"Not Enough" vs. "Plenty": Which did Pius XII do?

Berel Lang

THAT SUSAN ZUCCOTTI AND RONALD RYCHLAK--AMONG many others--have been quarreling about the role of Pius XII during the Holocaust does not necessarily mean that they disagree; more precisely, it doesn't mean that they disagree about what they think they are disagreeing about--or that they disagree as much as they think they do. Zuccotti claims that whatever Pius XII did in facing the threat and events of the Holocaust, it wasn't enough; (1) Rychlak claims that whatever Pius XII might not have done during the Holocaust, he did plenty. (2) These two claims are by no means contradictory: it may well be (it almost certainly is) that Pius XII did not do enough and yet that he did a good deal. So the two authors could both be correct when they think they're disagreeing--although they might also disagree with this attempt at reconciliation. Even if they did accept it, moreover, that would not resolve the controversy to which they and others have contributed in assessing the initiatives and responses (or lack of them) by Pius XII during the Nazis' "Final Solution of the Jewish Question." For the crucial measure in conducting a moral inventory of Pius XII's policies and conduct in respect to that event--indeed, required for a moral inventory of anyone's actions or inactions at any time--is not a summons to abstract principle on the question of whether Pius XII did enough (which so few people ever do) or whether he did plenty (which a lot of people do, and did), but by the judgment of particular actions which he took when he need not have or which he failed to take when he could (and should) have. As moral decisions are in the end always singular and concrete irrespective of how general or abstract the ideals they aspire to, so moral assessments of those decisions also have to be, and can be, immediate and individual--and unequivocal.

I would cite here specifically two examples of Pius XII's refusal to act--"refusal" rather than "failure" since the inaction was surely the result of conscious decisions. The first example goes unmentioned by Zuccotti and Rychlak in their discussions; both authors refer to the second example, but each finds a different turn in it than the one I suggest. Even in a world where moral ambiguity is granted an unavoidable place, both these acts of omission seem straightforwardly wrong; this is the case even when the acts are defended, as they typically are and have been, by strong prudential or instrumental arguments.

The first of these omissions is the fact that not once in the twelve years of Nazi rule or in the six years of World War II did the Pope use the instrument or even the threat of excommunication against leaders of the Nazi regime or against their subordinates or against their accomplices inside and outside Germany; this was the case although many of these perpetrators and the populace at large who took their cues from them were raised as Catholics and maintained their identities as Catholics at the same time that they were participating in or abetting the Nazi "project." The possibility of excommunication was an instrument directly in the Pope's control; he did not require an army to issue or enforce it, he did not have to capture the people who would be affected by the decision; he could have acted by words alone. And indeed, only a few years after World War II ended (1 July 1949), he did exactly this in a blanket condemnation of Communism and of those of its adherents who mistakenly believed that their polit ical allegiance was compatible with a commitment to Catholicism; those adherents, he warned, would have to make a choice: Either/Or. Yet during the years leading up to and then of the "Final Solution" he refused to take any such action with respect to the Nazis themselves or to their accomplices even in heavily Catholic countries like Poland, France, Hungary, or Italy itself

Any explanation must remain speculative as to why Pius XII, who from the time of his Munich years as papal nuncio beginning in 1917 was a fierce and open enemy of Bolshevism, would wait until the post-War period before ordering the excommunication of "Catholic" Communist adherents. One point in particular seems clear in this connection: that by the time he issued that condemnation, there was no "present" need or indeed possibility of fulminating against those who assumed a compatibility between Nazism and Catholicism. Could that fact have influenced the delay in reaching that decision? Speculation yields at most probabilities, but it is more than only a matter of speculation that Pius XII viewed Nazism as a "lesser evil" than Bolshevism; once that distinction is recognized in his thinking, it becomes an unavoidable, if not always decisive, element in understanding or explaining any of his actions (or inactions) that bear on the Nazi regime.

The refusal to deny to Nazis and their collaborators the sanctuary of the Church by way of excommunication becomes still more notable in light of Pius XII's awareness (at the time) of Nazi responsibility not only for Jewish victims in the death camps but for murder, in and out of the camps, committed against Catholics-including among the latter, priests of the Church in a number estimated now to have been in the thousands, most of these in Poland but extending to other countries, including Germany, as well. If the act of excommunication was not mandated in this setting, it is difficult to imagine what circumstances could ever command its application.

