Postwar Catholics, Jewish Children, and a Rush to Judgment

Pope Pius XII never told Catholic groups to keep 'hidden' Jewish children from their families after World War II.

BY: Ronald J. Rychlak


When it comes to criticizing Pope Pius XII (or, frankly, almost any aspect of the Catholic Church), some people can barely contain themselves. So it was with the newest "discovery" that appeared to cast a bad light on the Catholic Church during the World War II era. The New York Times and many other publications reported the finding of a French document, purportedly authorized by the Vatican, saying that church authorities should not return "hidden" Jewish children to their families after the war if they had been baptized. Long before any serious study could take place, critics were in the press explaining how this document proved that Pius was indeed an evil man.

First, to set the stage: During World War II, many Jewish people sought refuge in the homes of Christians. Pope Pius XII threw open all of the buildings under his charge in Rome and set the example, encouraging Catholics to shelter Jews from the Nazis. All across occupied Europe, Jewish families hid in Catholic homes. Some Jewish children were placed with Catholic institutions. Many of their parents did not survive the war.

While the children had to "pass" as Catholics, outward appearances were usually sufficient to deceive the Nazis. Canon 750 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which was supplemented during World War II by orders from the Holy See and the French bishops, made clear that hidden Jewish children were not to be baptized without parental consent. In fact, classes were often established to let the Jewish children study their own religion-for example, in the basement of a convent where the children were staying. Nevertheless, some Catholics did indeed baptize the children-perhaps out of their own faith conviction, or as an effort to further deceive the Nazis. This complicated the post-war question about what to do with children whose parents had been killed by the Nazis. While the numbers vary widely, it could be estimated that around 10,000-20,000 were orphaned and were in the custody of Catholic institutions or families in France. A small percentage had been baptized.

Enter the new discovery: On December 28, 2004 an Italian professor from Bologna named Alberto Melloni published an article in the Italian newspaper

Il Corriere della Sera

entitled "Pius XII to Nuncio Roncalli: Do Not Return the Jewish Children." The article cited a document that Melloni claimed to have received from an unidentified archive in France. This document [

read it

], dated October 23, 1946, was said to be "a disposition of the Holy Office" (the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's former name), and it purportedly contained Pope Pius XII's directives to his representative in France-Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII-on how to handle the Jewish children, especially any who had been baptized by their Catholic rescuers.

According to Melloni, the letter said: "Children who have been baptized must not be entrusted to institutions that cannot ensure their Christian education." Also according to Melloni, the letter said that children whose families survived the Holocaust should be returned, "as long as they had not been baptized." The clear implication was that baptized Jewish children should not be returned to their families. Melloni quoted the letter as saying: "It should be noted that this decision taken by the Holy Congregation of the Holy Office has been approved by the Holy Father."

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