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March 19, 1998

The 'Silence' of Pius XII

By Joseph Sobran

WASHINGTON -- The Vatican has finally released its long-awaited statement on the Holocaust, "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah." It has been greeted by the predictable complaint that it's too soft on Pope Pius XII.

According to a persistent myth, Pius maintained an indifferent silence to the Nazi mass murder of Jews. The Vatican statement rebuts this myth, reminding us that Pius' diplomatic efforts saved "hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives." This was no secret after the war: Pius was subsequently praised and honored by "Jewish communities and Jewish leaders." One of the latter was Golda Meir.

But so entrenched has this myth become that The New York Times, in the lead paragraph of its lead story, stated as simple fact that "the document skirted the painful issue of the Vatican's long silences during the Nazi reign of terror."

The Times has forgotten its own 1942 editorial praising Pius as a "lonely voice" for his Christmas message deploring the racial persecution then in progress. It also seems to have forgotten that during the early 1930s, its own star correspondent in Moscow, Walter Duranty, was not merely "silent," but mendaciously denied, in its pages, that Joseph Stalin was deliberately starving millions of Ukrainians. Yet the Times now perpetuates the myth of Pius' "silence."

In 1937, before he became Pius XII, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli had drafted an encyclical for his predecessor, Pius XI, denouncing Nazi racism -- in German, rather than the customary Latin. From then on, anyone who cared knew what the official position of the church was. But not many cared.

And today, not many remember. Elan Steinberg of the World Jewish Congress complains of the statement's "gratuitous defense of the silence of Pius XII, and (its) failure to discuss the role of the church as an institution." Meir Lau, a leading Israeli rabbi, charges that "(Pius') silence cost us millions of lives. One who stands upon the blood and does nothing to avoid the bloodshed is like a partner to the mass murder of human beings. He didn't do it, but he didn't stop it."

Stop it? Does anyone think Adolf Hitler, an apostate Catholic who despised Christianity for its Jewish origins, would have obeyed a directive from the Vatican?

Pius XII said relatively little about current events because he knew how ineffectual, even self-defeating, his comments might be. He and Pius XI also condemned communism in principle, but they never issued statements about such specifics as the Ukrainian famine and the immense Gulag in which tens of millions perished. Neither did many political and religious leaders, Catholic, Protestant or Jewish. Were they all indifferent, or did they simply doubt that denunciations would have any positive impact on totalitarian regimes?

The celebrity of two TV-era popes, John XXIII and especially John Paul II (who knows how to use the media), has led many people to assume that papal utterances can have huge immediate impact. But even John Paul II has been unable to have any visible effect on the current evil he has repeatedly spoken out on: abortion. No more than German soldiers do abortionists lay down their weapons at his command. It was during his very popular papacy that Italians voted overwhelmingly for legal abortion.

And if John Paul II couldn't deter Bill Clinton, who has courted his favor, how could Pius XII have deterred Hitler?

If only Christians were as obedient to the papacy as Pius' defamers suppose. It was never so even when the popes had considerable political power; it certainly wasn't so when the Vatican stood within an Axis capital during the most enormous war of all time. Pius XII had sufficiently difficult duties to Christendom, despite which he made considerable exertions to help Jews and other victims of persecution.

One result of Pius' love for the Jews deserves to be recalled: Israel Zolli, chief rabbi of Rome, became his devoted friend and converted to Catholicism. It's impossible to imagine Rabbi Zolli taking such a step if he had thought Pius and the Catholic Church had passively assented to the destruction of the Jewish people. His response is the most eloquent judgment on Pius XII.



Copyright (c) 1998

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