Uncovered World War II-era cable adds to Pius XII debate

Does a recently unearthed 1944 diplomatic cable shed a favorable light upon Pope Pius XII’s response to Nazi atrocities? 

Gary Krupp, founder and president of Pave the Way Foundation, believes so.  

“Anyone with even the lowest understanding of this issue can only come up with one conclusion after they review what we have discovered,” said Krupp, 63, a Jewish supporter of Pope Pius. Krupp founded his New York-based nonprofit organization in 2002 to defend and promote the wartime pope’s legacy as a champion of European Jews during the Holocaust. 

“This is a man who saved Jewish lives when many people did not, and he’s attacked. It’s a shame,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. 

However, some scholars criticize Krupp and his organization for waging a “campaign of misinformation” by using unsophisticated historical analysis and presenting individual documents out of context. 

“Pave the Way are masters at creating a media flurry. They are not trained historians. They believe that by creating a deluge of paper with information that is favorable to their perception of Pius XII, they can create a new reality about the wartime pope,” said Paul O’Shea of the Australian Institute of Holocaust and Genocide Studies and author of “A Cross Too Heavy: Pope Pius XII and the Jews of Europe” (Palgrave Macmillan, $28). 

The new flash point in the ongoing debate over Pope Pius centers on wartime correspondence between Myron Taylor, President Franklin Roosevelt’s representative to the Holy See, and his British counterpart, Sir D’Arcy Osborne. 

In the note, dated Nov. 7, 1944, Taylor’s assistant, Franklin C. Owen, wrote that Osborne had called to say he feared that Pope Pius XII would make a radio appeal on behalf of Hungarian Jews and that he would also criticize the Russians for their actions in occupied territories. 

“Sir D’Arcy said something should be done to prevail upon the Pope not to do this,” wrote Owen, adding that Osborne feared that it would have “very serious political repercussions.” 

On its face, the document seems to support Pope Pius’ defenders, who counter critics’ arguments that he failed to condemn Adolf Hitler’s genocide of the Jewish people by saying that he had to balance any public statements and denunciations with deadly political repercussions that could include Nazi reprisals against Jews. 

Pope Pius XII’s defenders say he, in fact, saved hundreds of thousands of Jews by giving them shelter in convents and monasteries, as well as the pope’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. 

“The document is confirmation of a position I’ve articulated for some time,” said Ronald J. Rychlak, a law professor and associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He has written two books on Pope Pius, including “Hitler, the War, and the Pope” (OSV, $29.95).  

Rychlak told OSV that he found the wartime correspondence in Archives Unbound, an online digitized collection of primary source material, and passed it along to Pave the Way, which has on its website about 46,000 pages of documents pertaining to Pope Pius’ papacy. 

“The letter is mere confirmation of something those of us who study Pius XII have known about for a long time,” Rychlak said. “The pope was not blind to the Nazi or Soviet atrocities, and he was trying to walk a very delicate tightrope, to make certain that what he did could alleviate pain, suffering and help bring an end to hostilities.” 

William Doino Jr., a contributor to Inside the Vatican who published an 80,000-word annotated bibliography on Pius XII in “The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII” (Lexington Books, $26.95), told OSV that the correspondence “reverses the usual accusation of (Pius XII) being silent.” 

“What this shows is that the Allies themselves didn’t want him to speak out, and you can argue whether it would have been prudent to do so,” Doino said. “The Allies, in fact, wanted him to speak out in a certain way, but when he said that he would speak out completely and honestly, they didn’t want it, and they moved very quickly to beg and plead with him not to do so.” 

“The information is incontrovertible,” Krupp said. “Pius XII was probably one of the greatest heroes of World War II.” 

Opening the archives 

But reaching such a conclusion is premature, said Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, an organization dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism and bigotry. 

He told OSV that the 1944 cable is an old, well-known document, and by itself does not make the case for Pope Pius. 

“You can’t distribute or release an out-of-context letter or document and make a global claim for it. This is an example of Pave the Way’s campaign of misinformation that makes a disservice to Catholic and Jewish scholars,” said Rabbi Greenberg, whose organization has called for the expeditious opening of the Vatican Secret Archives’ documents dating from 1939-46. 

“A conclusion on Pius XII shouldn’t be reached by either side until responsible scholars can study the archives and come to a reasonable historical conclusion,” he said. 

Several prominent Catholics, including New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, have called for the expeditious opening of the Vatican Secret Archives. 

Father John T. Pawlikowski, professor of social ethics at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and founding member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, has called for Pope Pius XII’s beatification to be put on hold until scholars can review all the documentation from his papacy. He advised taking a cautious approach to the diplomatic cable. 

“You don’t build a case or a picture from a single document,” Father Pawlikowski said. “For example, there are other documents that include a Polish ambassador in exile urging Pius XII to speak out. We also have evidence that the pope opposed some of the instrumental activities of his papal nuncios during the war. 

“If you want to disprove the argument that Pius XII was completely silent, then yes, this document does something, but it’s not necessarily the most relevant,” he said. “The real relevant question is: ‘What is expected of papal leadership in times of such crisis?’” 

John Cornwell, the British journalist and author whose controversial 1999 book, “Hitler’s Pope” (Penguin, $17), criticized Pope Pius XII for not speaking out against the Nazis and for being manipulated by Hitler, told OSV in an email that Allied requests for the pope not to protest the deportations of Jews in 1944 “should be contrasted and compared with Allied requests to the absolute contrary in the fall of 1942, when the deportations were first under way. 

“Through the services of the Church’s diplomatic corps, Pius could have done much to forewarn the Jews of the true aim of the deportations throughout occupied Europe, not least in France. It is difficult to understand — still less, defend — his failure in this,” he told OSV. 

Rychlak said he agrees that the 1944 document by itself “does not prove a whole lot,” but argued that it is wrong to suggest that anyone has to wait until the whole Vatican archives are available before reaching some conclusions on Pope Pius. 

“The evidence from the documentation that is already available, the sworn testimonies given by witnesses around the world, show that Pius XII did more than anyone else in setting the example for rescuers, comforting victims, standing strong against Nazi perpetrators,” Rychlak said. 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.