Thesis: Roman Catholic Church and Nazi Germany

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¶ … Roman Catholic Church and Nazi Germany

The world community has for the most part recovered emotionally and psychologically from the horrors of WWII that Nazi Germany -- led by Adolph Hitler -- perpetrated on the millions of people, including Jews, the gypsies, resisters and others. But the questions remain as to which organizations, religions and leaders aided Hitler in his madness. Those issues are still being raised today, seventy years later. This paper reviews the literature that reflects the involvement -- or lack of involvement -- of the Roman Catholic Church during the Third Reich in Germany, in particular the interaction Pope Pius XII had with Hitler.

It may come as a shock to many of the estimated one billion members of the Roman Catholic Church -- and others who follow religious denominations and religious history -- that Eugenio Pacelli, later known as Pope Pius XII, actually cooperated with Adolf Hitler in ways that allowed Nazism to gain power and credibility. Moreover, as the Vatican Secretary of State prior to his ascension to the Papal throne, Pacelli orchestrated an agreement with Hitler that basically removed the German Catholic bishops' previous censures of Nazism (Steinfels, 1999) and in effect offered Hitler the blessing of the Catholic Church. Pacelli also arranged an agreement between the Vatican and Nazi Germany that "removed the German church from politics in exchange for pledges of Nazi non-interference" with the affairs of the Catholic Church (Steinfels). Hitler quickly went back on his promise to leave members of the Catholic Church alone.

[Peter Steinfels is a religious writer for the New York Times. He is a lifelong Roman Catholic; he received his Ph.D from Columbia University, and taught at Notre Dame (1994-95) and at Georgetown University (1997-2001).]

Author John Cornwell, a British journalist who spent years researching previously private memoranda and other historical documents wrote Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII. Cornwell claims that Pacelli / Pope Pius XII was "obsessed by papal power, harboring a secret antipathy to Jews" and was insensitive to "pity, narcissistic and self-exonerating" in his administration of duties.

[Cornwell is author of several books on the Catholic Church (A Thief in the Night, which investigated the 1978 death of Pope John Paul I; A Pontiff in Winter was highly critical of Pope John Paul II; among other well-known books). Cornwell originally intended to be a priest and later studied at Oxford and Cambridge; he taught in London schools and at McMaster University in Ontario. Recently Cornwell has served as Director of the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge.]

Pacelli was "not inclined to protest officially" during the Nazi "roundup and deportation of Rome's Jews" (Cornwell, p. 316) not because he necessarily feared the Nazis but because, as Cornwell writes, he wished to "maintain the Nazi-occupation status quo" until Rome could be liberated by the Allies. Cornwell doesn't let Pius XII off easily (p. 316), asserting that the pope showed a "remarkable moral and spiritual dislocation in his papacy." And this dislocation was not just "diplomatic silence" as regards the Nazi horrors in his back yard, but also rather a "stunning religious and liturgical silence" (Cornwell, p. 316). What truly galls Cornwell is that after Rome was indeed liberated by the Allies there is "…no record of a single public prayer, no lighted votive candle, no psalm, no lamentation…no Mass celebrated in solidarity with the Jews of Rome, either during their terrible ordeal or after their deaths" (Cornwell, p. 316).

Thus the "moral" and "spiritual" silence shown by Pius XII "in the face of an atrocity committed at the heart of Christendom, in the shadow of the shrine of the first apostle, persists to this day, and implicates all Catholics" (Cornwell, p. 317).

Frank J. Coppa, writing in the Journal of Church and State presents a slightly more balanced picture of the actions of the Vatican vis-a-vis Nazi Germany. Coppa asserts that while Pope Pius XI condemned Nazism on many occasions and in many public pronouncements, his Secretary of State, Pacelli sought to "pacify" Hitler and after Pius XI died, Pius XII chose not to issue the encyclical that denounced racism and aggression against the Jews. Why did Pius XII appear so meek and indecisive in the face of Nazi terror and racism? Coppa offers specific details in the explanation of Pius XII's reticence.

