It is no secret that the Catholic Church is subject to abject scrutiny and calumny in attempts to paint the Holy Mother Church in a bad light by her enemies. One such pervasive myth often perpetuated, whether deliberately or by ignorance, is that the Church somehow assisted the Nazi regime during World War II in their persecution and genocide of the Jewish people or was not active enough in opposing Nazism. These claims are borne of revisionist history, and could not be further from the truth.
“There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.” – Venerable Fulton J. Sheen
British journalist John Cornwell referred to Pope Pius XII as “Hitler’s Pope,” and accused the Church of collaboration with Nazi Germany. However, the Church during World War II far from collaborated with them, but in fact were some of the strongest in opposition to them. In fact, the regime disliked Pius XII to such an extent they called him “Jew loving” and attempted to prevent his election to the papacy because of his renowned anti-Nazi position.
In 1937, Pope Pius XI wrote in German, not the usual Latin, his encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, meaning “With Burning Anxiety.” The encyclical was smuggled into Germany for fear of censorship by the Nazi regime, and read in every Catholic church in the country on Palm Sunday of that year. Over 300,000 copies were smuggled into the country in complete secrecy, and following the day each was read were confiscated when the Gestapo raided churches. In the encyclical, Pope Pius XI condemned the “the so-called myth of race and blood” and breaches of the Reichskonkordat – a means of holding the Nazis accountable through an international treaty.
“Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the state, or a particular form of state, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community—however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things—whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds.” – Mit brennender Sorge
Pope Pius XII continued his predecessor’s tradition of strict condemnation. He made several speeches that were widely interpreted, including by Jewish leaders and newspapers, to be clear vilification of Hitler’s racial policies. However, the Vatican’s traditional diplomatic language, along with the reality that while the Allies may have wanted more from Pius XII it would come at the cost of ending any more good he could do, led some to believe Pius XII in some way, shape, or form was supporting the Nazis despite all evidence to the contrary.
In truth, the Catholic Church worked in largely in secrecy to oppose the Nazi regime. During the war, Pius XII acted directly in Italy and through papal diplomats in other countries to save hundreds of thousands. While no firm number is available, upwards of 600,000 to 800,000 were saved directly through his actions, and more indirectly. Albert Einstein recognized this, saying
“Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing the truth … I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly.”
In the 2012 hit book The Pope’s Jews, Pius XII’s workings in secrecy to save the Jews from Nazi oppression were detailed. It outlined how he gave his blessing to establish safe houses in the Vatican and throughout various convents and monasteries in Europe to provide refuge for Jews. He even ran a secret operation where priests were given code names and fake documents to risk their lives to shelter Jews, some of whom he made Vatican subjects.
Priests were instructed to issue baptism certificates to Jews hiding in Italy, Jews in Hungary were given fabricated Vatican documents that identified them as Catholics, and an underground network brought German Jews into the safety of Rome. Upwards of tens of thousands of Jews either found safe refuge throughout Europe or made their way to the Vatican through the actions of Pius XII.
During and after the war, Pius XII was widely regarded as a Jewish savior. In 1944, Jerusalem’s chief rabbi said the people of Israel would forever remember what he and the rest of the Church “are doing for our unfortunate brothers and sisters at the most tragic hour.”
While it is a great tragedy that a small amount individual Catholics collaborated with the heinous evils of Nazism, the Universal Church and a staggering majority of Catholics were in fierce opposition. A majority of German Catholics at the time voted against the Nazi party.
In 1943, Pope Pius XII wrote how the truth would eventually come out and reveal Nazi propaganda for what it is, but his words stand some sixty years later equally as well to the libel and slander he and the Church have faced for a supposed and farcical cooperation with the Nazi regime.
“The Church is not afraid of the light of truth, not for its past, nor its present, nor for its future. The time will come, conditions and human emotions permitting, when unpublished documents about this terrible war will be made public. Then the foolishness of all accusations will become obvious in clear daylight. Their origin is not ignorance but contempt of the Church.”