Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, has long been critical of Pope Pius XII, leader of the Catholic Church during World War II. Ignoring all the good work Pope Pius XII did and lives that he saved, Hier has accused the pope of shameful silence as 6 million Jews died. The most recent salvo came in the Washington Post’s“On Faith” blog in which Hier contrasted Pope Pius XII with his predecessor Pope Pius XI and argued that Pope Pius XII failed to carry through with a papal statement that might have lessened the suffering. Unfortunately, Hier is spreading out-of-date information.

The episode on which Hier focuses is the so-called “hidden encyclical” of Pope Pius XI. According to Hier, Pope Pius XI solicited an American Jesuit, Father John LaFarge, to write an encyclical condemning anti-Semitism. Father LaFarge wrote it, but Pope Pius XI died before it could be released. When Pope Pius XII took over, he decided not to release it. Hier argues that had Pope Pius XII not “hidden” this encyclical, much suffering could have been avoided.

Hitler’s propaganda

Hier’s account used to be commonly made by papal critics, but it is now known to be wrong. The true story is that Pope Pius XI asked for a paper from Father LaFarge, who in turn sought help from two other Jesuits, Fathers Gustav Gundlach from Germany and Gustave Desbuquois from France. This resulted in three different papers, one written in English, one in German, and one in French.

Although I have previously written otherwise, we now know that the LaFarge paper, which Hier praises, did indeed make it to Pope Pius XI before his death. We also know that he, not his successor, rejected the draft because it said that the Jews had brought the suffering they faced on themselves.

The LaFarge paper argued that the rejection of Christ by the Jews caused them “to perpetually wander over the face of the Earth.” It also made negative comments on Jews’ business ethics and morals. Had the Holy See published this document, it certainly would have played right into Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitic propaganda. Instead, Pope Pius XI wrote something to the effect of “I don’t want to use this” on the LaFarge paper, near the anti-Semitic section.

Without noting that Pope Pius XI rejected the LaFarge draft, Hier writes: “Mysteriously, the document soon disappeared and not another word was heard about it until the National Catholic Reporter broke the story some 43 years later.” That constitutes more bad information.

Slap at Nazis

When Pope Pius XII became pope, he agreed that the anti-Semitic portion of the LaFarge draft could not be used, but, working with Father Gundlach, he drafted a new encyclical that drew heavily on Father LaFarge’s earlier work. The New York Times even reported on the connection between the two documents at the time. The encyclical, Summi Pontificatus, was released on Oct. 20, 1939 (just weeks after the outbreak of World War II). In it, Pope Pius XII condemned racists and dictators, and he urged the restoring of Poland, which Germany had just invaded. In a clear slap at Nazi racial theory, he quoted Scripture to explain that within the Church all people were the same; there was “neither Gentile nor Jew.”

The New York Times wrote: “It is Germany that stands condemned above any country or any movement in this encyclical.” German officials complained bitterly. The American Israelite magazine called the encyclical a “denunciation of Nazism.” Later, French planes dropped 88,000 copies of it over Germany in a propaganda battle. Hier mentions none of this.

Rabbi Hier made other serious mistakes in his short piece. For instance, he said that Pope Pius XI did not protest when the Germans passed the first anti-Semitic laws in 1933 or when the Nuremberg Laws were passed in 1935. In reality, Vatican Radio and the Vatican newspaper carried numerous critical stories, diplomats filed formal protests, and Pope Pius took action, doing things like having Vatican institutions hire ousted Jewish professionals.

It is too bad that Rabbi Hier is spreading old stories that tend to drive Catholics and Jews apart. When one writes on the topic like this from a position of influence (as Rabbi Hier certainly has) he owes it to the reader to be well informed. Rabbi Hier isn’t.

Ronald J. Rychlak is the author of “Hitler, the War, and the Pope, Revised and Expanded” (OSV, $29.95) and a panelist for the Washington Post’s “On Faith.