Friday, September 17, 2010

Pius XII and the Distorting Ellipsis - from First Things

This article is a timely reminder of the demands of accuracy in reading and translating documentary evidence.  Pacelli's speeches made in Budapest at the Eucharistic Congress in May 1938 are of interest in gauging something of his understanding of the lurch from crisis to crisis on the continent. 

It is interesting though, that niether Rychlak or Doino make no mention of the antisemitic legislation promulgated in the Hungarian parliament passed with the votes of most of the Catholic bishops who sat in the chamber. Nor do the authors express comment at the context surrounding Pacelli's public addresses in a country that begun a serious process of civil exclusion of Hungarian Jewry. 

The Cardinal preached on the Church's duty in the world.  "The Church's duty in the apostolic service of justice is typified by universal love; it is therefore impossible for it to take sides and rigidly stand by any party." (reported in the London Tablet June 4, 1938).  It would be difficult to see how a diplomat of such political astuteness as Pacelli could not have known of Hungary's antisemitic legislation and the fundamental injustice that it had wrought on Hungarian society through the application of Horthy's Christian National Principle.  Jews were being forced out of public life, excluded from universities and the professions.  Conversion provided a way out, but this was to prove a short-lived reprieve.

So, yes, the article is a useful reminder about translation, but it also reminds the reader of the dangers of leaving out significant contextual events that can place Pacelli's speech into a more accurate sphere.

Pius XII and the Distorting Ellipsis

Sep 16, 2010

Ronald J. Rychlak and William Doino, Jr.

As charge after charge that Pope Pius XII failed to resist the Germans or even that he was indeed “Hitler’s Pope” has been refuted, the critics have advanced new and more remote accusations. First, critics attacked him for what he said or did (or failed to say or do) during the war. When those accusations were proved to be without merit, they charged him with failures after the war.

When those were refuted, they shifted to the pope’s actions before he was pope. John Cornwell, the author of Hitler’s Pope, based his case on two letters, one written in 1917 and the other in 1919. On The O’Reilly Factor, he agreed that action to thwart Hitler would have to have been taken by 1933, and that the pope could have done nothing in 1938 or 1939. Pius XII did not become pope until 1939.

The current charge claims that in a presentation Pius XII gave at an International Eucharistic Congress in Hungary in 1938—when he was still Eugenio Pacelli, Vatican Secretary of State—he referred to Jews as enemies of Christ and the Catholic Church. (It should be noted that the Germans had refused to send a delegation to the congress when they learned that Pacelli would be there, and permitted no news of it to be transmitted in Germany. Pacelli had, after all, berated them the year before when he went to France for the Pope.)

The critics claim that on May 25, 1938, just after the Anschluss (the German annexation of Austria), but before the Shoah or even the outbreak of World War II, Pacelli said:

Jesus conquers! He who so often was the recipient of the rage of his enemies, he who suffered the persecutions of those of whom he was one, he shall be triumphant in the future as well. . . . As opposed to the foes of Jesus, who cried out to his face, “Crucify him!” we sing him hymns of our loyalty and our love. We act in this fashion, not out of bitterness, not out of a sense of superiority, not out of arrogance toward those whose lips curse him and whose hearts reject him even today.

One major critic of Pius, Moshe Y. Herczl, claimed that Pacelli was clearly assailing Jews: “Pacelli relied on his audience, realizing that hints would suffice. . . . He was sure that his audience understood him well.” Cornwell concurred: “Pacelli, representative of the Pope at the Eucharistic congress, was making it clear that the ‘comprehensive love’ he preached at the meeting did not include the Jews.” Michael Phayer added that Pacelli, was “making reference to Jews ‘whose lips curse [Christ] and whose hearts reject him even today.’”

There is reason to be suspicious of this quotation, and the anti-Semitic interpretation applied to it.

First, no one at the time thought that Pacelli was speaking of Jews. He spoke of the “military godless” and those who wanted to “impose a new Christianity,” statements applicable only to the Communists and Nazis. Time magazine reported on the Eucharistic Congress and noted that while the host cardinal’s opening speech had “contained no hint of the fact that he is firmly anti-Nazi,”

Papal Legate Pacelli, without descending from the high religious plane of the Congress, was more specific about Catholicism’s enemies “the lugubrious array of the militant godless, shaking the clenched fist of anti-Christ.” Cried he: “Where now are Herod and Pilate, Nero and Diocletian, and Julian the Apostate, and all the persecutors of the First Century? St. Ambrose replies: ‘The Christians who have been massacred have won the victory; the vanquished were their persecutors.’ Ashes and dust are the enemies of Christianity; ashes and dust are all that they have desired, pursued perhaps even tasted for a short moment of power and terrestrial glory.”

