Pope Benedict XVI's decision to press harder to make Pope Pius XII a saint is not a hostile act against Jews, it's an abomination. The Vatican's mute silence on the Holocaust under Pius's watch aided and abetted it. The Vatican added more insult to Pius's disgraceful World War II silence when it ducked and dodged repeated demands that it fully disclose all Pius's correspondence and actions while the slaughter raged. Six years ago the Vatican hinted after repeated demands from Jewish scholars and leaders that the Vatican would release more of its World War II-era files on Pope Pius XII. It didn't. So far, the Vatican has released a handful of carefully scrubbed wartime documents that reveal almost nothing about the Vatican's dealings with Hitler.
It was virtually an article of faith during the decade I attended Catholic schools that Pius XII would one day be canonized a saint. The priests and nuns routinely punctuated their prayers with paeans in praise of the goodness and greatness of Pius XII. They urged us to pray for his continued health and well-being. In the decades since his death in 1959 Pius XII's march to sainthood has been wracked by fierce debate over his dealings with Hitler and his refusal to speak out on the Holocaust.
There was great hope that this would change when John Paul II took over the Vatican reins. Over the years, he raked Catholics over the coals for saying and doing nothing about colonialism, slavery, and the pillage of the lands of indigenous people. But his continuing unwillingness to confront the Vatican's complicity in Hitler's Holocaust was another matter.
Vatican defenders cloud Papal guilt in the Holocaust by incessantly reminding that the Nazis murdered thousands of Catholics in and outside of Germany who aided the Jews. They also remind critics that Pius XII poured millions into relief for war refugees, gave sanctuary to Jews inside the Vatican, and played a huge role in post war recovery efforts and the restoration of democracy in Western Europe.
In 1998, the church made a mild stab at public atonement for past injustices when it formally apologized for centuries of Catholic anti-Semitism and the failure to combat Nazi persecution of the Jews. But the Vatican made no mention of Pius XII's stone silence on Nazi atrocities. And it's this continuing blind spot that riles many Jewish and church scholars.
The Vatican continues to keep silent on its Holocaust involvement for a painful reason. Its silence was not due to the moral lapses of individual Catholics, or that the church was ignorant of, or duped by, Hitler's aims. It was a deliberate policy of appeasement crafted by church leaders. Before he ascended to the papacy in 1939, Pius XII was the Vatican's ambassador to Germany and secretary of state during the crucial period when Hitler rose to power, and knew full well what Hitler was up to.
In his well-documented work, "Hitler's Pope: the Secret History of Pius XII." John Cornwell, Jesus College, Cambridge University professor notes that the Vatican signed its ill-famed concordat with Hitler in 1933 to prevent him from grabbing church property and meddling in church affairs. In return the Vatican pledged the absolute obedience of Germany's Catholic priests and bishops to Hitler. As Pope, Pius XII sent a letter praising "the illustrious Hitler," and expressing confidence in his leadership.
Even as evidence piled up that thousands of Jews were being shipped to the slaughter in Nazi concentration camps, Pius XII refused to reverse the Vatican's see-no-evil, hear-no-evil political course. He ignored the pleas of President Roosevelt to denounce the Nazis. He declined to endorse a joint declaration by Britain, U.S and Russia condemning the killings of Jews, claiming that he couldn't condemn "particular" atrocities. He was publicly silent when the Germans occupied Rome in 1944 and rounded up many of the city's Jews. Many were later killed in concentration camps. He continued to send birthday greetings to Hitler each year until his death. He did not reprimand the Catholic archbishop of Berlin for issuing a statement mourning Hitler's death.
Pius XII's one and only known pronouncement during the war on the mass murders was a tepid, vaguely worded statement denouncing the deaths "of hundreds of thousands." By then there were millions, and he did not mention Hitler, Nazi Germany, or the Jews in the statement.
In an Alice in Wonderland twist on reality, Vatican defenders say that airing old dirty laundry and fingering the culprits within the church that turned a blind eye toward Hitler's ravages could damage the many efforts the church has made to heal the rift between Jews and Catholics. But the call for Benedict to bare the Papal chest on church sins for the Holocaust is not an academic exercise in moral flagellation. The thousands of Holocaust victims still alive bear the eternal scars of the Vatican's Hitler-era acquiescence to genocide. And the modern day killing fields of Congo, Sudan, Rwanda and Cambodia are grim fresh reminders that the world still has not rid itself of the horrors of genocide.
John Paul II's apology a decade ago for the sins of Catholics against the oppressed and Benedict's many denunciations of the Holocaust was a step forward toward exorcising the wrongs of the past. But bestowing sainthood on Pope, Pius XII who said and did little while Hitler murdered millions is a huge step backward.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January 2010.
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