“Righteous Among Nations.”
This honor has been bestowed on many who helped save the lives of Jewish people in Europe during the Holocaust of the 1930s and ’40s.
However, one deserving name is not to be found among the recipients: Venerable Pope Pius XII.
Ironically, some who have received this honor were acting under the Pope’s orders. Honored recipients Pope St. Paul VI and Pope St. John XXIII both gave credit for their actions to Pius XII: “I only acted upon orders from the Holy Father,” said Paul VI.
“…I have referred to the Holy See and simply carried out the Pope’s orders: first and foremost to save human lives,” stated John XXIII.
When Cardinal Pietro Palazzini was honored in 1985 as “Righteous Among Nations” he remarked, “the merit is entirely Pius XII’s, who ordered us to do whatever we could to save the Jews from persecution.”
Why then, has Pope Pius XII been denied the title of “Righteous Among Nations?”
Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Pope Pius XII has been charged with collaboration with the Nazis, anti-Semitism and indifference toward the persecution of Jews during World War II.
Those who condemn him seem to supply ample evidence of the Pope’s inaction. However, context is everything — much of the documentary evidence used to condemn Pius XII also exonerates him.
Selective use of resources by enemies of the Catholic Church, and in some cases lack of knowledge about how the Church functions as an ecclesiastical body, have led to unjust conclusions.
Few accusations were brought against the Pope during his lifetime. Indeed, there was an immense outpouring of praise for Pius XII from Jewish leaders and others throughout the world both during and after the war.
Articles in mainstream newspapers and magazines highlighted the Pope’s efforts on behalf of the Jewish people; upon his death in 1958, the Jewish Post wrote: “For there probably was not a single ruler of our generation who did more to help the Jews in their hour of greatest tragedy, during the Nazi occupation of Europe, than the late Pope.”
Nevertheless, the legacy of Pope Pius XII would come under attack soon after his death. His heroic actions would mysteriously be forgotten, and it all began with a work of fiction.
The primary security agency of the Soviet Union — the KGB — developed a plan to undermine the Church’s role as the moral authority of Western Europe and to create a rift between Jews and Catholics worldwide
Their chosen tactic was to assault the character of Pius XII. A 1945 attempt by the Soviet Union to tarnish the Pope’s reputation was unsuccessful because there were too many living witnesses to the truth.
Later, after the Pope’s death, a different plan was devised and by 1963, that plan took fruition in the release of the fictitious play, “The Deputy.”
“The Deputy,” written by Rolf Hochhuth and produced and financed by the KGB, depicted Pius XII as a callous, anti-Semite who collaborated with Adolph Hitler and encouraged the Holocaust.
Though a work of fiction, the play became the source of many wrongful accusations against the Pope and created quite a stir —similar to that created by Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, in recent years.
Several books would follow, some even borrowing “facts” from “The Deputy,” that would continue the legacy of falsehood that still plagues the papacy of Pope Pius XII today.
The book, Hitler’s Pope, written by Catholic author John Cornwell, has been particularly damning. It is often quoted as proof in support of the charges against Pius XII.
However, the book was so riddled with errors that professor of history, Rabbi David G. Dalin, wrote a rebuttal titled, The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: How Pope Pius XII Rescued Jews from the Nazis.
When challenged by this and other evidence refuting his book, Cornwell retracted his position on some counts, admitting for example, that Pius was not anti-Semitic nor a Nazi collaborator.
He still insisted, however, that the Pope’s efforts were insufficient.
In some respects, the KGB’s plan to damage the Church’s reputation and create division between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community was successful.
The KGB’s actions may not have led to a severing of ties between Israel and the Vatican — the two established full diplomatic relations in 1993 — but they certainly raised enough suspicion to have a lasting effect.
The Israeli government has protested strongly against efforts to have the Church declare Pius XII a saint, still claiming, despite evidence to the contrary, that he remained silent and apathetic to the plight of persecuted Jews.
Pope Francis has pointed out that an authenticated miracle is still needed before Pius can be beatified — declared blessed — and another before he could be declared a saint.
A plaque at Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel, condemns Pope Pius despite current knowledge refuting its content.
Fortunately, much is being done to correct the injustice leveled against Pope Pius XII.
As wartime documents have been declassified and more Vatican archives have become available, researchers have discovered even more proof of the Pope’s efforts to combat the Nazi regime and to save Jewish lives.
The Pave the Way Foundation, which is dedicated to breaking down barriers and promoting peace between religions, backed an intensive research effort to catalogue documents proving Pope Pius XII not only led an active resistance effort against the Nazis, he was directly responsible for saving thousands of Jewish lives.
Over the years, several movements whose agendas face opposition from the Catholic Church have perpetuated the myths about Pius XII in order to undermine her credibility.
Mainstream media have rarely refuted the charges, choosing instead to escalate them.
Hollywood and contemporary literature continue the dialogue with characters remarking that the Pope or the Church remained silent over the plight of the Jews.
Indeed, a recent television documentary spent most of an hour claiming that Pope Pius XII remained aloof and silent during the war.
In the last 5 minutes of that program, the narrator stated that new evidence may prove the Pope was not indifferent. This begs the question to be asked: Why did the documentarian not choose to investigate and include the new evidence rather than record a story that admittedly stood to be refuted?
Historical research has shown that Pope Pius XII was responsible for saving hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust.
Survivor testimonies claim he did more than any other world leader to save Jewish people who were targeted by Hitler.
The time for Pope Pius XII to be honored as “Righteous Among Nations” is long overdue.
We, as Catholics, should be educating ourselves, defending the truth and leading the effort to right this great, historical wrong.
Mrs. Vise is a member of St. Robert Bellarmine parish in St. Robert. She spoke at a parish “Theology on Tap” gathering this year about Venerable Pope Pius XII’s humanitarian efforts during World War II.