Honesty is the best policy—at least for us mere mortals who have to live with our neighbors and friends in ordinary relationships. For politicians and intellectuals, however, lies, particularly “big” lies, have spectacular benefits.
In the twilight of the Clinton years, it takes a really big lie to make us sit up and take notice. We’ve gotten used to a regular diet of whoppers. But self-pro-claimed historian John Cornwell has made a splash with his accusations that Pius XII was “Hitler’s pope” in his book by that name and in an excerpt in the October 1999 issue of Vanity Fair. Crisis readers probably do not read Vanity Fair. As its name suggests, it’s not the weightiest of publications. In addition, the glossy ads display an engagement with the seven deadly sins, which makes it is doubtful how much Vanity Fair editors or readers are in a position to judge Pius XII.
Vanity Fair excerpts Hitler’s Pope, however, because of certain affinities. Cornwell repeats charges others have made in recent years but with a new twist. He sees Pius as the arch-centralizer of papal power in the pre-Vatican II Church. According to Cornwell, Pius liked authoritarianism, so he didn’t mind the Nazis and their attitudes about Jews, just as long as he could use them against the godless Bolsheviks and other threats to Christian civilization. The implication is clear: Preconciliar papal Catholicism—and those who admire and perpetuate it today like John Paul II—are, if not Nazis, working toward similar ends. Vanity Fair readers can, therefore, tranquilly think themselves superior to the Church.
As this controversy arose, I happened to be reading the late Jesuit Robert A. Graham’s The Vatican and Nazism for a book I am writing about 20th-century martyrs. In the course of my work, I have been struck that one of the first things murderous regimes try to do is break the local church off from its ties with the Vatican. What they all want—as the Communist Chinese do to this day—is a patriotic Catholic Church whose primary loyalty is to the regime and local mores. Connection with Rome, as realistic tyrants understand, does not mean mere loyalty to a competing authority but a belief in things like natural law and universal norms of justice that thwart totalitarian self-indulgence. Even before the persecutions, holocausts, and martyrdoms, those beliefs were at the core of the conflict between the German Church and Nazism.
Fr. Graham makes short work of the primary charge that Pius had secret sympathies for Nazism because he thought it might help the Church: “If true, it would mean that Pius XII did not know what everyone else knew and that, instead of taking care of his direct responsibilities as protector of the universal Church, he gave priority to extraneous matters like the Communist peril and the future of the Ger-man people, besides overlooking the destiny that the Nazis had reserved for the Church after their victory?’
Many of Pius’s critics seem to have a vested interest in believing that his “rabid” anticommunism drove his supposed sympathy for Nazism. According to Fr. Graham, we have no firsthand evidence of this alleged anti-communist phobia (the critics never tell us, incidentally, what would have been the proper degree of fear toward a Soviet dictatorship that killed more innocent people than any other in human history). The half-dozen references to Pius’s stance that do exist come second- or third-hand from people who wanted to use the pope for propaganda or other purposes.
For example, Ernst von Weizsaecker, the Reich’s ambassador to the Vatican from 1943 to 1945, wanted the Vatican and Germany to make common cause against communism. But he never gave any direct evidence that Pius XII had similar inclinations to Berlin, which would have had a propaganda field day with such information. Indeed, Pius privately described the Nazis as “diabolical”—a word popes use advisedly.
Graham’s book, based on a careful study of the diplomatic archives of the Vatican and the Reich, appeared almost 20 years ago but almost never surfaces in the current debate. Instead, writers like Cornwell give the impression of impartiality while subtly editorializing. For example, although Cornwell acknowledges that Rome’s Jewish leaders praised and thanked Pius, he says we must also give weight to voices such as that of a Jewish woman who was rounded up by the Germans and claims that the pope did nothing to save Jews. Cornwell conveniently omits that more than merely thanking Pius, the head rabbi of Rome and his wife became Catholics after the war, both taking the pope’s own name, Eugene, as their baptismal names out of gratitude for his rescue work.
The Church, which has weathered worse slanders against the papacy and the actual corruption of the Borgias, will survive this. But in the meantime the spirit of untruth can do great harm. One of the stated aims of the Nazis was to drive a wedge between traditional Christians, with their non-Aryan attachment to the Old Testament, and the Jews. The intent was that new Christians who emerged after this operation would practice “positive Christianity,” a religion of joy freed from Semitic notions of sin and the need for humility before God. Ironically, those who write books like Hitler’s Pope carry on that very work.