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Jewish World Review Nov. 5, 1999 /25 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

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The Price of History: Understanding the Legacy of Pope Pius XII -- NOBODY LIKES TO SEE their heroes or heroines trashed. Last week, adoring baseball fans across the nation rose up with outrage when a reporter questioned all-time base-hit leader Pete Rose too closely about his misdeeds and lies.

So, if we take it for granted that disputes over such relatively unimportant stuff (though for some of us baseball is a sacred topic), can be troublesome, no one ought to be surprised that a new book about Eugenio Pacelli (1876-1958), the man known to history as Pope Pius XII, has engendered a bitter controversy.

The book, provocatively titled “Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII,” was written by John Cornwell, a British journalist and researcher. It is the latest in a long-running controversy over what the Catholic Church’s leader did or did not do during World War II and the Holocaust.

There is little question that Cornwell is unsympathetic to the subject of his biography who was coronated in 1939 and reigned until his death. From the first page to the last, the reader is pointed toward the author’s conclusion that Pius XII was uninterested in helping Jews during the Shoah in a heavy-handed manner.

Though I am predisposed to distrust any book that claims to be a “secret history,” Cornwell does bring us much insight about the man, his church and the era, not all of it negative.

For example, I was interested to read that on the eve of World War II, Pius XII actually sought to facilitate a plot against Adolf Hitler by elements in the German military by passing on messages from the plotters to the British. Though he was sympathetic to Germany, Pacelli’s clear distaste for Nazism and Hitler also comes through in Cornwell’s account of the struggle of German Catholic institutions to avoid destruction by the Nazis.

There were instances of righteous conduct by Pius XII and his representatives, such as the courageous conduct of Cardinal Angelo Roncalli — the future Pope John XXIII. But however much Pius XII did or said against the Nazis, the plain fact remains that history will judge him by what he did not do.

Pius spent the years of his papacy as well as his long term as Vatican Secretary of State preceding his coronation navigating the world of European diplomacy negotiating concordats between the church and the German government. His chief concern seems to have been maintaining the independence of the church and the Vatican’s central authority. He comes through in Cornwell’s book as a man more interested in realpolitik than righteousness.

His statements of protest against atrocities were circumspect and failed to focus the world on the mass murder of the Jews. Though he had a position of unique moral authority, his actions show him very much a man of his time and cultural milieu in his attitudes toward Jews. And, like others who favored appeasement of Hitler, Pacelli’s fear of communism outweighed his disgust for the Nazis.

Specifically, he failed to excommunicate Catholics who supported the Nazis and actively supported the German puppet regime in Croatia, which committed horrible atrocities against Jews and Serbs. And though the church saved many individual Jews, the pontiff failed to act decisively to save the Jewish community of Rome when it was largely destroyed.

Reaction to the book from Jews and Catholics has been predictable. Ever since the publication of German playwright Rolf Hochuth’s 1963 play “The Deputy,” most Jews have accepted the idea that Pius XII was no friend to the Jews. Though Hochuth’s play was fiction and and did little justice to the real Pacelli, it struck a nerve.

Pius XII has become a symbol of what survivor Elie Wiesel maintained was the most perplexing and horrible phenomenon of the Holocaust: the bystander who failed to act.

On the other hand, Catholics have been outraged by attacks on the memory of Pius XII. Their hurt at what they perceive to be an injustice is magnified by the reverence the holder of that office commands among the Catholic faithful. Criticism of a pope is taken almost as hate speech directed at the church itself.

Compounding this sensitivity is the fact that the current pope, John Paul II (who has been a powerful force combatting anti-Semitism), has extolled Pius XII as his particular hero and has openly supported the beatification of Pacelli, the first step toward Catholic sainthood. That has led the Catholic Church, including its local representatives, to take the attitude that Jewish inquiries into the history of Pius XII and the Holocaust will torpedo efforts to improve community relations between the two groups.

In turn, this effort to transform a controversial historical figure into a saint is viewed with disbelief and cynicism by most Jews, who neither understand the Catholic procedure by which a person is elevated to sainthood nor the body of faith that lies behind the process.

The fact is, it is none of the Jewish community’s business who our Catholic neighbors consider a saint. Likewise, it is inappropriate for the Catholic Church to tell Jews not to dig into the history of the Holocaust if it steps on the toes of one of their heroes.

Much like the Jewish reaction to the publication last year of a long-awaited Vatican document about the church and the Holocaust, current efforts at good feelings are running aground on the shores of an inconvenient history.

The irony is, one can measure the strength of those relations and the vast distance that Catholics and Jews have come since World War II by these controversies.

Where once, not so long ago, Catholics probably would not have bothered to notice Jewish criticism and most Jews would have expected nothing but contempt from the Catholic Church, today we have expectations of each other. That’s why most Jews have arrived at a point when they judge the contemporary Catholic Church not by the dismal standards of its past with regard to Jewish issues, but by the good deeds of its present.

Even as most Jewish groups were disappointed by elements of last year’s Vatican report (such as its knee-jerk defense of Pius XII), no objective observer could fail to be moved by the understanding manifest in the document about the significance of the Holocaust or by its request that Jews hear their plea “with open hearts.” It would be churlish to ignore the significance of a Catholic call for “penitence” on the part of the church and its followers for conduct during the Holocaust, as well as for the 20 centuries that preceded it.

Cornwell’s book has demonstrated once again the power of history to disrupt and confuse us. Whether we like it or not, Catholics and Jews alike must take these questions seriously. Though we may not like the answers that more research about Pius XII will bring, we are compelled to keep looking. In the end, we are all better served by a diligent search for the truth than by continued silence.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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