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

In 1939, on the eve of World War II, Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain published a book stating that anti-Semitism had become a “pathological phenomenon.”

Maritain’s warning was welcomed by concerned believers, and even the secular press. The New York Times praised Maritain’s insight that “hatred of Jews and hatred of Christians spring from a common source; and the same men who began persecuting Jews are now persecuting Christians, and more or less for the same reason.”

The “common source” Maritain was speaking about, of course, was the biblical heritage Jews and Christians shared, then under furious attack. Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin all wanted to annihilate it, one way or the other.

Standing against their aims was Maritain’s own Church — and this in spite of the many failures and hesitations within its own community. “No matter what critics might say,” commented Time , in 1943, “it is scarcely deniable that the Church Apostolic, through the encyclicals and other papal pronouncements, has been fighting against totalitarianism more knowingly, devoutly and authoritatively, and for a longer time, than any other organized power.” Instead of the violence of Marxism, it went on, “the Catholic Church wants a conservative reconstitution of society in the name of God, justice, peace. Moreover, it insists on the dignity of the individual whom God created in his own image and for a decade has vigorously protested against the cruel persecution of the Jews as a violation of God’s Tabernacle.”

This is sometimes forgotten today, often by those who never miss a chance to throw barbs at the papacy. The New York Times ”having largely abandoned its respect for the Judeo-Christian tradition”has taken the lead in this turn against the Catholic Church. In a mocking cover story for its Sunday Book Review (July 10th), Times editor Bill Keller endorsed John Julius Norwich’s shoddy Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy , claiming Pius XI and especially Pius XII were “compliant enablers” of Hitler and fascism. Norwich claims absurdly that these popes “together cleared the way for the unobstructed advance of Nazism”and of its treatment of the Jews.”

If there is one person who should know about the papacy’s role against fascism and Nazism, it is Bill Keller. It was Keller, after all, who wrote the introduction to a coffee table size book and dvd set, The New York Times: The Complete Front Pages , 1851-2009. Surely, he is aware, then, of the front page, above-the-fold-headline of October 28, 1939, published soon after the War began? “Pope Condemns Dictators, Treaty Violators, Racism; Urges Restoring of Poland.” It hailed Pius XII’s first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus , followed by a story that read:

Presenting a picture of contemporary life as devastating as any of the Old Testament prophets could have drawn, the Pontiff proclaimed his determination to step forward boldly . . . .Racism, the violation of treaties, recourse to arms, the forcible transfer of populations, the destruction of Poland”these and many principles dear to fascism are condemned . . . .It is Germany that stands condemned above any country or any movement in this encyclical-the Germany of Hitler and National Socialism.”

This is the act of a “compliant enabler”?

Assuming Keller is familiar with the history of the Times , he would know that its wartime correspondents, Anne O’Hare McCormick and Camille Cianfarra, wrote many dispatches documenting the papacy’s stand against the dictators, and the Holy See’s assistance to their victims. In his book, The Vatican and the War , Cianfarra testified: “The covering of Vatican and Italian news for The Times gave me the opportunity of being an eyewitness to the struggle that both Pius XI and Pius XII waged against Nazism and Fascism . . . .I heard those two pontiffs condemn time and time again the totalitarian system of government.” Reporting from liberated Rome, McCormick noted how Vatican City had become a sanctuary for Jews and others during the German occupation, crediting Pius XII: “What the Pope did was to create an attitude in favor of the persecuted and hunted that the city was quick to adapt, so that hiding someone ‘on the run’ became the thing to do.”

The Times was not alone in its favorable coverage of Pius XII. The Jewish War Veterans of the United States “among the oldest such organizations in the country”and its publication, the Jewish Veteran , took the lead. In its March 1939 issue, just as Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli became Pius XII, the Jewish Veteran welcomed the breaking news with an editorial entitled, “Hail Pope Pius XII!” Its April issue went further:

The anti-Semitic clique in the Fascist party, headed by Roberto Farinacci, was shocked by the election of Cardinal Pacelli by unanimous vote in the third ballot, as the new Pope. His election is however a source of great satisfaction to Jews. Pope Pius XII is known as a staunch friend of Jews and on several occasions expressed his strong opposition to the persecution of Jews in Germany and Italy. In accordance with his instructions, as Papal Secretary to the late Pope Pius XI, distinguished Jewish visitors to theVatican were served with kosher food. Known as a vigorous champion of the Vatican’s anti-Nazi policy, the anti-Semitic Fascists tried hard to prevent Cardinal Pacelli’s election. Their failure demonstrates the lack of influence of anti-Semites in the princes of the Catholic Church.

One reason Pacelli affirmed his Jewish brethren was because he shared the same religious vision of Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977), the great anti-Nazi Catholic philosopher (condemned to death by Hitler), whom Pacelli befriended while serving as papal nuncio in Munich and Berlin. As the philosopher’s wife, Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, recently told me: “Pacelli, like my husband Dietrich, abhorred anti-Judaism”not just racial anti-Semitism— recognizing that Old Testament Judaism is the foundation on which Christianity stands, and that the Nazi assault upon Judaism”profoundly evil in itself”was also an attack on the roots of Christianity.”

Significantly, she continued, when von Hildebrand travelled to Rome in 1935”by which time Pacelli had become Cardinal Secretary of State to Pius XI”“my husband went with the exclusive purpose to question His Eminence on his views about Nazism and its anti-Semitic philosophy. He requested, and soon obtained, a private audience. Dietrich immediately saw that the Cardinal totally shared his detestation of Nazism animated by a deadly hatred of the chosen people who, according to God’s divine plans, gave us the Savior of the world.”

In fact, in 1966, during the height of the anti-Pius campaign”provoked by Rolf Hochhuth’s notorious play, The Deputy ”Dietrich von Hildebrand gave a moving statement to biographer G.M. Tracy, who was trying to set the record straight:

He was an open enemy of National Socialism as early as Hitler’s 1923 Putsch, and I spoke to him often in Munich about National Socialism. During my private audience in Rome with him, after he became a Cardinal, His Eminence told me that Nazism was as opposed to Catholicism ‘as fire and water’ and added ‘ they could never be reconciled .’I am overjoyed that you have undertaken a biography of this great Pope, especially because of the atrocious caricature that Hochhuth created, aided by statements of the very dubious Bishop Hudal [a German collaborator]. Hudal wrote a book in which he tried to prove that National Socialism and Christianity could get along together. This book incurred the disdain of Pius XII and Hudal wanted to avenge himself on Pius by slandering him in a completely false way to Hochhuth. It would be impossible to create a more false depiction of Pius than the one created by Hochhuth.

Unless, of course, Dietrich had lived to read today’s New York Times .

William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine , among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics . He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII .


Alice von Hildebrand, The Soul of a Lion: Dietrich von Hildebrand

G.M. Tracy, Decouverté de Pie XII, ce qu’on n’a jamais dit

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook , subscribe to First Things via RSS , and follow First Things on Twitter .

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles