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Making Pope Pius XII a Saint

posted by Brad Hirschfield

Headlines proclaiming “Jews are angry” over Pope Benedict XVI signing a decree which recognizes Pius’ “heroic virtues” and declaring him “venerable” disturb me greatly. I am Jewish and I am not angry, so let’s be careful here. Which Jews are “angry”? About what are they angry? And how much of this is journalists who still imagine a monolithic Jewish community?
To be sure, the new status makes the late pope eligible for beatification, the rank just below sainthood. And it’s just as sure that some Jews remain deeply resentful of both what they see as the former Pope’s failure to act on behalf of Jews during the Holocaust, and the current Pope’s embrace of his predecessor. But like all stories of the Holocaust, this one is simply too complex to left in the hands of Jewish defense agencies, resent-filled rabbis, or anti-Catholic journalists just looking for another excuse to beat on the Church.


Let me be clear, I am not without my own reservations about the move to canonize Pope Pius XII. But I am aware that in a world in which almost nobody did “enough” to save millions of Jews from their deaths, the issue cannot be who did enough. Instead, it must be, did people do all that they thought they could. And the response to this question, at least about then Pope Pius, appears to be ‘yes’.
We need to exercise great caution about allowing past hurts to undermine current relationships, in any setting, but none more so than in the area of faith. Sadly though, that is precisely what we do in the world of Catholic-Jewish relations. We send watchdogs with long memories about the past to do the work of builders empowered by a vision of the future. Given that, how can we be surprised that things are not further along between our two communities? We can’t.
All of which leaves me wondering, how much we really want things to be different. Are we ready for the next stage of Catholic-Jewish relations, one based more on the mutual dignity of each than on the need to heal past hurts done by one? I hope so, and I hope that more Jews will step up to that vision in the days and weeks ahead.



  • Emily with the Kippah

    I have some concerns about this as a Jew.
    While I in no way advocate for uniform condemnation OR celebration of something that has many complex pieces, In this case it might not be so complex. I could be wrong on this and am happy to be so – but I heard that a priest who had set out to release Pius XII from any guilt associated with the Jewish community was given exclusive access to his files in the Vatican library, which is under extreme lock-and-key secrecy. But what he had found disproved his thesis so much that he could not in good conscience write a bio that released him from the blame he had received. Once again, I could be wrong in this.

  • Gil

    The Pope’s inaction was predicated on his belief that he must first save the Church from extinction by the Nazis. The Jews were near the bottom of the list of priorities. Germany was nearly 45% Catholic. An order from the Vatican that any Catholic engaging in the willful extermination of innocent civilians would be excommunicated would have put a huge dent in the Shoah. As an aside- the German Handbook of Military Conduct forbids a German soldier from shooting an unarmed civilian. This was written in the 1880’s and later adopted by the U.S. army. Simply put a German soldier had the right to refuse an illegal order from a superior. [And we all know the Germans are sticklers to the letter of the law]. Of course they could have been sent to the Eastern front if they showed moxie. An underlying difference between Catholic theology and Jewish theology is that in Judaism saving our fellow man comes first – not our Temple. Remember the sin of Cain was not that he killed his brother, but he denied his reponsibility to his brother – “I’m not my brother’s keeper.”

  • Goodguyex

    Pope Piux XII survived the war and that seems to be a problem for many. Should he have perished along with the victims of the Holocaust?
    Well, to all too many it depends upon whether all Popes, bishops, priests should perish.

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  • http://www.catholicheritage.blogspot.com St. Conleth’s CHA

    Perhaps you might take a look at our blog post:
    http://catholicheritage.blogspot.com/2009/12/venerable-pope-pius-xii.html
    Thanks!
    St. Conleth’s Catholic Heritage Association (Ireland)

  • Rose

    GIL: “An underlying difference between Catholic theology and Jewish theology is that in Judaism saving our fellow man comes first – not our Temple.”
    Wow. I’m not even Catholic any longer, but I feel required to say, on behalf of those many Catholics I know and love AND on behalf of hte study of theology I have done, both as a member of the Catholic Church and not–that’s an incredibly inaccurate and insulting statement to make.
    And by that I’m commenting on what it says about Catholic theology–NOT Jewish.
    So until you’ve taken a few courses in understanding Catholic theology in an attempt to better understand a group and become part of the solution, not just making bigoted assumptions–because from where I’m standing, that’s all I see–please, don’t add to the problem. Because that’s all you’re doing.

  • praesta

    One of the more troublesome issues with today’s canonization process is the explosive growth in the number of saints over the past few decades. John Paul II in particular was keen on large-scale and quick canonization. I think the Church should return to a slower canonization process more in keeping with previous customs, especially for popes. For these reasons I’m also uneasy about John Paul II’s venerable status, since his reign ended only four years ago. That’s just not enough time to get an arm’s length view of anyone’s life postmortem, let alone a world power such as a pope.
    I agree with Rabbi Brad that part of interreligious dialogue involves a turning away from old contentions. While these contentions shouldn’t hold up discourse, they nevertheless exist and pose ethical questions. It’s important to investigate a world leader’s moral decisions in a time of great evil, regardless of canonization. A time-contingent variable exists: the survivors of the Shoah are growing old. Shouldn’t they receive some resolution about papal involvement in the Holocaust before all pass away? Or is it better to study a person’s involvement in atrocity after the passage of a few generations and a more distant connection with the murders? While I am inclined to advocate for a more immediate investigation, arguments could be made for either case and require critical analysis.

  • Harriet B

    Although I don’t really know, I think that Pope Pius XII could have done much more, to save Jews, and to oppose Nazism. He could have made Nazism a mortal sin.
    If you say that could have endangered his life, he had no problem strongly opposing Communism.

  • Gil

    Rose – Tell your rebuttal to the tens of thousands of people who suffered and died under the crusades, inquisitions, reformation and holy wars, as well as the forced convertions by your missionaries. I don’t blame the individual Christian – but talk about the sexual abuses covered up by the church. More wars and attrocities commited in the name of a Prince of Peace. Yes I realize that this was man’s doing. A misuse and abuse of holy doctrine. Whom shall we blame. Yes I realize that the church gives charity, educates the masses, and sets up medical clinics, feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, and teaches moral and ethical behavior. But again at what price? At least pagans did not kill you for believing in your own God. Was it worth it??

  • Your Name

    My understanding is that he was instrumental in Hitler’s determination in destroying the Israelites. Furthermore he was exactly what is expected of the popes behind the scenes, interested only in power and money, which is the primary reason he is being put on the fast track to sainthood. If you recall he was chosen over Mother Theresa!

  • Loretta

    Rabbi Hirschfield I think you are fantastic. You are so completely fair and unbiased in what you write and I wish you would run for President of the United States. You would definitely get my vote!

  • Martin

    I was a child during the reign of Pope Pius XII, and grew up as a largely nonobservant Jew in a Roman Catholic neighborhood. My recollections include the following: the kids who were my friends told me that the Pope can do no wrong, and that his edicts come from God. That was an era where some of my neighbors felt free to call me “christ killer”, and no Catholic clergy in my neighborhood delivered sermons or otherwise evoked guilt about such behavior. It was the era of the Shoah. If elevated to sainthood, Pius XII will be venerated. His memory will find a place in the hearts and minds of Catholics along with those of Francis of Assisi, John XXIII and yes, John Paul II.So his actions and inactions will be enshrined, and that will include, at best, his evident indifference to mass murder of Jewish innocents in Catholic countries such as Poland, Lithuania, and so many others. This was the case while some Catholics risked and perhaps sacrificed their lives for Jewish friends or neighbors or even for strangers. Martyrdom is well known as one precondition, among others, for sainthood in Catholic tradition. Surely, that was absent in this instance. I too would like to move on to the kind of dignified mutual respect that Rabbi Brad seeks between Jews and Catholics. But that should be premised on a full accounting of the facts about Pius XII and the Church establishment he led at the time.

