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."
But was this document authentic? The New York Times reported that the letter was made available to it "on the condition that the source would not be disclosed." This, in and of itself, should have set off alarms on the heels of the recent CBS memo scandal. Moreover, the letter was not signed, not on Vatican letterhead, and Vatican officials immediately noted that the words used were not typical for directives from the Vatican. Importantly, the letter was in French, not in Italian as it would have been had this actually been an instruction from the Pope to his nuncio. During and after the war, Archbishop Roncalli certainly never acted in a way that Melloni's report said he was instructed to act. In fact, he has been repeatedly praised for all he did to assist Jewish refugees. When he was thanked for having saved so many Jewish lives during the war, he gave all credit to Pius XII (whom, according to his private papers, he "venerated and loved"). To its credit, The New York Times at least mentioned that Melloni's report had been questioned. Jesuit Father Peter Gumpel, a Vatican historian who recently completed an eight-volume study of Pius XII's life, was quoted as saying: "There is something fishy here." He understood at once that the document did not come from the Vatican. Like any good historian, Fr. Gumpel undertook an investigation to discover exactly what was behind Melloni's report. More on that in a moment. Let us first see how the would-be historians reacted. Daniel Goldhagen, author of the sharply critical book "A Moral Reckoning," in the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera and in the Forward called for the establishment of an international commission to investigate the Catholic Church's handling of Jewish children. He used the new memo to call Pius XII an "anti-Semitic pope" who was "one of the most rampant would-be-kidnappers of modern times." Regarding Melloni's unsigned letter, Goldhagen argued that it "reveals that the pope's and the church's policy was, in effect, to kidnap Jewish children, perhaps by the thousands....Its plain purpose was to implement a plan that would cruelly victimize the Jews a second time by depriving these bodily and spiritually wounded survivors of the Nazi hell of their own children." He concluded by telling the Church of today that it "should cease efforts to canonize Pius XII." Other critics, like Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, similarly blame Pius XII for "kidnapping" Jewish children. Revelations from journalists and historians in France now reveal, however, that the critics of Pope Pius XII rushed to judgment. Melloni's article was based on a bad translation (perhaps an intentional fraud) of instructions that were sent from Msgr. Domenico Tardini, a top Vatican official, to leaders of the Church in France. Giving Melloni the benefit of the doubt, the document may have been fabricated by a Catholic who, in 1946, wanted to keep their Jewish child. Alternatively, Melloni may have fabricated it. We do know his version was not from the Vatican. The instructions dealt with Jewish children who had been entrusted to the Church for safekeeping and with inquiries about them from outside organizations.