camps (Royal 2000; Lapomarda 2005).

The Vatican was concerned for its independence and survival (Blet 1997; Sánchez 2002; Kornberg 2015). Therefore, some historians conclude that Pius XII preferred to preserve the Church to assist the post-war reconstruction (Zuccotti 2000; Phayer 2000; Patch 2010).

Even had the Church resisted more forcefully, it is unclear whether Catholics would have chosen crucifix over swastika. Kertzer (2014) argues that Italian Catholics held their faith and fascism as ‘two sides of the same coin’. Previous policy towards the fascist regime, such as its support for the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, intertwined political and religious loyalties.

Other historians have rightly highlighted the rival ‘philo-Semitic Catholic tradition’ especially prevalent in the Papal States, which protected Jews even when other Christian nations exiled them (Dalin 2005). Under this interpretation, Christianity did not engender National Socialism’s anti-Semitism; moreover, National Socialism perverted Christianity.

What remains to be said

Further exploration would be welcome into the strength of Catholic political loyalties, the Vatican’s perception of them, and the significance of the Church’s teachings on Jews.

John Cornwell’s explosive Hitler’s Pope (1999) led the charge that Pius XII’s ‘longstanding anti- Jewishness’ explained his negligence. Since Cornwell, much of the literature focussed on Pius XII personally: by the mid-2000s, attention had shifted decisively away from the Holocaust to the so-called ‘Pius Wars’.

Even had the Church resisted more forcefully, it is unclear whether Catholics would have chosen crucifix over swastika.

However, the research’s scope has ventured far beyond the Holy See to include national churches, Catholic organisations, newspapers and political parties, and individual Catholics and clergymen. Yet few historians have critically assessed the relationship between the Vatican and these elements. Preoccupation with Pius XII may have come at the expense of assessing the actions of the wider Church. So the debate could be enlightened by a more comprehensive review of Catholic assistance towards Jews across Europe, which could reconcile disagreeing estimations of the number of Jews saved.

Indeed, too much of the discussion has revolved around a recurring set of events and characters. This partly reflects how historians have principally worked from the Vatican’s wartime archives.

Several new archives have opened since then, including Vatican files on Pius XI and American military intelligence repositories. Some of the Church’s detractors have already revisited their former claims in their wake (Patch 2010).

Now would be an apt time to comb through those archives. In March 2020, the Vatican released archival materials from Pius XII’s pontificate; scholars are currently poring over its two million documents. Before adding their contributions, they could revisit the dormant field and recapitulate the unanswered questions on which the new materials could shed light.

Indeed, too much of the discussion has revolved around a recurring set of events and characters.

Whatever We Remember’s aspirations, the wounds of Catholic involvement in the Holocaust are evidently unhealed. For many Catholics and Jews, We Remember was an apt recognition of the Church’s mistakes and a promising manifesto for future relations. For others, its uncritical exoneration of Pius XII and the Church’s bygone teachings is merely another example of how the Holocaust ‘still struggles to be admitted to history’ (Lawson 2005).

The ignominious manner by which the scholarly debate has unfolded and the intense enmity it has conjured are testimony to the strong sensitivities that the subject matter inevitably evokes. They betray how commentators have lost sight of the duty owed to the Holocaust’s victims to remember their suffering respectfully and faithfully. The visceral, sensationalised language that has all too often accompanied the debate has acerbated wounds far more than it has contributed to the search for the truth.

Whether new evidence will acquit or condemn the Church, one hopes that in time it will conclude this chequered dispute and bring Catholics and Jews much closer towards healing their deep wounds from the 1940s.

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