It sounds like the plot of a Hollywood movie: KGB agents work covertly to bring down a dreaded foe, in this case the Catholic Church.
Rather than using a poison-tipped umbrella or a gun hidden in a camera, the agents use a far mightier weapon: the pen.
Through a work of fiction, they accuse a pope of not doing enough to help people during one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century, and, unfortunately, those accusations stick.
According to a newly revised book, this is not a movie plot; it’s real. In the second edition of his book “Hitler, the War and the Pope” (OSV, $29.95), to be released later this spring, Ronald J. Rychlak, a law professor at the University of Mississippi, presents evidence of such a plot to discredit Pope Pius XII by casting doubts on his efforts to help Jews during World War II.
In his work, Rychlak also updates readers on newly discovered details of Venerable Pope Pius’ efforts on behalf of Jews dating back to before the start of the war.
Rychlak sat down with OSV recently to discuss his research, efforts to slow down the pontiff’s sainthood cause and the possible motivation for criticism of Pope Pius.
Our Sunday Visitor: What drew you to research accusations against Pope Pius XII?
Ronald J. Rychlak: My initial interest developed really when a colleague said to me one day, “You know the pope was a Nazi.” I didn’t really know about the accusation at all. I thought he was talking about Pope John Paul II, who was pope at the time.
I went to the public library, got a book, came back the next day and said, “Look, he was slave labor.” And my friend said, “No, the guy who was pope back then.”
I’m embarrassed to say I had to look that up and found it was Pope Pius XII. And I found a book that I thought would answer my questions, but it didn’t. It said he provided ambiguous leadership. And soon I was at the university library, and I found a book that he said he was the greatest defender of the Jews of anybody, and I found another one that said he did nothing and was culpable with the Nazis. There was something very interesting about that that drew me into the story and years of research.
OSV: And after all of your research, were you able to convince your friend that Pope Pius was not a Nazi?
Rychlak: Yes, ultimately, by the time I finished my book; in fact, even before it was finished, I had convinced [my friend] George. And whenever there’s a low point along the way, my wife consoles me by reminding me I convinced George, which was my initial objective.
OSV: It’s been a decade since your book first came out. Why did you decide it was time to release a new edition of “Hitler, the War, and the Pope?”
Rychlak: We have 10 years of new evidence in the interim. We have a letter from Pope Pius, back before he was pope, in 1923 warning Rome about this new guy Hitler, who was emerging.
We’ve found a letter written in 1934 talking about how the pope was already intervening, written on behalf of Jewish victims. We found letters written by the pope that were cover letters with money to help Jewish victims of the Nazis. So, there’s a lot of new evidence that we found.
There’s also a significant new argument in this book about a Soviet plot to discredit the Catholic Church by advancing this theory of Hitler’s pope through a play back in the 1960s.
OSV: That was “The Deputy,” right?
Rychlak: That’s right. It ran on Broadway for about a year in 1964.
You’ve got to understand that Pope Pius XII — during the war, after the war, at the time of his death — was cited by the rescuers as their inspiration. He was despised by the Nazis, and he was credited by the victims for what he did on their behalf. We didn’t have this controversy of what he stood for. It wasn’t even an issue.
Then a play is written in 1963. It’s produced in Germany; in 1964, it’s produced on Broadway. And a fictional play — it doesn’t claim to be historically precise — somehow changed everything dramatically. There’s no comparable situation in history where a fictional piece of literature changes a historical perspective the way it did.
So people wondered why, how; there are books written about it. Then, in 2007, a former intelligence officer — in fact, the highest-ranking Soviet bloc officer ever to defect to the West — wrote an article in which he explained this was, indeed, a KGB plot. That the play, “The Deputy,” was crafted by Soviet officials who were expert in crafting false histories. That the play was produced by a producer in Germany who produced plays at the request of the Communist Party. It was published in America by a publisher who announced proudly that communism was his religion. It was produced on Broadway by the only producer at the time who actively recruited from the communist newspapers and had, in fact, been sanctioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
There’s a long litany of pieces that once you look at how this came together, suddenly, it all starts to make sense in a way it never made sense before.
No one has ever taken a comprehensive look at this, so this is a significant new chapter in the evolution in the understanding of Pius XII, and it’s a new chapter in my book as well.
OSV: Is there anything else in the book that updates the debate about Pope Pius?
Rychlak: The first edition of “Hitler, the War, and the Pope” answered John Cornwell’s book “Hitler’s Pope.” It came out right on its heels; we had a significant epilogue. Many people, including, I’m proud to say, the historians at the Vatican in their report on Pope Pius XII for sainthood, cited that epilogue as the definitive response to Cornwell’s “Hitler’s Pope.” They also cite some of my other work as a definitive response to other critics, which is a great honor.
We brought that all into this book and have made a very conscious effort to make sure if a reader has read a book [critical of Pope Pius] — and there’s a slew of them that have come out in the last decade; I think many of them were motivated by trying to change the Catholic Church and maybe help direct the selection of the next pope, which they were unsuccessful at doing — we try to address every [accusation] in this second edition.
So, if you’ve read one of these books and there’s some issue nagging at you, the second edition of “Hitler, the War, and the Pope” has an answer for you. And the answer, by the way, is well researched, heavily footnoted and well documented in every case.
OSV: A recent letter from a group of Catholic scholars asked Pope Benedict XVI to slow down Pope Pius’ sainthood cause. What do you make of that letter?
Rychlak: I wrote Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, because he was copied on the letter, and said, “Look, these folks are making political judgments; they’re not acting as scholars.”
What they’re saying is that the Church should hold off making a decision until the archives are opened, and the archives may well be opened within five years, or the important archives anyway.
The thing they’re overlooking is that the scholars who matter, the historians at the Congregation of Saints’ Causes, have been in those archives.
Addressing their arguments on the merits, let me say this:
There are documents out there that show Pius XII to have done good stuff. If there were documents that showed other things, they would turn up in archives of other entities. They are not there.
I think this is more of a politically motivated move than really an academic move.
OSV: Will you continue to research Pope Pius XII?
Rychlak: I imagine I will, because it seems like there is constantly some new issue. It’s endlessly fascinating.
There are ancillary issues that develop regarding other personalities from this era: Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, all of whom were important during the Nazi era and beyond.
The Catholic faith is so rich, and the Church history is so wonderful, that there’s always something more to learn and something more to know about and a new good book to read.
Sarah Hayes is OSV’s presentation editor.