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Deafening Silence

A Deafening Silence

By V. R. Berghahn

The Secret History of Pius XII.
By John Cornwell.
Illustrated. 430 pp. New York:
Viking. $29.95.

In 1963, the German dramatist Rolf Hochhuth published ''The Deputy,'' a play about Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust that was quickly translated into some 20 languages and performed around the globe. Highly controversial in its time, the work marked the beginning of a heated and continuing debate on the Vatican's silence in the face of the mass murder of Europe's Jews in World War II. Hochhuth dedicated ''The Deputy'' to two Roman Catholics: the Rev. Maximilian Kolbe, who died in place of a Polish fellow prisoner at Auschwitz and was canonized in 1982, and Bernhard Lichtenberg, the provost of St. Hedwig's Cathedral in Berlin, who repeatedly spoke out publicly against Nazi anti-Semitism and criminality and, jailed in May 1942, died in October 1943 on his way to the Dachau concentration camp.

Possibly the most powerful scene in Hochhuth's historical drama is the encounter between an SS doctor on the Auschwitz selection ramp and Riccardo, a Catholic priest who was plucked from the line of Jewish victims shuffling toward the gas chambers. In the ensuing dialogue, the doctor sadistically challenges Riccardo's faith in God and his church, cynically arguing that if God existed he would surely have intervened to stop the industrialized murder of millions of innocent people, and adding, in reference to the inhumanity of the Inquisition: ''And what gives priests the right to look down on the SS? We are the Dominicans of the technological age. It is not chance so many of my kind have sprung from good Catholic backgrounds.''

While many clerics and ordinary Catholics were indeed killed or tortured for their anti-Nazi beliefs and activities, Pope Pius XII, the head of their church, was living in relative safety in Rome, protected by the Vatican's extraterritoriality, which neither Mussolini nor Hitler ever dared to revoke. More distressing, the Pope could never bring himself to publish a clear message of condemnation of the enormous crimes against Europe's Jews and other minorities who were earmarked for physical annihilation, although ample and reliable information about Hitler's genocidal policies was reaching him from all over Europe from early 1942 on, and although a variety of people who had access to him repeatedly pleaded with him to speak out. The Pope agonized in private, but was held back by his lifelong training in and dedication to the Curia, the Vatican's administrative branch. He tolerated convents and monasteries clandestinely sheltering Jews and made vague statements, but issued no encyclical or similarly authoritative message.

By combining the painstaking research of other scholars with his own new documentation on Pius's knowledge and behavior during World War II, John Cornwell, a British journalist and research associate of Jesus College, Cambridge, makes a case in ''Hitler's Pope'' that is very difficult to refute.

Cornwell is a Catholic, and did not expect at the start of his work to be ending up in the camp of those who have highlighted the Pope's sad moral failure and his fallibility as a human being. But reluctantly, he concludes that a loud and widely disseminated statement from Rome would have made a difference to the fate of European Jewry. The least it would have done was to warn the Jews of western Europe that deportation meant certain death, resulting in more of them fleeing or going into hiding. Furthermore, it would have told millions of Catholics that they were involved, as bystanders or even as perpetrators, in a fundamentally evil program, and this recognition would in turn have encouraged resistance and a greater willingness to help their Jewish neighbors.

It is likely that a papal condemnation would have resulted in the arrest, imprisonment or even death of Pius XII, which in turn might have triggered widespread popular unrest. That the Nazis feared this possibility became evident when, following the fall of Mussolini, the SS appeared in the Eternal City in October 1943 to round up Rome's Jews. Again people urged the Pope to denounce the transport of men, women and children to Auschwitz. Although it was by then obvious that Hitler was losing the war and that the liberation of Rome by the Allies, advancing from the south, was merely a matter of time, the Vatican remained passive, much to the relief of the local German occupation authorities.

Cornwell's explanation for Pius's behavior is no less explosive than his description of it, and seems calculated to ignite a public debate on the evolution of Catholicism in the decades ahead, using John Paul II's current moves for Pius's canonization as a fuse. To be sure, Cornwell shuns monocausality. He believes that religious anti-Semitism, with its ancient roots in the church, constituted but one motive for the Pope's silence. Another was Rome's deep-seated fear of Communism.

But Cornwell devotes most space to his argument concerning the changing internal organization and power structure of the church itself, which is why his study begins in the mid-19th century with the Vatican's confrontation with the forces of modernity. During this period, the Curia came to believe that rallying the faithful behind a centralized papacy was the only way to secure the survival of Catholicism in a hostile world. The Vatican Council of 1869-70, which proclaimed the dogma of papal infallibility, was a major step in asserting the Pope's unchallengeable spiritual as well as administrative leadership. With the further evolution of canon law, the author continues, another stage in the consolidation of autocratic rule was reached by 1917, when a young Vatican bureaucrat, Eugenio Pacelli, later Pius XII, earned his first laurels as a promoter of centralism.

