On February 10, 1997, Father Robert Graham, S.J., an indefatigable defender of Pope Pius XII against posthumous charges of indifference toward the wartime fate of European Jews, died in a California Jesuit community. He was eighty-four.
Several aspects of Graham’s life are striking. He had not reached his eighteenth birthday when he entered the Jesuits, and he remained faithful to the Society of Jesus through all its rich changes. As Graham’s nephew, Francis Smith, S.J., put it at the funeral mass, Graham was not complicated; he chose a life and lived it. He held a doctorate in political science from the University of Geneva, but his writing remained accessible and free of academic jargon. At the request of Paul VI, he and three other Jesuits toiled in the Vatican’s archives to cull wartime documents for publication. This exacting task, however, dulled neither Graham’s invariably courtly manner nor his keen sense of humor. The son of a catcher for the 1906 Boston Red Sox, he felt no pull to the limelight. But notoriety found him nonetheless, when he was in his fifties.
In 1959 Graham’s scholarly Vatican Diplomacy: A Study of Church and State on the International Plane was published by Princeton University Press. Five years later, The Deputy , a German play vilifying Pius as a callous bystander to the Holocaust, opened in New York to mixed reviews. Whatever its artistic and historical shortcomings, it very successfully placed the deceased Pope on trial. Graham, then at the Jesuit magazine America , emerged as a natural defender of Pius’ reputation.
In that role, Graham proved wrong those cynics who insist one will inevitably come to resemble one’s adversaries. For Robert Graham, an astute Vatican observer even during the war, ultimately watched for thirty years as Pius’ reputation underwent assault the likes of which could never have been predicted. And yet not only fortitude but temperance marked Graham’s response throughout.
There was a time Pius XII enjoyed near-universal acclaim for aiding European Jews through diplomatic initiatives, thinly veiled public pronouncements, and, very concretely, an unprecedented continent-wide network of sanctuary. In 1944, from its war emergency conference, the World Jewish Congress cabled thanks to the Holy See for its efforts on behalf of threatened Jews. In the fall of 1945, the WJC followed up with a financial token of gratitude to the Vatican. In 1955, literally thousands of Jews made pilgrimage to the Vatican to pay thanks for wartime solicitudes; separately, the Israeli Philharmonic played the Papal Consistory Hall as a gesture of gratitude.
Upon Pius’ death in 1958, Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir declared: He upheld the highest ideals of peace and compassion . . . . When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the Pope was raised for the victims. New York City’s synagogues also resounded with praise for an example for all religious leaders and man at his highest.
Within a few years, however, the past began to change. Popular historical treatments began to resemble The Deputy . There was, for example, Guenter Lewy’s 1964 The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany ”a work on which Daniel Goldhagen relied heavily for his (mis)treatment of Catholicism in the best-selling Hitler’s Willing Executioners . Lewy relegated to a single sentence and a brief elliptical footnote Pius’ agreement to assist personally German conspirators against Hitler; he referred to the martyred White Rose without mention of the Munich resistance group’s profoundly Catholic grounding; he carefully noted the Catholic Center Party’s brief anti-Semitic campaign of 1875 but overlooked the April 1933 public protest by a Center Deputy who, based on the party’s tradition, rejected all anti-Semitic efforts and measures; he discussed at length the Church and Hitler’s foreign policy but omitted reference to the Vatican’s open scolding of Italy in 1938 for not thwarting the German troops who marched on Austria.
The prosecution kept on. During the 1970s, a New York City art exhibit featured Nazi Butchers, depicting Pius alongside Hitler and Eichmann. The year 1980 saw publication of John Morley’s Vatican Diplomacy and the Jews During the Holocaust 1939“1943 , a book drawn heavily on Robert Graham’s archival work, but dishonoring that work with acontextual analysis and the presumption of guilt. Some time later, Bruno Bettelheim, invited to comment on the American bishops’ campaign against nuclear arms, asked where the conference of bishops was when six million Jews were killed.
In the face of all this, year after year, Father Graham did his work with patient humility, confidence in the truth, and generosity of spirit. The facts served-up straight would, Graham believed, speak for themselves; no need to cast stones or impugn motives. Above all, Graham avoided casting the dispute surrounding Pius XII as a matter of Catholics versus Jews. He was too decent and knowledgeable for that. He fully appreciated the moral singularity of the Holocaust and, early on, admired Raphael Lemkin’s efforts to make genocide part of the vocabulary of international law.
Five months before Fr. Graham’s death, America ran a sober and balanced piece entitled The Enigma of Pope Pius XII. Predictably, it precipitated a protracted storm of letters and answers to letters. Because America had been Robert Graham’s home for many years, I was certain he would eventually weigh in.
One letter from a history professor deepened my certainty and also illustrated why a full and fair assessment of Pius and his Church presently eludes us all. The professor declared that Pius refused to condemn the anti-Semitic activities of Vichy. What, I wondered, about Vatican Radio’s broadcasts of, and commentaries on, Cardinal Saliege’s stirring letter against the deportations? About papal nuncio Valeri’s contemporaneously reported entreaties to Marshal Pétain? About the Vatican’s diplomatic appeals on behalf of thousands of Jews interned in Vittel?
Pius did not publicly protest when the Germans seized the Jews of Rome, though many priests and nuns helped Jews. Does the professor, I wondered, understand that at least four thousand Jews, a third of the city’s Jewish population and more than twice the number deported by the Nazis, found shelter in Catholic Church buildings? Understand that, according to Martin Gilbert, refuge was offered on the Pope’s personal orders? I wondered whether the professor knew of Pulitzer Prize-winner Anne O’Hare McCormick’s August 1944 dispatch for the New York Times from Rome reporting that after liberation the Pope enjoyed an enhanced position because during the Nazi occupation he had made hiding someone on the run’ the thing to do and gave Jews first priority.
Pius XII was pro-Nazi. Why then did the 1939 British press cheer, and the Nazi press jeer, Pius’ election? What of Pius’ first encyclical Summi Pontificatus ? It expressed heartfelt gratitude toward, and entrusted to the Lord’s protection, those non-Catholics united with the Church either in love for the person of Christ or belief in God, insisted on Equality of the Races, and attacked both Deification of the State and corrupting paganism. Finally, it explicitly commiserated with newly invaded Poland. (It should come as no surprise that the French dropped it as propaganda on German troops.) Did not, I wondered, a New York Times editorial contend in 1941 that the Pope put himself squarely against Hitlerism?
Mostly, though, I wondered throughout what will Robert Graham have to say?
I did not know that, while America ran its letters, Fr. Graham had taken two falls. He lifted himself from the ground after the first and stumbled back to the Jesuit house where he was found collapsed inside the doorway. From the falls came complications which, despite some recovery, eventually got the best of him.
Had Fr. Graham responded, however, I know he would have been forgiving toward the errant professor. He would have been forgiving just as he was forgiving of all those who, owing to academic fashion, false ecumenical etiquette, or sheer sloth, too often left an old Jesuit alone in honorable battle.
Kevin M. Doyle , a graduate of Fordham, is a lawyer in New York City who works on behalf of indigent people charged with capital crimes.