[Frank J. Coppa is Professor of History and Director of St. John's University's Doctoral program in Modern World History. Coppa has conducted a great deal of research and writing in Italian and European history. He received his M.A. And his PhD. From the Catholic University of America; he authored biographies on Pope Pius IX, Cardinal Giacomo Antonelli and published The Modern Papacy (1998). Coppa has reviewed all Catholic popes for the encyclopedia Brittanica's online references to the papacy.]

Prior to Pope Pius XII coming into power as head of the Catholic Church, Pope Pius XI had spent substantial energy and research putting together an encyclical "denouncing racism and anti-Semitism" (Coppa, p. 2). That encyclical was called Humani Generis Unitas ("The Unity of the Human Race") but Pius XI died on February 10, 1939 before he could deliver this important Papal decree. Pope Pius XI was no stranger to the anti-Semitism movement; in fact as early as 1928, Coppa writes, Pius XI "condemned anti-Semitism" and the "reign of terror" that Hitler waged against innocents and Jews.

Pius XI was "particularly disturbed by the Nazi attempts on Catholic youth organizations in Germany" and unlike Pacelli (then a Cardinal), Pius XI took public exception to the "Nazi doctrine of blood and race" (Coppa, p. 3). And while Pius XI believed his position required him as a moral leader to "denounce Nazi outrages," Pacelli exerted a "moderating influence" and feared Soviet Bolshevism would rise up if the Germans were kept at bay. But Pius XI's aide, Father Rosa, S.J., (an Italian Jesuit) reflected the thinking of Pius XI in writing that "Nazism's neo-pagan opposition to Catholic civilization was as insidious as atheistic communism" (Coppa, p. 3). By 1937-38 the Western world recognized Pius XI as an outspoken leader against Nazi Germany, Coppa explains. Pius XI's encyclical Mit brennender Sorge was read from worldwide Catholic pulpits in March 1937; the encyclical pronounced, "With deep anxiety and increasing dismay" the Pope had witnessed the "progressive oppression of the faithful" (Coppa, p. 4).

Hitler was "incensed" by the encyclical and termed it "a call to battle against the Reich," Coppa goes on. But Pacelli, still several years away from his own ascension to the Papacy, and far more tolerant of Nazi abuses and blood-letting than Pius XI, "assured the Nazis that the [Pope] did not mean to condemn their government." Pacelli in fact won the praise of the German ambassador in 1938: "Cardinal Pacelli constantly strives to pacify, and to exert a moderating influence on the pope, who is difficult to manage and influence" (Coppa, p. 5).

Clearly Pius XI knew Pacelli's tendency to avoid criticizing the barbarous Nazis, and that is likely the reason that Pius XI did not involve Pacelli in June 1938 in the writing of the hitherto mentioned encyclical that in fact was left on Pius XI's desk when the Pontiff died. Instead of involving his Secretary of State (Pacelli) in the preparation of the anti-Nazi encyclical Pius XI summoned American Jesuit John La Farge (a descendent of Benjamin Franklin on his mother's side) who had authored "numerous books and articles condemning racism" (Coppa, p. 5). La Farge had asserted in his manuscripts that "The teachings of Christ proclaimed the moral unity of the human race," and that no law or nation could take away the human rights that were based on Christ's philosophy. Hence, La Farge's assertion that "the deliberate fostering of racial prejudices" was immoral and sinful matched perfectly with the views of Pius XI (Coppa. p. 6).

Pius XI told La Farge to "Simply say what you would say to the entire world if you were pope." Unfortunately the document that La Farge wrote got into other hands prior to being delivered to Pius XI, and it was watered down. Still, Pius went about his moral duties and in August 1938 he stated that it is "…not possible for us Christians to participate in anti-Semitism" because "spiritually we are Semites" (Coppa, p. 7). A few months prior to his death Pius XI stated that "Nazi Germany has taken the place of Communism as the Church's most dangerous enemy" -- but the reality was that before Pius XI passed away, the encyclical had not been made public. Coppa (p. 8) suggests that the new Pope, Pius XII (Pacelli) was "desirous of improving the Vatican's relations with Nazi Germany" and as a result Pius XII "assumed the initiative in having the encyclical shelved." That having been said, Pius XII later issued portions of the encyclical and left out "the explicit condemnation of racism and anti-Semitism" (Coppa, p. 8).

Soon after Pius XII assumed the Papacy… [END OF PREVIEW]

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