  • Gil

    Not to belabor the point but to demonstrate the power of the Catholic Church during WW2. When the Nazis began exterminating “mental defectives” the Church ordered, and the Nazis obeyed, the abatement of such atrocities. Cardinal Spellman of New York demanded that Roosevelt order that no allied bomb should drop on Rome because of the location of the Vatican, and this was carried out. Remember Italy was part of the axis powers and was at war with the U.S. London and its Protestant churches were blitzed. Read among other verifiable books on the power of the Catholic Church -“Constantine’s Sword” written by a Roman Catholic priest. I am not here to bash a glorious religion or Church. I realize that Christianity has continued, where Judaism has not been able to accomplish, spreading the ideas embodied in the Ten Commandments worldwide. Each believer has the duty to question and correct moral lapses within their own church. Pius X11 certainly had the moral mandate and the power to effect great change. Other popes before and after did. They have justifiably achieved sainthood. Pope Pius X11 failed. He was only infallable when it came to church cannical law.

  • Gil

    Sorry for typo error- that was canonical law.

  • Harriet B

    I would like to see thie pope make Pope John XXIII a saint.

  • Harriet B

    Oooops. I meant THIS pope.
    Please forgive the typo.

  • Irving

    Its a Catholic issue. Let the Catholics deal with it. He will not be a “saint” to me. The Church does not care what I think and
    nor they should. Let the church do what it wants.

  • Sad student of history

    I have information that my lineage includes Jews among the Catholics. Does that make me more or less worthwhile than any of my cousins? I have learned that Princess Mafalda, daughter of the King of Italy, was abused and died in a concentration camp because of her courageous actions on behalf of Jews – is this well known? It’s really great of all of us to sit today in safety and critique others for what was or was not done. Six million Jews were killed, but who were the other fifteen million killed in the gas chambers and concentration camps? Even today we all displace and usurp the rights of other tribes of people. If the suffering of someone else doesn’t matter then no one matters, and that is the real issue. Pointing a finger at the Catholic Church or Pope Pius XII is only a way of redirection away from our own sins.

  • http://beliefnet.com Henry

    Christianity grows from Judaism; for me to hate Jews would be to hate myself. I find the more that I understand Judaism, the more I undertand my faith. Thanks.

  • Amy

    Martin,
    I am sorry to hear you experienced anti-semitism as a child; I did as well at the hands of teachers and students in an Episcopalian private school. But I fear that imputing anti-semitism to someone simply because they are members of a faith which has some anti-semitic members is not sound logic.
    I must also correct your other assumption: martyrdom is not a prequisite for canonization as a saint (attribution of miraculous events is required, except of those who were martyred). Pius XII has been proclaimed Venerable (not Beatified), which means only official recognition that he acted with heroic virtue in his life. The case for beatification (the next phase in the process of canonization) would require miracles to be attributed to his intercession.
    We must wait for the release of all historical evidence from the vatican archives before we are qualified to judge the life of Pope Pius XII. In the interim, we might recall that Golda Meir praised him for the efforts he was known to have made to save the lives of many Jews.

  • Stu

    Perhaps Rabbi Hirschfeld should expound upon what Pope Pius did do, and letting others decide for themselves if that was enough, before making a blanket declaration, in the guise of keeping the peace between Catholics and Jews. Isn’t it time for Jewish leaders to stop making excuses for others and start speaking out once and for all. If not, we are only doomed to a repeat of history.