Second, look at the quotation the papal critics use. One has to wonder what the ellipsis is replacing. Despite the importance of this quotation to the argument of many papal critics, it seems that none of them traced it back to its origin.

Recently on the Australian blog Galus Australis, for example, Gabriel Wilensky wrote: “[W]ho cares if the conference was about atheist Nazis or the health benefits of eating spinach?” Wilensky, author of a book titled Six Million Crucifixions, continued: “The pope was talking about the Jews. The pope was not referring to Nazi lips that curse Christ and Nazi hearts who still reject Christ even today. He was referring to the Jews. You know this.”

A defender of Pius, Gary Krupp, asked Wilensky whether he had reviewed the original text of the speech. Wilensky admitted that he did not have “the entire speech . . . nor do I have the original quotes in French. I assume you ask for the original in French for the sake of archival completeness, and not because you suspect the paragraph I quoted is mistranslated and/or is a misrepresentation of the original?”

Krupp, of course did suspect a mistranslation (or worse), and he was right.

With the assistance of Vatican historian (and relator of Pope Pius XII’s sainthood cause) Fr. Peter Gumpel, we reviewed the text of the speech as it was published in Discorsi e Panegirici. The quote as given by the critics does not appear therein. The ellipsis was used to link very diverse passages from different pages of Pacelli’s speech, producing a complete distortion of Pacelli’s words. (To be certain that we were not overlooking anything, we reviewed transcripts from all seven of the talks he gave in Hungary.)

Early in the talk, Pacelli spoke about biblical history. He recalled the Passion of Christ, and he mentioned the defiance of disciples, the solitude of Gethsemane, the crowning of thorns, the cynicism of Herod, and the opportunism of Pilate.

He referred to the masses that called for the Crucifixion and said they had been “deceived and excited by propaganda, lies, insults and imprecations at the foot of the Cross.” Those identified as enemies of Christ included Pontius Pilate, Herod, the Roman soldiers, the Sanhedrin, and their followers. He did not call out “all Jews” or “the Jews.”

About two pages later in the manuscript, Pacelli referred to those who were persecuting the Church at that time by doing things like expelling religion and perverting Christianity. Jews were not doing this, but Nazi Germany certainly was. The future pope was clearly equating the Nazis, not Jews, to those who persecuted the Church at earlier times.

Pacelli then returned to the theme of Christ’s sufferings during the Passion which were being repeated against the Mystical Body of Christ in modern times contrasting them with the Church’s offering of love: “Let us replace the cry of ‘Crucify’ made by Christ’s enemies, with the ‘Hosanna’ of our fidelity and our love.” Pacelli was rebuking the totalitarians of his day, not the Jews of earlier times.

Nowhere in the address did he mention or single out Jews as the specific, much less sole, enemies of Jesus Christ, past or present. Nowhere did he depict them as speaking “ out to his face,” or cite any passages from Scripture (e.g., Mathew 27: 26: “His blood be on us, and our children”) that have been misread for centuries to foment anti-Semitism. There is no legitimate way to argue that Pacelli was blaming Jews when he spoke about the enemies of Christ.

Where did the distorted quotation come from? The first use in English was by Herczl, in his Christianity and the Holocaust of Hungarian Jewry (1993). Perhaps Herczl himself or the people who helped with the book falsified the quotation, but that seems unlikely. All are or were successful professionals who had no logical reason to manipulate the quotation. He, and those who have used the quote since, however, accepted too uncritically a very unreliable source.

Herczl was not present at the speech and did not even look at Pacelli’s script which can be found in Discorsi e Panegirici, a collection of Pius’s early writings first published in 1939, or even the Italian version that appeared in the Vatican newspaper. In his book, he cited a Hungarian newspaper, Nemzeti Ujsag (National Journal), with a long and controversial history as a political outlet.

