Pope Pius could have made a difference

November 25, 2013

In his letter to the WCR (Nov. 11), Peter Hala submitted that Susan Zucotti’s “one-sided criticism” of Pope Pius (WCR, Oct. 14) does little to “help in interfaith dialogue.” With respect, Hala’s letter itself presents a one-sided perspective.

Humanity (especially Catholics) should continue to critically assess the role Pope Pius played. I recommend Robert Ventresca’s recent biography, Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII.

I agree with Hala that a solid argument can be made that by the start of World War II, strong papal statements criticizing the Axis powers may have accomplished little in curbing their atrocities while endangering practising Catholics (and others) in German-occupied Europe.

As a Vatican diplomat before his papacy, Cardinal Pacelli (as he then was) concluded a Vatican treaty with the fledgling Nazi government that was one factor enabling Hitler’s rise to power. At the time, Hitler needed the support of German Catholics and the Church to consolidate his power.

The Nazis almost immediately began violating the treaty and, as Hitler became more secure, his oppression of Catholics and other minorities escalated. As Vatican secretary of state and later the pontiff, Pope Pius declined to speak out publicly against these violations.

The situation developed to the point where a public stand by the Church may have become ineffectual.

Second, the pope did speak out a few times when the war was in his own backyard, sometimes with positive results.

He criticized the Allies when they began bombing Italian targets, highlighting the danger to the civilian population and the art and architecture that might be destroyed. Not surprisingly, the Allies were unmoved, noting the pope had remained silent when the Germans were destroying British and other European cities.

Also, when the Germans began rounding up Jews in Rome for extradition to the death camps, Pope Pius appears to have made a strong statement to the German government that caused the highest levels of that government to suspend that activity.

I do not mean to suggest Pope Pius intentionally enabled or supported the Nazis – far from it. However, his response to them was poorly conceived.

Brian Vail