  • Rona Hart

    Regarding the role of His Holiness Pope Pius XII, readers may be interested in the responses received by a very saintly and distinguished
    rabbi.
    Rabbi Michael Dov Ber Weissmandl, who was to lose his wife and all his children in the Shoah, tried desperately to save Jewish lives.
    During the Nazi explulsions of Jews from Slovakia in 1942, Rabbi Weissmandl asked Bishop Karl Kmetko to intercede.
    The Bishop responded: “…there you will not die from hunger or the plague; there they will slaughter all of you together, from the aged to the infants and the women on one day! And you deserve this punishment. The only piece of advice I have for you is to come over to our religion, and then I will do what I can to annul the decree.”
    A later appeal by Rabbi Weissmandl was addressed to the papal nuncio in Bratislava, Msgr Giuseppe Burzio.
    On being asked to intervene on behalf of some 20,000 Jews, already rounded up and awaiting their final transport, the Pope’s ambassador first objected that, the day being Sunday, he was unable to deal with secular matters.
    Weissmandel pleaded that the “innocent blood of thousands of children” was at stake. The nuncio replied: “There is no such thing as ‘the innocent blood’ of Jewish children! All Jewish blood is guilty, and the Jews must die because that is their punishment for that sin..”
    Had Pope Pius XII’s pronouncements about the Jews been less enigmatic, had he declared that anyone involved in the murder of Jews would be guilty of mortal sin, then possibly many hundreds of thousands lives would have been saved.
    It has been argued that His Holiness would have placed his own life in danger had he made such a dramatic statement. If he had been prepared to risk martyrdom for the sake of humanity and righteousness, then Pope Pius XII might indeed have been an admirable candidate for sainthood.
    I hope it isn’t heretical to say that Rabbi Weissmandl is rather nearer my idea of what a saint should be.

  • Linda

    Any press officer will tell you that the media just love a headline with the words “Jews” and “fury” or “angry” in it. It’s short, sharp and looks interesting.
    It’s up to those organisations or individuals who protest to try and ensure their own words reach the media, using words like “dismayed” or “troubled”. As these words are longer, they are less popular as headlines and sometimes the whole story will be dropped.

  • Martin

    Amy misunderstood the implications of what I was saying about anti-semitism during the reign of Pius XII. This is not a matter of imputing isolated and active bigotry to a few people, and it is not an expression of bad logic. Rather, there is sound basis for understanding the Holocaust (Shoah) and to a substantially lesser degree, the anti-semitism that I experienced as a child, as ultimate systemic expressions of two thousand years of calumny against Jews, built into Catholic doctrine. For documentary support of what I am saying, Amy and others can read “Constantine’s Sword”, a brilliant history of anti-semitism in the church by James Carroll. There is a film based on the book as well, and further, take a look at the great film “Shoah” by Claude Landsman, for more to this effect. It seems to be that the brave Catholics who found the logic as well as the heart to defy those terrible traditions are the ones who deserve veneration. To the best of knowledge, Pius XII was not one of those. If Golda Meir knew and said otherwise, she did so in the face of many contrary witnesses.If the church knows otherwise, it needs to fully disclose that evidence, to clear the air and to justify progress and peace of mind for all concerned.

  • Mike Harris

    Who is man to judge and declare any man Saint? His Holiness? All the titles we give the Almighty? I don’t care about any denomination. I’m neither christian or jew but a child of the Almighty as we all should be.

  • James

    Pius XII, also known as “Hitler’s pope,” did very little to stop the Holocaust. He could have threatened any carrying out genocidal orders with excommunication. But he didn’t. It may be one thing for a shopkeeper or a factory worker to have not intervened, but Pius XII was supposed to be “God’s vicar on earth.” He was supposed to be sitting in the “seat of Peter.” If Pius XII wasn’t willing to be martyred, as the Apostles and other popes were before him, he should have stepped down. Under Pius XII, the Catholic Church could have had its finest hour. But, instead, it took the path of accommodation and even collaboration. Not only does Pius XII not deserve to be canonized, but the entire Catholic Church should declare a month of mourning for its role in the Holocaust, and beg God’s forgiveness. This is the same church, by the way, that refuses communion to divorced persons. Contrast this stance with a desire to canonize “Hitler’s pope,” and it is easy to see that the Catholic Church has completely lost its way.

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