Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican recently ignited a firestorm with some fairly innocuous remarks about the sheltering of Jews in Italian Catholic institutions during the World War II Nazi occupation. 

“It would be an error to declare that the Catholic Church, the Vatican or [Pope Pius XII] himself opposed actions aimed at saving Jews,” Mordechai Lewy said at a ceremony to award a “Righteous of the Nations” medal in honor of Father Gaetano Piccinini, one of the Italians who sheltered Jews. “The contrary is actually true: They helped wherever they could.” 

In fact, not even the most virulent modern-day critics of Pope Pius XII or the Vatican’s role during World War II dispute that many Catholic institutions in Italy — schools, convents, universities, Vatican City State and even the pope’s summer residence outside Rome at Castel Gandolfo — sheltered Jews from the Nazi military occupation force, particularly after a Nazi sweep of Rome’s ghetto on Oct. 16, 1943, that rounded up more than 1,000 Jews to be sent to concentration camps. 

One Jewish historian and diplomat, Pinchas Lapide, famously estimated that the Catholic Church in Europe, with the support of Pius XII, “saved at least 700,000 but probably as many as 860,000 Jews” from death at the hands of the Nazis. While the size of his numbers have been disputed by other historians, no one denies that Catholic institutions sheltered and protected many tens of thousands. Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty, the Irish priest and Vatican official portrayed by Gregory Peck in the 1983 movie, “The Scarlet and the Black,” alone is credited with saving the lives of 6,500 Jews and Allied soldiers. If the pope had been opposed to actions aimed at saving the Jews, many of these lives would have been lost. 

Nevertheless, Lewy’s mild remarks proved controversial. 

Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, said Lewy had obscured the “glaring failure” of Pope Pius with the praiseworthy actions of some Catholics. Efraim Zuroff, of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said Lewy’s comments “were particularly unfortunate” because “there is a strong basis to believe that [Pius’] record leaves much to be desired.” 

While this is the conventional view of many commentators, a tremendous amount of research (see “Hitler, the War and the Pope,” by Ronald J. Rychlak) suggests that Pius was an obstinate foe of Nazism who at the same time sought to protect both Jews and Christians from greater retaliation. 

One can make the honest argument that the pope should have been more outspoken, even despite the threat of Nazi invasion of the Vatican or of fueling retaliatory strikes in other parts of Europe. (And one can just as honestly make the counterargument.) According to accounts, this was a prudential judgment that wore heavily on the pope. 

One can also call for more historical research, and greater access to wartime archives like those at the Vatican, as many of Pope Pius’ critics do. (Though dozens of volumes of Vatican records are already available, and very few researchers reportedly have consulted them.) 

What we can say now is that, after ordering a review of unpublished Vatican archival material, Pope Benedict XVI asserted in a booklength interview last year that Pope Pius “was one of the great righteous men and ... saved more Jews than anyone else.” 

That’s a very strong claim that future impartial historical investigation must verify. But this much is certain: One cannot argue credibly — or without offense to the integrity of historical record — that Pope Pius was indifferent to the plight of the Jews or simply looked passively on.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.