According to Herczl, at the time in question Nemzeti Ujsag called itself “The Political Christian Daily Newspaper,” and he described it as “the semi-official newspaper of the Catholic Church.” That is in keeping with what National Socialists claimed at that time, which was the kind of lie Pacelli complained about in his talk.

The evidence is against Herczl. As its name implies and as numerous articles in the newspaper itself attest, Nemzeti Ujsag was a political journal, not a religious one. It was, at least in the relevant years, overtly anti-Semitic and truly despicable. Randolph L. Braham, a noted scholar in the field, called it a voice of National Socialism. Herczl himself notes that the newspaper could be considered as part of an anti-Semitic coalition, along with the “Awakening Hungarians,” an early fascist group, and the Christian Socialists, which were in Hungary strongly anti-Semitic.

It is likely that the newspaper manufactured the quotation to support its anti-Semitic position. Pacelli, after all, was criticizing the exact political position the paper held. Then as now, Vatican support was a very useful thing to claim.

Herczl and those who followed him should have been skeptical of this source. Neither he nor anyone else would have accepted what that paper said about Jews, yet with several other reliable sources available, why did he turn to an unreliable source for this crucial information about Pacelli? More importantly, why have critics like Phayer and Cornwell simply repeated the charge, relying upon this English translation of a Hebrew translation from a Hungarian translation of a speech originally made in French by a native Italian speaker?

The manufactured quotation blatantly distorted the words of the future pope. Inasmuch that quote was inconsistent with so much other evidence of Pacelli’s character, it should have been strictly scrutinized. Instead it was readily accepted and insufficiently analyzed by critics eager to discredit the papacy and the Catholic Church. They should be ashamed.

Ronald J. Rychlak is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law. His most recent book is a revised and expanded edition of Hitler, the War, and the Pope (OSV). William Doino, Jr., is a contributor to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII (Lexington Books).


The Time magazine report on the Eucharistic Congress, Religion: Eucharist in Budapest.

The exchange between Wilensky and Krupp.

Ronald L. Braham The Christian Churches of Hungary and the Holocaust.

William Doino’s Pius XII Did Help the Jews from The Times.

William Doino’s The Silence of Saul Friedlander from “On the Square.”

For an extensive collection of articles on the subject from all sides, see Pius XII and the Holocaust.


  1. Your comment “It would be difficult to see how a diplomat of such political astuteness as Pacelli could not have known of Hungary's anti-Semitic legislation” is interesting but is totally unrelated to the topic of Professor Rychlak and William Doino’s article. This only serves to muddy the waters of the main point. Many of the critics of Pius XII have used this mistranslation to accuse Pacelli of anti-Semitism. I would rather have read that you so appreciated this issue being properly defined and clarified and is helping to advance our understanding the true history of this man and his papacy. Perhaps you should publicly advise Phayer, Cornwell, and the others to publicly acknowledge their errors and to retract their statements against Pacelli, which are based on this mistranslation.
    Certainly, your point can be studied in another article dealing with the anti-Semitism and racist legislation in many of the countries of Europe.
    I can assure you that the documents that Pave the Way has located (over 40,000 pages to date) clearly show Pacelli as a passionate defender and admirer of the Jewish people. As a Jew, I personally find it insulting for non-Jews who define anti-Semitism and use it to advance their own purposes as illustrated in the writings of Pacelli’s critics.

  2. Mr. Krupp, I think Mr. O'Shea is right on his point about context, particularly as context is what allows us as historians or students of history to ascertain what ambiguous statements or attitudes mean. The article by Mr. Rychlak and Mr. Doino makes the point that the quote Mr. Phayer, Mr. Cornwell and myself have used is a mistranslation and completely misconstrues Pacelli's intentions and other statements. Perhaps that is so, but we have one author's claim the statements were mistranslated against others. You and I had previously discussed this in our Galus Australis exchange, and when you asked me if I had the original speech in French, implicitly suggesting the quote had been mistranslated, I told you I didn't and asked you to please provide me the text if you had it (the scan was very hard to read). For whatever reason I never got it. If you now have access to Pacelli's speech at the International Eucharistic Congress I would appreciate it if you can send it to me or make it public. If indeed the quote is mistranslated as Mr. Rychlak and Mr. Doino claim, I will be the first one to acknowledge it.

    Thank you,
    Gabriel Wilensky

  3. I like this post, it was a joy to read :)

    If you need English to Hungarian translation from a native Hungarian translator, then please check my site at


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