Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

I haven’t heard a single Jewish voice defending Pope Benedict XVI’s decision Dec. 19 to declare that Pius XII lived “a life of heroic virtue.” The Jewish organizations all object; the State of Israel said that the question of Pius XII’s prospective sainthood “does not effect Israel,” but called on the Vatican to open its World War II archives. I doubt the archives would condemn the wartime pope.

Additional facts will not change what we know: Pius XII did his best to save Jews within the modest reach of the resources of the Church during the Nazi occupation of Italy. If he had excommunicated Hitler or instructed priests to refuse communion to soldiers or civilians engaged in genocide, he probably would have been martyred; the Nazis would have established a puppet pope and a puppet German Church. Pius did not speak out publicly against the mass murder of Polish priests, either, and for the same reasons.

Would the situation of the Jews improved materially had Pius XII chosen martyrdom? I doubt it; the Church already had lost the battle for Europe’s soul. The First World War, in which French priests blessed cannons to kill German Catholics and vice versa, killed Catholic universality, which had been waning since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. An open condemnation of Hitler would have assisted the Allied war effort by eroding German morale, I suppose.

The Church made the same blunder as the European Orthodox rabbinate during the 1930s: it failed to foresee the magnitude of Nazi evil. Secular Zionists such as Vladimir Jabotinsky toured Europe during the pre-war years warning that Jews faced extermination, and the majority of Orthodox rabbis denounced Zionism and preached quietism. Some of Berlin’s Orthodox rabbis wrote a letter to Hitler upon his seizure of power in 1933 hailing him as a prospective ally against Bolshevism—exactly what many in the Catholic Church believed. The whole story can be found in a 2003 book by Marc B. Shapiro.

Catholics who contend that pro-abortion politicians should be refused communion might consider whether the same ban should have applied to German soldiers or Ukrainian camp guards engaged in mass murder of Jews. But the sad fact is that the Church had very little power to influence events in Europe.

And that is the astonishing fact of the matter. The largest institution in Europe, with the widest nominal loyalty among Europeans, collapsed like a house of cards in the face of fascism. The Church never has recovered in Europe. Weekly mass attendance among self-identified European Catholics ranges between 10% and 20%, but the numbers are deceptively large, for they reflect the residual loyalty of a rapidly-aging population. The younger generation is barely half the size of the last one, and the proportion of young people attending mass is tiny. Project this trend forward and European churches will be empty within a generation, resembling the Church of England today.

Whatever the wartime leadership of the Catholic Church did, it failed to slow the extinction of Catholic life in Europe. The Church was not only powerless to save European Jewry; it was powerless to save itself. When was the die cast? Was it when the “Churches of earthly power,” as Russell Hittinger described them in a brilliant 2006 article for First Things, imported nationalism into the Church? Was it in 1648, when the Church responded to the victory of the French nation-state by delegating power to the Catholic dynasties of Europe (as Hittinger describes in a second essay)? Or could Pius XII still have done something to slow the slide, and save something for future generations?

The deliberate use of horror by Hitler and Stalin, I argued in a recent essay for First Things, destroyed Europe’s faith:

The existence of horror is, generally, a weakness of Christian civilization, for such civilization stands, finally, as the rejection of the horrors that paganism always accepts and often embraces. How can a good God permit terrible things to happen? Voltaire used the most horrific event of the eighteenth century, the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, to ridicule the idea of a loving God. The neopagans of the twentieth century went Voltaire one better. Rather than wait for natural disaster, they staged scenes of horror greater than the civilized mind could fathom—as though the most effective assault on faith were to commit crimes beyond the imagination of the observer. As Goebbels bragged in a 1943 broadcast, “We will either go down in history as the greatest statesmen of all time, or the greatest criminals.”

How does one counter such evil, except by denouncing it as Satanic? Whatever we say after the fact, the score in Europe remains Gates of Hell 1, St. Peter 0. What shall we do when new Hitlers and Stalins wield the weapon of horror the next time around?



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles