Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Apologists' Pius Wars – the rest of us do history.

This post was prompted in part by the article written by William Doino in First Things which is a thinly veiled attack on the scholarship of Kevin Madigan, Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard.  Somehow, I doubt Madigan has remained in his position for want of historical ability and skill.  Doino's article is a clever mix of slightly twisted fact with a heavy handed bashing of historians with whom he disagrees.  Doino engages in just enough smokescreening of historical fact to leave a lay audience seriously wondering if Madigan's take on the post-war trials and the Vatican's responses is a poor attempt at smearing the good name of the Catholic Church.  For the reader who wishes to make up their own mind, I suggest bypassing First Things and go straight to the books Madigan mentions - David Cymet History vs Apologetics and Gerald Steinacher Nazis on the Run. I have read Steinacher's excellent work and do not understand how Doino cannot accept the fundamental thesis, namely that elements within the Catholic Church were active in helping Nazi war criminals escape justice.  But that is part of what I believe is simply another form of denialism.

The phenomenon of denialism is predicated upon the need to denigrate as fiction an historical reality.  It stems from a world-view that is fundamentally uncomfortable with empirical history, proven fact and the discipline of scientific rigour, which includes as part of its process, flexibility, reason, loyalty to the historical record and honesty.  In short, the denialist is at pains to prove by whatever means, that the received record is not only wrong, it is deliberately false and those who propose it are liars.

In recent years there has arisen a disturbing movement that seeks to apply the above criteria to the pontificate of Pope Pius XII.  Beginning from the premise that Pius is innocent of all charges levelled against him by those who hold that his war-time record is problematic, the apologists for the pope have conducted a campaign of misinformation, selective documentation, uncritical acceptance of all positive statements, regardless of the historical provenance of the statements, and uncritical rejection of all contrary positions.  And while some apologists may well act from honourable motives, chiefly a belief they are defending the integrity of the Catholic Church, it remains that their methods fail to meet even the most basic tests of historical reliability. 

It is also a matter of record that the centre of this movement lies in the English-speaking world, and in the United States in particular.  The group that has pushed the campaign into “top gear” has been Gary Krupp’s New York based Pave The Way (PTW).  What began as a genuine philanthropic effort to work for the resolution of differences between particular groups, has, in this instance, become the fundamentalist vanguard of a group of Jews and Christians determined to see Pius XII declared one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem.  The parallel movement is to indirectly support the Catholic process of beatification that would see Pius declared “Blessed”, the penultimate stage before canonisation.

Indeed, much of the success of the Pius XII apologist movement has derived from sources close to and inside the Vatican.  Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI had given vocal support to PTW, which is consistent with their public statements praising Pius XII as a great saviour of the Jews during World War Two.  Senior curial officials, such as Cardinal Bertrone, have also lent considerable support to PTW, praised their work and written statements expressing the hope that their work would help promote the cause of Pius XII. 

Surrounding PTW, and not necessarily with PTW’s endorsement, is a gathering of extreme right-wing Catholic groups and individuals who have a very vocal agenda that does not hesitate to criticise anyone with whom they disagree, including bishops and theologians.  The CatholicLeague and EWTN are two groups who have regularly pilloried or down-played efforts by historians to research Pius XII and whose conclusions do not match their own, that is, that Pius is a saint.  Associated individuals such as William Doino, Ronald Rychlak, Margherita Marchione and David Dalin, are ideological allies of the larger groups and enjoy considerable media coverage of their platforms. Their understanding of history is reductionist – it is either white/true or black/false.  The nuances that form the greater part of the work of historians are not important. 

Despite their protestations of loyalty to the Magisterium and what they believe are the orthodox traditions of the Catholic Church, both organisations represent a small section of world Catholicism. And though the comments that follow are mostly directed at PTW they are applicable to the other groups mentioned above, and a considerable number that are not.

Groups such as these praise the work of PTW because it is an example of Jews speaking in favour of Pius XII.  This creates a very dangerous perception.  Who better to speak the “truth” about Pius than Jews?  If Jews are saying Pius rescued Jews, how can Catholics suggest otherwise?  Quite apart from the simple fact that the number of Jews actively involved in the study of Pius XII is tiny, it allows the perception to develop that there are Jews who are actively in favour of the canonisation of Pius.  This is not the stated position of PTW, but perceptions crafted by others often have an insidious power of their own to shape opinion.

The next crucial issue related to PTW lies in its presentation of the “facts” about Pius.

PTW has assembled an impressive collection about Pius XII from many different sources and invested considerable time, energy and funds in making this material readily available to anyone wishing to use it.  This is a generous act that should be acknowledged. 

However, it is the way the material is used that causes concern.  Gathering material is one part of the historical process; interpreting it is quite another.  PTW’s considerable archive on Pius XII lacks serious analysis.  Much of the material is already available in the public domain and has been analysed by historians.  And while there is always room for new analysis and interpretation, that work needs to be done according to the general accepted norms of historical research.  A lot of the material is “stand alone”, that is, it does not have corroborative evidence or contextual data to support the claims made.  An interview with an elderly Italian bishop who makes a series of claims to the effect that the pope ordered or attempted to get visas for Jews to enter a Caribbean country has to be supported with evidence from other sources.  There is no suggestion that the bishop is doing anything other than speaking what he believes to be the truth, but historians do not accord objective reliability to one source alone.

This problem of establishing context, is consistent throughout much of the work of PTW with regard to Pius XII.  The New York Times is a valuable source, but it cannot stand without support from other sources.  There is a wealth of published and unpublished material from many archives that have helped the historian establish credible paradigms with which to examine Pius XII.  Establishing the conclusion before examining all the available material is a dangerous way to proceed, but this is what PTW has done on more than one occasion.