Against this charge, the standard argument from prudence--that if the Pope had availed himself of this means (more than just speaking out) , he would have made things worse than they were- seems at once mistaken and irrelevant. Mistaken, because however the Nazi hierarchy might have intensified its racist campaign as a consequence of such action (how, one asks, could that have been made "worse" than it was?) or turned more openly against the Vatican itself, the contrary effect on the passive acceptance by hundreds of millions of European Catholics would almost certainly have been substantial. No doubt Hitler himself; though born to a Catholic household, would have been undeterred by excommunication--but this does not mean that his being excommunicated would have made no difference to those still professing Catholics who were Hitler's followers and collaborators. The argument from prudence on this point is also, it seems-even if, contrary to the fact, one granted its force-irrelevant, and only in part because prudential arguments are as such always to some extent morally irrelevant. If individuals can be called on (by the Church, among others) to sacrifice practical interests in the name of principles or ideals, would it be too much to propose the same expectation for the Church itself?

A second instance of the moral refusal of an obligation provides the title for Susan Zuccotti's book-what Pius XII refused to do at the time of the roundup of Jews in Rome on October 16, 1943. One point here remains inexplicable, quite apart from any judgment of the act itself: the failure of the Vatican, which almost certainly knew of the impending roundup before it happened, to convey a warning to the Rome Jewish community-a warning that would have allowed them to go into hiding. It is difficult even to imagine a plausible explanation for this omission; the hypothesis that fear of being held accountable for such warning prevented it would itself condemn as much as it explains. A still more notable breach in moral terms, however, is the fact that once the roundup took place--"under the very windows of the Pope" in the words of Ernst von Weizsacker, the German Ambassador to the Holy See-and with the trains waiting to deport more than a thousand Roman Jews (the "Pope's Jews") to Auschwitz, not a single public word of protest was uttered then or subsequently by the Pope himself.

Soon after the event, then, Weizsacker could, accurately and in good conscience, report back to Berlin that the Pope "has not allowed himself to be carried away making any demonstrative statements against deportation of the Jews... he has done all he could... not to prejudice relationships with the German government." (3) Once again, the argument from prudence surfaces here among the Pope's defenders, principally, the threat uttered by Hitler to occupy Vatican City and to take the Pope prisoner: Would not this have been sufficient reason for a muted response, for resorting to "silent diplomacy" rather than open opposition? Putting aside the substantial question of just how active the alleged "silent diplomacy" in fact was, we may well in this context ask an alternate question: Is there no moment imaginable when the Vatican and the Pope himself should be willing to place themselves, even their lives, at risk? One dare not speak for anyone else or perhaps even for oneself of an obligation to choose martyrdom. B ut there was no reason for anyone to believe that the Nazis had in mind literal martyrdom for Pius XII-and why should something less than that (or even for that matter, in reference to the spiritual leader of the Church, that?) stand itself as a sufficient reason for silence and acquiescence? One would have thought that, so far as concerns the Church, the question had been long answered of whether man had been made for the laws or the laws for man.

Let me, in summary, propose an analogy--something like a parable--for the disagreement between "not enough" and "plenty" as these measurements are applied to Pius XII's role in the Holocaust: Imagine that a person who is morally conscientious, after much grappling and reflection, arrives at a policy about giving charity. He or she contributes a good deal, more than a tithe; he or she also spends considerable amount of time working for good causes. And then, having decided on the various amounts and means of giving, the person decides, quite reasonably, that those contributions taken together are the maximum possible, given all the other responsibilities and obligations to family and self that the person has. In other words, a limit has been reached--a generous and more than reasonable one, but still a limit: this much and no more. Then one morning, that person opens the front door to pick up the morning paper-and finds a stray young child sitting on the steps: ragged, emaciated, weak with hunger, obviously wi th no resources. Here the person has a choice between two courses of action: to apply the reasoned conclusions conscientiously arrived at about the limits of charity and time--and so to pick up the paper and shut the door. Or to bring the child inside, overturning a policy so thoughtfully arrived at and thus risking the consequences. Which, you-the reader-are asked to judge, is the right thing to do?

BEREL LANG is Professor of Humanities at Trinity College (Hartford). He is the author, among other books, of Heidegger's Silence (1996) and Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide (1990). His article, "Translating the Holocaust: For Whom Does One Write?," appeared in the Summer 1999 issue.


(1.) Susan Zuccotti, Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).

(2.) Ronald J. Rychlak, Hitler, the War, and the Pope (Columbus, Miss.: Genesis Press, 2000).

(3.) Cited in Saul Friedlander, Pius XII and the Third Reich, translated by C. Fullman (New York: Knopf, 1966), pp. 207-208.

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