Who was Pius XII?

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March 3 marked the anniversary of the day Eugenio Pacelli was elected to the papacy. Pacelli is known to us today as Pope Pius XII, the pope who led the Catholic Church through the tumult of World War II.

Last year, a bestselling book about the pope appeared – “Hitler’s Pope,” by John Cornwell. In the book, Cornwell argues that Pope Pius XII was infected with a generally accepted brand of anti-Semitism common to many at the time, and that his papacy was friendly to the Nazis.

Now, a distinguished group of writers and historians, including Rabbi David G. Dalin, are questioning Cornwell’s theories and his interpretation of history. For example, Dalin catalogs these facts:

– 40 of Pacelli’s 44 speeches in Germany as papal nuncio between 1917 and 1929 denounced some aspect of Nazi ideology

– In 1935, Pacelli wrote an open letter calling the Nazis “false prophets.” That same year, he told an anti-Nazi activist that “there can be no possible reconciliation” between Christians and Nazi racism; they were like “fire and water.”

– In 1938, Pacelli told a group of Belgian pilgrims that “anti Semitism is inadmissible; spiritually we are all Semites.”

During the war itself, after he became Pope, Pius XII quoted St. Paul in his first encyclical, saying “there is neither Gentile nor Jew.” The New York Times noted the reference and gave the encyclical a front page headline: Pope: Condemns Dictators, Treaty Violators, Racism. It was considered such a strong encyclical that Allied airplanes dropped copies of it on Germany.

For his work, famous people praised him, including Albert Einstein who in a 1940 Time magazine article said “only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing the truth.”

Despite a litany of such praise from Jew and Gentile alike, one could argue that a man as powerful as the pope could have done more. But so could other organizations. Even the American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith wrestled with how much they should speak out against Hitler lest they only “inflame” matters at the time. As it was, they ended up condemning public demonstrations such as a planned anti-Hitler parade in 1933.

Whatever Pope Pius could have done and didn’t do during World War II to help Jews is a question none of us will adequately be able to answer. But it does appear the story is more complex than that laid out in Cornwell’s scathing book.

This is Libby Sternberg from Rutland.

–Libby Sternberg is a freelance writer, former Chair of the Rutland County Republican Party, and is active in education issues.

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