Saturday, March 20, 2010

Frank Coppa: Pius XII Cautious Diplomacy

Professor Coppa kindly gave me permission to publish his essay on this blog. The essay was originally published in The Tablet, the journal for the Dioceses of Brooklyn and Queens, New York, 24 February 2010.


Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli, born March 2, 1876, ordained a priest April 2, 1899, elected pope March 2, 1939, and died October 9, 1958, has emerged as the most controversial pope of the twentieth century and his pontificate one of the most turbulent in recent memory.

Revered by some, he has been reviled by others. A familiar figure for many of the Second World War generation, and one of the most written about popes, he remains one of the least known. During his papacy and its immediate aftermath he was noted for his asceticism, saintly persona, and for his efforts on behalf of the stricken during the Second World War. Jews as well as Catholics praised him during the Holocaust and following his death including: Golda Meir, the Israeli Foreign Minister, the Jewish German scientist Albert Einstein, and the chief Rabbi of Rome Israel Zolli, who converted to Catholicism and took the Christian name Eugenio, in his honor. Jewish voices called for him to be recognized as a: 'Righteous Gentile' while Jewish-American publications such as The American Israelite and The Jewish Advocate praised Pius XII for his humanitarian campaign.

This positive image was challenged following the presentation of Rolf Hochhuth’s play “Der Stellvertreter” “The Deputy: A Christian Tragedy” (1963). This drama blended fact and fiction and denounced the alleged papal “inaction” and “silence,” in the face of the genocide allegedly motivated by anti-Semitism, narrow clerical concerns and the Vatican’s financial interests. One author John Cornwell has branded him Hitler’s Pope. Subsequently Cornwell in another book: Pontiff in Winter admitted he erred in ascribing evil motives to Pius in his earlier work. He admitted that he now found it impossible to judge the wartime Pontiff's motivation.

In response to Cornwell earlier accusations Rabbi David G. Dalin published: The Myth of Hitler's Pope. The critique of the wartime pope was deemed a defamation by the many defenders of Pius XII whom argue that he was not indifferent, anti-Semitic or silent and whose quiet diplomacy did more than most other political figures to assist the victims of Hitler’s racism, paranoia, and rage. Over the past five decades there has been a continuing debate and considerable controversy about this pope, his pontificate, and the dissension regarding his response to the Holocaust dubbed The Pius War. Much of the conflict centers upon the issue of his “silence” during the genocide, this pope’s motivation, and the charge of indifference and inactivity as the Jews were brutalized.

Unfortunately many of the combatants in the “Pius War” tend to ignore sources that contradict their preconceived convictions and their conclusions are more ideological than historical. A series of sources reveal that in his encyclicals, addresses and talks this pope condemned many of the principles espoused by the fascist regimes. His Christmas message of December 1942, for example, expressed concern for those "who without fault on their part, sometimes only because of race or nationality, have been consigned to death or to a slow decline.” Some deemed this too little, too late but what he said was more than most governments and statesmen had said. The New York Times praised his effort and deemed his a lonely voice crying in the silence of the continent.

Clearly, Pius was not silent, though he was reluctant to say more publicly or to loudly protest the Nazi crimes culminating in the Holocaust, fearing the repercussions for both Catholics and Jews. Pius thus proved circumspect and cautious in his response to the abuses of the totalitarian regimes including Hitler’s Reich and Stalin’s Soviet Union during the course of the Second World War.

Apparently Pius XII believed that a clear and concise indictment of Nazi crimes against both Christians and Jews would not have prevented the enraged Fuehrer from continuing his brutal campaign, but would have encouraged him to launch an attack upon the church in Germany. He also feared that if a breach occurred between the Vatican and the Reich patriotic German Catholics would leave the church. It was a risk and responsibility the new pope was reluctant to assume and he was strongly discouraged by Vatican circles from doing so. That his cautious approach was not dictated by anti-Semitism is demonstrated both by his encyclicals and his failure to publicly denounce the Nazi invasion of either Catholic Poland or Catholic France. Likewise his public silence when confronted with news of the Nazi persecution of Catholic clergy and the Reich’s anti-Catholic policy of sterilization of the mentally handicapped and disabled.

Painfully aware of the papacy’s limited influence upon the course of events, during the course of the Second World War, Pope Pius the Twelfth continued his policy of d├ętente with Nazi Germany to avoid becoming the target of this dangerous regime. Poland was partitioned by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the East, and France partially occupied in the West and the Vatican condemned neither. Despite Nazi abuses the church remained impartial by denouncing the principles of totalitarianism but remaining politically neutral. However, this cautious approach and lack of public protest did not mean papal inactivity for Pius quietly provided assistance to the Jews of Europe and encouraged Catholic religious to rescue Jews and other victims of the Nazi regime. Permission was granted to hide them in ecclesiastical institutions, including Vatican properties, to shelter and feed them-- which one author has deemed a “Crusade of Charity. His recourse to diplomatic measures rather than specific moral condemnations to achieve these objectives was deemed the triumph of diplomacy over morality by some—the triumph of common sense by others.

There is a general consensus that Pius XII confronted innumerable challenges during the course of his troubled pontificate including: the destructive Second World War, the abuses of the Fascist, Nazi, and Soviet regimes, and the Holocaust. Disagreement and debate flows from conflicting interpretation of his responses to these challenges. Praised by some for his tact and diplomacy, he has been denounced by others for his relative public silence during the Holocaust. In 1965 Pope Paul VI proposed that Pope Pius XII be considered for sainthood—at the same time that the controversy over his alleged silence was at its peak. Bestowing sainthood often has political implications and consequences, and this has been the case with the cause of Pius XII. In fact, the controversy surrounding Pius XII intensified following the proposal for his beatification alongside that of John XXIII at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Some believe the outcry against Pius XII contributed to the postponement of his beatification in 2000, as Pius IX was beatified along with John XXIII. The debate on Pius XII beatification and response to the Holocaust continues as well as the impact of his cautious diplomacy upon his moral mission.


Frank J. Coppa, Professor of History and Director of the university's Doctoral program in Modern World History, has research and teaching interests in Italian and European history. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. from from the Catholic University of America, and is the author of a series of biographies including those on Giovanni Giolitti, Camillo di Cavour, Pope Pius IX and Cardinal Giacomo Antonelli, among others. More recently, he has published the fifth and final volume in the Longman History of the Papacy--The Modern Papacy (1998) and in 1999 served as the editor-in-chief and contributor to Encyclopedia of the Vatican and Papacy and Controversial Concordats: The Vatican's Relations with Napoleon, Mussolini, and Hitler. He has reviewed all the popes for the Encyclopedia Brittanica's on-line references to the papacy and all the popes from the Renaissance through Gregory XVI for the new edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia. He is currently editing a volume entitled Notable Popes and writing a volume on The Papacy Confronts the Modern World World in the Anvil series. Professor Coppa is a member of the Parish of St Finbar, Brooklyn, NY.

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