That the forces of modernity had by then infiltrated Catholic laity merely reinforced this quest for control. Catholic political parties were becoming powerful voices in the parliamentary assemblies of Europe. As elected representatives, they demanded a greater say in the councils of the church. Lay communities persisted in organizing their own associational life and pushed for liturgical reform, while the indigenous hierarchy tried to uphold the principle of ''collegiality'' against rulings from Rome. In this clash of two very different conceptions of institutional relations and the societal role of Catholicism, the negotiation of concordats -- international treaties with secular governments -- became a key instrument in the hands of the Vatican, not only to regulate its relations with often unfriendly nation-states but also to assert its primacy over those who dreamed of vibrantly pluralist national churches.

If the 1929 Lateran Treaty with Fascist Italy was, as Cornwell puts it, ''designed to cripple political and social Catholicism,'' the ''super concordat'' with Germany, brought to a successful conclusion by Pacelli, the Vatican's secretary of state, in secret negotiations with the Nazis in July 1933, seemingly marked the greatest triumph of this strategy. With Hitler solemnly recognizing Rome as the exclusive voice of the church, the treaty destroyed the independence of German Catholicism. The Catholic Center Party was brutally pushed into self-liquidation; the German bishops who had hitherto staunchly opposed Nazism were silenced; the faithful were told that it was all right for them to serve a dictatorship that many of them had previously voted against. In Cornwell's eyes, this outcome was an unmitigated disaster in that it removed a major center of resistance to Nazism. Ultimately, he believes, the Vatican's centralist strategy, coolly pursued by its chief negotiator, Pacelli, was crucial to the rapid consolidation of the Hitler dictatorship. What he underestimates at this point is that many German Catholics were themselves ready to make their peace with the Nazis, whether out of fear or latent sympathy with many of Hitler's political and economic promises.

By 1940-41, the Axis partners, buoyed by their rapid conquest of the European continent, were powerful enough to destroy the centralized papacy if, instead of appeasing the dictators, the Vatican had begun to oppose them. Silence, punctuated by a few generalized warnings against the ravages of total war, now seemed to be the only guarantee for the preservation of an institution and its command structures that Pacelli had so laboriously built in previous decades. The arrest of the Pope by Hitler, Cornwell implies, would have destroyed it all. Worse, the unrest that such a move would have created among the faithful would not only have cost many Catholic lives but, with the Axis defeat on the horizon by 1942-43, would also have resulted in a renewal of precisely those forces of autonomy inside the church that had once challenged the Vatican's quest for autocracy.

The benefits of Pius XII's strategy of survival became very visible during the rest of his papacy: Until his death in 1958 he ''presided over a monolithic, triumphalist Catholic Church in antagonistic confrontation with Communism both in Italy and beyond the Iron Curtain.'' Cornwell does not think this achievement was worth the moral failure of the Pope's wartime silence.

But the ferment that had been building for a more participatory church since the 19th century could not be quelled in the postwar world. The demand for greater diversity re-emerged during the Second Vatican Council, having found a supporter in Pope John XXIII. However, his early death in 1963, Cornwell contends, restrengthened the authoritarian traditions of the Vatican bureaucracy. It continued to pursue a model of Catholicism that is strictly led from the top, in which ''pluralism and collegiality are characterized as antagonistic to central authority,'' and that is based on an unquestioning popular piety and acclamation by the ''masses.'' We may not quite be back to where we were in the 1950's, but the pendulum has swung back pretty far under Paul VI and John Paul II, Cornwell says, even if, ''in an era largely hospitable to religious freedom it is difficult to assess the full extent of the moral and social enfeeblement of the local churches.''

Hoping for a different future, Cornwell is depressed by the prospect of the canonization of Pius XII, who ''has become the icon, 40 years after his death, of those who read and revise the provisions of the Second Vatican Council from the viewpoint of an ideology of papal power.'' Knowing that canonization will offend many people, he concludes, ''If better relations are to be built between the Catholic Church and Jews, it will result not from blind faith in the single oracular voice of Catholic apologetics, but from Catholics heeding unflinchingly the pluralist narratives of history.'' For he is convinced ''that the cumulative verdict of history'' shows Pius XII ''to be not a saintly exemplar for future generations, but a deeply flawed human being from whom Catholics, and our relations with other religions, can best profit by expressing our sincere regret.''

Chances are not particularly bright that the ferment of liberal reformism that is again stirring Catholicism in Europe and North America will prevail. The Vatican -- immovable, though equipped with the latest communication devices of the technological age -- still looks the way it looked a century ago: a fortress built against the tide of time.

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