Reflections and reveries from the Urbane Society of Sceptical Romantics...
Monday, October 11, 2010
quel surprise - a flawed pope
While I was out the other day, collecting my thoroughly unremarkable academic transcript from campus west of Unisa, I took the time to visit Borders and catch up on some reading. The book I finally settled on was The hound of Hitler, by Gerard Noel, a biography of the controversial Pius XII, pope from 1939 to 1958. I had no intention of buying it - I have no money - but after a bout of reading, I was hooked, and definitely would have liked to buy it. It would have made a great companion volume to the new Geoffrey Robertson book - which I also can't afford.
I've heard Pius XII described as 'the nazi pope', and his activities got an airing at the atheists meetup I attended about a week ago. So what was coming out of the Vatican during the war and the immediate post-war years? What, if anything, was this pope's association with nazism? After reading only a dozen pages of this book, I have more inklings about this than I had previously.
The first thing to become clear about the book is that it's no hatchet job, which you might expect it to be from the title, though that title is ambiguous - was he a hound attacking Hitler or working for him? The author is himself a Catholic, having edited a major Catholic journal for a decade in the seventies and eighties, and he seems to know plenty about recent Catholic history and Catholic politics. More importantly, he has the historian's detachment and fealty to the deepest and fairest understanding of his subject. What comes out, in the small portion that I've read, is a judicious appraisal of a closeted, delicate, intellectual, unworldly personality, probably ill-fitted to the position of moral arbiter of millions of people's lives at such a time of storm and stress as the second world war provided. Eugenio Pacelli, to use his real name, was no Nazi. After all, Nazism invoked an extreme, specifically German nationalism, which could hardly appeal to anyone who wasn't German. As to whether he had fascist sympathies, I've not read enough yet to determine that, but it's possible. Pacelli's aristocratic family had been lawyers and advisers to various popes for decades. They were members of the soi-disant 'black nobility', nobles created by the Holy See who remained loyal to the papacy during the years of church-state conflict from 1870 to 1929, and Pacelli himself seems never to have questioned the authoritarianism of the RCC, an authoritarianism that fascist regimes, as well as sympathetic organisations such as Action Francaise, partly modelled themselves on.
Now I've just finished reading the quite comprehensive Wikipedia article on Pius XII, as well as reviews of Noel's book, such as this one [since it's sadly unlikely that I'll be able to secure myself a copy], and the figure that emerges is of a pope who, in spite of his previous extensive career as a Vatican diplomat, was a political naif who placed too much emphasis on treaties and agreements, a la Neville Chamberlain, and who failed to realize the threat of Hitler until too late. Pacelli was notoriously silent about Nazism during the war years, and in the post-war years reserved his strongest criticism for communism, the more 'natural' enemy of the RCC. This silence has been the subject of numerous books and articles, and the focus of furious debate for decades. The question of the Jews and anti-semitism lies at the heart of it all. Anti-Judaism was a major feature of Roman Catholicism for centuries. Noel writes about an extraordinary ceremony that traditionally accompanied the inauguration of a new pope, in which the pope would offer to a rabbi a copy of the Bible, or perhaps it was the Tanach, upside-down, together with thirty pieces of silver. This symbolized, presumably, that the Jews had gotten the 'word of god' upside-down. No prizes for guessing what the silver coins represented. Pacelli would have been imbued with this traditional enmity towards the Judaic religion. All in all, though, he doesn't seem to have been any more anti-semitic than the rest of his tribe, and he really does seem to have made some efforts to help the Jews towards the end of the war - too little, too late. He seems particularly to have read Hitler all wrong, imagining him, because of an early pact made between the Nazis and a left-wing workers' group, to have been 'secretly' a creature of the left. And he always saw the greatest danger as coming from that direction. Apparently, in his days as as a Catholic diplomat in the thirties, he had an audience with Roosevelt, in which he harangued him about the threat of communism in the US.
Above all, this pope was concerned about the power of his church, a church whose 'truth' was beyond question. Plus ca change... His silence may have had something to do with his ambivalence about the Jews [there were no doubt plenty of rabid anti-Semites in the Vatican in the early twentieth century, and Pacelli's family had by and large come out against Dreyfus at the time of the notorious Dreyfus affair] but just as much to do with the fear of becoming the target of the Nazis, as had occurred when Dutch bishops protested against Nazi behaviour. A vast number of Dutch clergy and laity were then rounded up and executed.
It's probably unlikely that a more vociferously anti-Nazi pope would have made much of a difference to the Nazi killing machine during the war. However, I'm trying in vain to find an explicit statement from Pacelli about the Holocaust made after the war. I'll keep on trying. Meanwhile, I note that a number of Jewish historians and writers have come out in defence of Pacelli and the Catholic church's role in saving many thousands of Jewish lives during the war.