Historians are craftsfolk trained to study, interpret, analyse and record the human story.  They are a diverse group and see the world using multiple matrices.  The common thread that unites them is a process of scientific and disciplined treatment of evidence working towards a sustainable and honest conclusion.  Studying Pius XII and the history of the Catholic church during World War Two requires a familiarity in several disciplines that include, church history, diplomatic history, ecclesiastical diplomatic history, theology, the history of theology, Italian history, fascism, national socialism, German and European history, communism, military history, languages and so on.  The point is laboured to emphasise the complex layers that lie within any serious attempt to come to grips with any moment in human history.  Unfortunately, PTW has a history of relying on people whose historical credentials appear to be less than adequate.  This has been seen on several occasions over the last few years.

PTW’s reliance on historians of dubious academic qualification is a serious problem the organisation either does not appear to understand or is not willing to address.  In July 2011, Michael Hesemann PTW’s German representative, published the story that Pius XII was responsible for saving for 200,000 Jews after the November 1938 pogrom.  Quite aside from the fact that the number was simply impossible, there is not one shred of evidence to support it.  Hesemann used “newly discovered documents” from the Vatican archives to back his claims.  The problem lay in the simple fact that the “newly discovered documents” had been available in published form since 1972 in Actes et Documents Volume 6.

Another example were the claims made by the Israeli diplomat, Pinchas Lapide.  Lapide claimed that Pius XII was responsible for saving the lives of 860,000 Jews.  He provided no evidence to support this “fact”, yet it has entered into the mythology of Pius XII and is accepted uncritically.  PTW is by no means the only group that endorses Lapide’s story.

It is poor historical effort such as this that weakens PTW as a reliable agent in the study of Pius XII.  It opens PTW to criticism that it has an agenda more concerned with finding material that agree with its core aim, namely to see Pius XII named one of the Righteous.

Finally, it is important to recognise that organisations such as PTW enjoy no endorsement from mainstream historians in the fields of study mentioned above.  They have not published any academic histories, peer-reviewed journal articles or worked with any recognised tertiary institutions.  They have a large number of Pius apologists, fellow-travellers who see Gary Krupp’s organisation as a vehicle they can use to suit their own neo-conservative agendas, but no recognised historians from any creditable university or institute of higher learning.  That more than a few of these fellow-travellers appear to delight in publicly denigrating and sneering at qualified and trained historians further erodes their credibility.  PTW does not help in this regard because it does not appear to be willing to even entertain the possibility that Pius XII could have made mistakes or been quite simply wrong in some of the decisions he made or did not make during the war.  Such refusal to allow the possibility of error on the part of the pope does no service and prevents PTW from being taken seriously as a participant in the historical debate. 

Gary Krupp is an unfailingly polite and courteous man, unlike some of the more strident apologists who think a McCarthy approach to their version of history is appropriate, but his unwillingness to accept that there are points of view contrary to his own, that the record on Pius XII is far from complete, that historians are wrestling with the issues surrounding his papacy and conduct through the war, that his archive while impressive is lacking in serious analysis and historiography, that he is quite possibly being used by neo-conservative factions within the Catholic church to push their own world-view, will prevent him from ever being a serious contender in the work to establish the record on Pope Pius XII.


  1. Dr O'Shea,
    if only 'elements within the Catholic Church were active in helping Nazi war criminals escape justice' why Madigan writes "the PCA viewed itself as a sort of papal mercy program for National Socialists and Fascists"?
    The 'PCA' does not mean 'elements within' but the whole organization.

    Are Madigan and Steinacher arguing that the PCA was created only in order to aid Fascists and Nazis.

    But if the PCA was not created with this purpose, as I think, why should be 'stunning' the enthusiasm for the general mission of the PCA shown by Pius XII?
    And why should be 'stunning' this enthusiasm if, as Madigan admits, there are no proof that Pius knew anything about the illicit activities?

  2. I think that is exaggerating the fact of Madigan's interpretation of Steinacher's work.

    My reading of Steinacher's claims is that there were elements within the Pontificia Commissione di Assistenza that used the opportunity offered under the Vatican's auspices to help get Nazi war criminals out of Europe.

    Hudal was known as a regular contact person in Rome for fleeing criminals; of that there is no doubt. So, I don't believe either Madigan or Steinacher are arguing that the PCA was created to aid fascists and Nazis.

    The purpose of the PCA was to provide help for some of the millions of those in need because of the war. Not surprisingly, some of those who applied for help were war criminals, and some of those who offered to help did so in order to help war criminals.

    Finally, Michael Phayer has written that Steinacher's book is accurate. In an email written to a number of Pius historians he said:
    "Everything Steinacher says re the role of the Vatican in the ratlines is true. His contribution consists mostly in tracing the ratline back to Germany and from there to the Vatican. In several places he implicates the pope. There is really only one case where a direct line to Pius XII can be drawn and it doesn't pertain to a ratline but to the suspected war criminals from Croatia who were holed up in St. Jerome's semnary in Rome. But it is impossible to believe that Pius was not only aware of the ratlines but sponsored them personally. Anyone familiar with Pius' style of governance knows how hands-on he was.

    Steinacher make two errors in Nazis auf der Flucht (I haven't read the English edition). He misjudged the role of the U.S. regarding suspected war criminals and he completely ignored the Spanish ratline. I think I fairly well demonstrated a direct connection between that operation and the Vatican in "Pius XII, the Holocaust and the Cold War." My review of Steinacher is in the Contemporary Austrian Review or the Review of Contemporary Austrian History".

    I have disagreed with Phayer on the involvement of Pius; I am inclined to think that the pope was determined to help get sentences for war criminals commuted from death to life in prison, but was motivated by a mix of genuine compassion and fear that the Allies could push Western Germans closer to communism through an over-eager de-Nazification program.


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