A few years ago, when Daniel Goldhagen published A Moral Reckoning , his diatribe against all things Catholic, I predicted that the book would offer opportunities for writers who attacked Pius XII. What Goldhagen had done was set a new limit¯a far edge of fury that would allow any subsequent Pius opponent to pose as a thoughtful moderate who had avoided extremes and steered a middle course.

So, now comes Frank Coppa to publish a 400-page work called The Papacy, the Jews, and the Holocaust . And, sure enough, the publicity material is just as one would expect. "In 1963, Helmut Hochhuth’s play The Deputy sparked controversy about Pius XII’s role during the genocide and the general responsibility of previous popes and the Catholic Church in bringing it about," the description from Catholic University of America Press explains. (Wasn’t his name Rolf Hochhuth?) Anyway, the book is "a judicious, well-balanced historical appraisal," and promises to strike a sensible position in the debate: "Neither rabid anti-papal writers nor animated apologists for the Roman Catholic Church will be happy with this book’s conclusions," a jacket blurb adds.

Ah, yes. I love that "animated apologists"¯a judicious use of alliteration’s artful aid¯and the most animated I know is young William Doino, who picked up Coppa’s book with high hopes and emails today to explain his disappointment. "Notorious papal critics like David Kertzer and Susan Zuccotti are invoked and praised," he writes. "John Cornwell is brought forth for the prosecution; a concoction, allegedly based upon the recollections of Pius’ female assistant ( La Popessa ) is employed to indict Pius XII (notwithstanding that her authentic memoir effusively praises him); a conspiracy-mongering work entitled The Vatican Exposed: Money, Murder and the Mafia is cited as a respectable book; and Coppa repeats scurrilous allegations¯which no reputable historian accepts¯that the papacy aided and abetted Nazi war criminals."

So deep and pronounced is his prejudice against Pius XII, Doino notes, that Coppa repeats canards that have long since been discredited. "Coppa informs us that Pius XI secretly commissioned a hidden encyclical against anti-Semitism, right before his death, but claims Pacelli, upon becoming Pius XII, read and deliberately suppressed its condemnation of Jew-hatred. In fact, not a shred of proof that Pius XII ever saw, much less suppressed, any encyclical¯which, in any event, existed in three contradictory drafts, was never finalized, and itself contained anti-Jewish passages. Had it been published, it would have put the modern papacy on record as accepting the worst stereotypes about Jews and Judaism; it was a divine blessing that it never appeared."

Meanwhile, Coppa claims that Pius XII "never did condemn" anti-Semitism explicitly during his pontificate, but that is exactly what Pius XII did¯according to contemporary witnessess¯in his confrontational meeting with Germany’s Foreign Minister, in March of 1940; in the pages of the L’Osservatore Romano , through his bishops and nuncios and official protests; and in a direct plea to Nazi-fascist criminals, according to Pius’ leading biographer: "’For centuries,’ he said, referring to the Jews, ‘they have been most unjustly treated and despised. It is time they were treated with justice and humanity. God wills it and the Church wills it. Saint Paul tells us that the Jews are our brothers. Instead of being treated as strangers they should be welcomed as friends" (Eugenio Pacelli: Pope of Peace by Oscar Halecki, p. 357).

Moving to the post-War period, Doino notes, Coppa recounts how Jaques Maritain asked the pope to publicly condemn anti-Semitism in July 1946 and was "deeply disappointed" when the pontiff allegedly turned him down. "Had Pius issued the public condemnation of anti-Semitism in 1946 that Maritain wanted," Coppa sadly observes, "his legacy would probably have been different." As it happens, Doino points out, Pius XII explicitly and publicly condemned "fanatical anti-Semitism" on August 3, 1946¯to a group that needed to hear it the most: the Judeo-phobic Supreme Arab Committee on Palestine. "The text of his speech, given wide publicity, was published on the front-page of the Osservatore Romano ¯not that this would affect Pius’ legacy among uninformed Catholic academics, of course."

Doino concludes: "Because Coppa sprinkles his book with praise for popes he believes helped Jews, some might argue that this is not an entirely bad book; but even if that is conceded, one can scarcely doubt that this is a wholly unnecessary book. In the last few decades, there have been literally thousands of works on every aspect of Jewish history: not just its triumphs, but especially its tragedies: studies on anti-Semitic crusades, enforced ghettoes, inquisitions, expulsions, pogroms, and, of course, the Shoah, fill entire rooms of university libraries. Invariably, the papacy plays a central (sometimes menacing) role in these works. So if an author is going to devote yet another work to ‘the papacy, the Jews, and the Holocaust,’ one might expect him to offer some fresh answers to old questions, or at least be willing to challenge reigning orthodoxies. On that score, this book must be judged a failure. Tracing the history of papal-Jewish relations, from biblical times to the present, Coppa has accepted the revisionist approach and simply compiled and recycled its discredited motifs¯adding some new legends of his own."

The task of reviewing works on the Church and the Second World War is like a giant session of that old carnival game Whack-the-Mole: You knock down some bad and goofy claim in one spot, and it pops up again someplace else. There are serious and important criticisms to be made of Pius XII, beginning with the fact that he was, by training and talent, a foreign-service officer, and his first response to any crisis was always to treat it as a diplomatic problem. But the first task of historians is to clear away all the junk posing as "middle ground."


In addition to which :

Yes, in the last ten years Congress has passed measures to elevate concern about religious persecution and the role of religion in U.S. foreign policy. But the State Department isn’t much interested, going about its business as usual. So says Thomas Farr, former director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom in “Religion in U.S. Diplomacy.” It’s among the scintillating articles in the May issue of First Things . Isn’t it time you subscribed ?

Articles by Joseph Bottum

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