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At First Things, William Doino, Jr. takes on the treatment of Pius XII in Saul Friedlander’s widely-praised history Nazi Germany and the Jews.

These are not the only concerns. Relying on the farfetched claims of Susan Zuccotti, Friedlander writes: “Personally he [Pius XII] was not involved in any of the rescue operations throughout Italy. No trace of any written directive has ever surfaced; moreover, from among the main religious personalities involved in assistance to the victims, in Rome or elsewhere, no indication of an oral directive from the Holy See to help the fleeing Jews has ever been mentioned. The rescue activities were mostly spontaneous.”

These statements are demonstrably untrue, and it is shocking that Saul Friedlander would so easily accept them. Even Fr. John Morley, a critic of the wartime Church whom Friedlander quotes selectively, affirms: “Official sanction and assistance were given to the lodging of thousands of Jews in the religious institutions of Rome, and all canonical restrictions were suspended. These efforts, no doubt, saved thousands of Jews.” Grazia Loparco, professor of church history at the faculty of Educational Sciences Auxilium in Rome, who has extensively researched the matter, concurs: “From the documentation and testimonies emerges evidence of the full support and instruction of Pius XII.”

It’s not just Catholic sources. Reporting from Vatican City, just after the liberation of Rome, the Palestine Post revealed: “Several thousand refugees, largely Jews, during the weekend left the Papal Palace at Castel Gandolfo—the Pope’s summer residence near Marino—after enjoying safety there during the recent terror. Besides Jews, persons of all political creeds who had been endangered were given sanctuary at the Palace. Before leaving the refugees conveyed their gratitude to the Pope through his majordomo” (“Sanctuary in the Vatican,” Palestine Post, June 22, 1944, p. 3). No one but Pius XII had the authority to open Castel Gandolfo; those refugees were saved because of his direct intervention.

Yet Friedlander believes the pope did not save a single Jew: Anything good that happened, he argues, really happened without Pius XII’s significant involvement—even if the good being achieved was by his own handpicked secretary of state and nuncios, acting and speaking in his name. Had Friedlander wanted to criticize a prominent Italian leader legitimately, he might have chosen the “Catholic” fascist Roberto Farinacci, who wrote furious attacks against Pius during the War, culminating with this outburst: “For a few years, Pope Pius XII has fully espoused the Jewish cause. . . . We never imagined that our Pastor, the Vicar of Christ, the Head of our Church, could one day be regarded as the most influential defender of the interests of the Jewish people” (Regime Fascista, January 17, 1945).

Tom Piatak on Hitchens’ Hubris:

The effectiveness of Hitchens’ book is also undermined by the large number of errors it contains, many so glaring that they will be picked up by even a casual reader with some knowledge of history and theology.  The Gnostic gospels are not of the “same period and provenance” as the canonical Gospels, but were written several decades later; the “synoptic” Gospels are not synonymous with the “canonical” Gospels; “Q” is an assumed source for the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, but not Mark and John; the process of deciding which books to include in the New Testament was not one in which “many a life was horribly lost;” “the Vulgate” was what the Reformers were trying to get away from, not what they were attempting to translate the Bible into; Luther declared “Here I stand, I can do no other” at Worms, not Wittenberg; John Adams was not a slaveholder, nor was T. S. Eliot a Catholic; the amount of wood from relics of the True Cross would not be sufficient if gathered together to recreate the Cross, much less create a “thousand – foot cross;” Christians have never practiced animal sacrifice, nor did the Arian heresy teach that the Father and the Son were “two incarnations of the same person;” the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption were promulgated in 1854 and 1950, not 1852 and 1951; the Lateran Treaty was signed seven years after Mussolini marched on Rome, not after he “had barely seized power;” Maryland never prohibited Protestants from holding office, and condoms are not a “necessary” condition for preventing the transmission of AIDS, or else celibates would all be infected.  Given all these errors (and many more), there is no reason to accept anything Hitchens writes on his own authority, and he offers no authority other than his own for most of what he writes.

Hitchens’ errors extend even to fields in which he claims to be an expert.  This self-professed admirer of Evelyn Waugh describes Sebastian Flyte of Brideshead Revisited as being “heir to an old Catholic nobility.” In fact, Sebastian was the younger son, with little prospect of inheritance, and the Flytes became Catholic only when Lord Marchmain converted to marry his wife.  As luck would have it, the very paragraph following the one sentence Hitchens quotes from Brideshead begins: “Sebastian always heard his mass, which was ill-attended.  Brideshead was not an old established centre of Catholicism.” All the humor in Hitchens’ book is similarly unintentional, such as reading about Christianity’s supposed obsession with sex in a book with page after page discoursing on such topics as the evil of virginity, the horror of circumcision, and “the hideous consequences of the masturbation taboo.”

But what of Hitchens’ major arguments?  Is there a persuasive core buried beneath the errors and falsehoods?  Even Hitchens admits there is not.  The book eschews philosophical argument in favor of anecdote, with the reader offered a parade of horrible religious extremists to contemplate.  But such argument does not prove that religion is false or that God does not exist.  As Hitchens acknowledges, “I do not say that if I catch a Buddhist priest stealing all the offerings left by the simple folk at his temple, Buddhism is thereby discredited.” Exactly.  The fact that some horrible things have been done in the name of religion, and that some repulsive men have professed religious belief, does not disprove the existence of God, or show that religion is a malign force.

The main arguments that Hitchens offers against Christianity are that evolution explains the origin of life on earth, that portions of the Bible are not literally true, and that the four Gospels are not mathematical reproductions of each other.  These arguments don’t get Hitchens where he wants to go.  Many eminent Christians have seen no contradiction between evolution and their belief.  John Paul II stated that evolution was “more than a hypothesis,” and Cardinal Newman wrote shortly after the publication of Darwin’s work that “Mr. Darwin’s theory need not be atheistical, be it true or not; it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of Divine Prescience and skill.” Newman also echoed the Thomistic belief that reason and revelation are complementary, not antagonistic, in words all Christians should take to heart: “if anything seems to be proved by astronomer or geologist, or chronologist, or antiquarian, or ethnologist, in contradiction to the dogmas of faith, that point will eventually turn out, first, not to be proved, or secondly, not contradictory, or thirdly, not contradictory to any thing really revealed, but to something which has been confused with revelation.”

And long before Newman or John Paul, such important figures as St. Augustine and St. Jerome looked to the Old Testament not primarily for historical or scientific knowledge, but to see how it pointed the way to Christ.  Indeed, Augustine speculated that different species of animals were not the result of separate miraculous acts of creation, as a literal reading of Genesis would suggest, but the result of a process in which the conditions for life created by God gradually became operative.

A brief note: an interview I did with the great KVSS in Omaha aired this morning – you can listen here.

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