The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&entertainment -

TREVIEWED BY STEPHEN GAMES HE TI­TLE of Gera r d Noel’ s new book about Catholi­cism’s most c o n t r o v e r s i a l Pope seems to an­nounce its con­clu­sion be­fore it has be­gun: that Pius XII (Eu­ge­nio Pa­celli, who oc­cu­pied the pa­pal throne from 1939-58) failed to de­nounce Hitler or lead the Church in any op­po­si­tion to Nazism. Yet it is also an at­tempt to re­deem him.

Noel’s goal, he says, is to un­der­stand Pa­celli’s “frag­ile psy­chol­ogy”. He thinks that Pa­celli, born to serve and not to lead, un­der­es­ti­mated the po­lit­i­cal im­pact that the Vat­i­can could have had in Ger­many and wor­ried that Hitler would use any ex­cuse the Church might give him to make things worse.

As Pope, Pa­celli did not speak up for the Jews but then, he also did not speak up for Catholic vic­tims of Nazi vi­o­lence in Poland, even when begged to do so by Poland’s pres­i­dent. And he did not speak out against the hor­rific killings by the Catholic Us­tache par­ti­sans in Croa­tia, which even the Ger­mans thought a tri­fle ex­ces­sive.

He was prob­a­bly a cow­ard as well as an ap­peaser — though Noel de­nies this, on the grounds that early in his life, as pa­pal nun­cio in Mu­nich, Pa­celli had sur­vived a chal­lenge by Com­mu­nist ter­ror­ists who put a gun to his head and de­manded the use of his car.

The facts about Pius XII are con­tested but there is gen­eral agree­ment about his ex­treme con­ser­vatism. As a young le­gal as­sis­tant in the Vat­i­can, he helped Pius X (1903-14) de­velop the le­gal “con­cor­dats” that helped the Church re­gain its lost power and in­flu­ence. He also as­sisted in what Noel calls Pius X’s “anti-Mod­ernist witch hunts”, root­ing out mod­ernising and het­ero­dox ten­den­cies within the Church. (Pa­celli, sig­nif­i­cantly, had Pius X canon­ised in 1954 — the first Pope to be de­clared a saint in 400 years.)

What made Pa­celli es­pe­cially con­tro­ver­sial is that, while in­sist­ing on the po­lit­i­cal neu­tral­ity of the Church, he was will­ing to back Fas­cism against Com­mu­nism, even giv­ing funds di­rectly to Hitler in 1919 to back the fledg­ling Nazi party. He was also pre­pared to vi­o­late the fun­da­men­tal hu­man rights and free­doms of Catholics them­selves if this meant ad­vanc­ing his own nar­row def­i­ni­tion of Catholic in­ter­ests.

He evolved a Grand De­sign to erase in­con­sis­ten­cies in the Church’s own le­gal sys­tem and strove, suc­cess­fully, to change Catholi­cism into the totali- tar­ian in­sti­tu­tion it now is, in which the Pope has ab­so­lute au­thor­ity.

Noel does not ex­on­er­ate Pa­celli; he even ac­cuses him of help­ing to cause both world wars. He blames the first of the new con­cor­dats — with Ser­bia -— for desta­bil­is­ing the Balkans and finds Pa­celli com­plicit, 20 years later, in Hitler’s pre­vent­ing the Church — es­pe­cially the pop­u­lar, anti-Nazi Catholic Cen­tre Party — from en­gag­ing in any po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­ity in Ger­many.

The fu­ture Pius XII grew up in an Ital­ian Church cul­ture where “loving” Jews meant loving them into con­ver­sion or per­se­cu­tion. In 1938, an en­cycli­cal he prob­a­bly helped draft protested against Nazi vi­o­lence against Jews but also blamed them for their own fate and warned the Church against be­com­ing en­snared in sec­u­lar pol­i­tics.

Af­ter be­com­ing Pope, he was will­ing to de­clare “warmth” and “friend­ship” to­wards the Nazi regime.

How is this ex­cus­able? Noel, who had a pri­vate au­di­ence with this Pope in 1948 and found him “awe-in­spir­ing”, ar­gues that Pa­celli, in spite of all the ev­i­dence to the con­trary, was “a man of dis­tinct com­pas­sion” who felt the Jews’ pain but could not, by his own du­bi­ous prin­ci­ples, act to re­lieve it.

For Pius XII, the great­est pos­si­ble dis­as­ter was the demise of the Catholic Church and this made the slaugh­ter of mil­lions of Jews (and Serbs and gyp­sies) secondary. And now some Catholics are try­ing to have him canon­ised. Stephen Games is the ed­i­tor of Sweet Songs of Zion, a his­tory of the hymns of the Church of Eng­land


The war­time Pon­tiff: Pius XII in Rome, in Oc­to­ber 1943, fol­low­ing an Amer­i­can air-raid on the city

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