Papal failure to speak in defence of Jews is a troubling legacy

October 14, 2013

Dr. Susan Zuccotti did a fine job of presenting the complex legacy of the two popes who reigned during the period of the Second World War: Pius XI and Pius XII.

It is clear that leading up to the war, and throughout the whole period, there were many political, social and moral failings throughout the world; and it is becoming ever clearer that the Catholic Church generally, and the Holy See specifically, were not exempt from participating in these failings.

In particular, the popes of that era are increasingly subjected today to a scrutiny about what they said and did, or rather what they failed to say or do – their sins both of commission and omission, particularly with respect to protecting Jews and the lives of all those targeted by Nazism and the other fascist movements prevalent in the day.

Along with Zuccotti, it is tempting to say that the weight of the judgment lies on the side of omissions: surely the popes could have said and done more to call the Catholic community to righteous action or to impede the forces of aggression and destruction present in Europe and all throughout the world.

Zuccotti pointed to possible signs of indirect interventions, but the burden of proof demonstrates very little direct intervention by the popes during the war years, even in "so-called" Catholic countries where it might have been possible for a pope to have a greater influence among the people.


This remains a troubling reality for Catholics to contemplate and own up to.

In answer to the questions raised by Zuccotti's presentation:

Was enough done by the Church to protect human lives during the Second World War? Clearly "no" – as millions of innocent people throughout the world were senselessly killed during the war years, and the Catholic community did not ever really respond en masse to oppose the deadly forces operating all around them at that time.

Should Christians have acted more courageously to oppose the deadly regimes of the times, present in many forms and many countries in the world?

Clearly "yes" – it is particularly troubling to ponder the active complicity of many Catholics, even clergy, in some of the most barbaric forms of government and military leadership in existence during those years.

Could the Church have done more to protect Jews specifically? Here again "yes" – although, from the vantage point of modern day Catholic-Jewish relations, we have to admit that our Church then did not understand sufficiently how the theological heritage of supersessionism contributed to what scholars today call "the teaching of contempt" toward the Jewish people.


This realization, and its correction in Catholic thought, really only came to light at the time of the Second Vatican Council, and came to be enshrined in the Council's Declaration on the Church's Relations with Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate).

Could something similar happen today in the light of contemporary Catholic-Jewish relations?

Here I agree with Zuccotti's assessment (quoted from her article in The Edmonton Journal): "The Church of the past is not the Church of today. But it is important to study the historical record carefully and dispassionately, to define those errors and omissions with a view toward understanding the past and improving our responses to humanitarian crises in the future."

The 1998 statement, We Remember: A Reflection on the "Shoah", published by the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, calls all Catholics to this very task and urges us to be ever vigilant lest we forget the lessons of a sinful past and risk repeating the same sins today.

There is much in all of this that requires our prayerful attention in the present day.

(Julien Hammond is the director of ecumenical and interfaith relations for the Edmonton Archdiocese.)