In dire days of the last dark world war, one man said after a papal audience: "Pius XII judges everything from a perspective that surpasses human beings, their undertakings and their quarrels. . . . Pious, compassionate, political — such does this pontiff and sovereign appear to me because of the respect that he inspires in me." That was the assessment of General Charles de Gaulle, who was thrifty in his praise of men. To the outrage of the Vichy government, the pope had received him as head of the new provisional government in June of 1944, even before the liberation of France.
As a child, Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli was moved when an uncle told him of a missionary who been crucified. He said that he wanted to be a martyr but "without the nails." The man the child became learned that there are different kinds of crucifixions and various sorts of nails, and he suffered in untold ways in a tortured world, bearing witness to the words of the Prince of the Apostles:
Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that be the will of God, than for doing evil (1 Pet 3:15-17).
His crucifixion without nails began when the mannerly diplomat met face-to-face with Evil, who has two faces and hides one. Through trials Pacelli learned that the strengths of diplomacy can weaken the apostle, which is why the only one of the Twelve to destroy himself was all diplomat and no apostle. Forged in earnestness by Pius XI, who was no friend to subtlety, Pacelli constantly mortified his aesthetic desire to imagine things that should be as if they were.
He was consecrated a bishop on the day the Mother of God first appeared at Fatima with her prediction of calamities. He knew that optimism as a wish is not hope as a virtue, and that the spiritual combat is not without paradoxes. While his papal coat of arms showed a dove with an olive branch, he instructed the halberded Swiss Guard during the Nazi occupation of Rome to carry machine guns. With bags packed should he be dragged away in a venerable tradition from Maximinus to Napoleon, he marked the line between bravery and bravado and martialed prudence to save lives when impetuousness would have cost more. The Chief Rabbi of Romania said in the exhausted year of 1945: "The Catholic Church saved more Jewish lives during the war than all other churches, religious institutions and rescue organizations put together. Its record stands in startling contrast to the International Red Cross and the Western Democracies . . . ."
The faulty architecture of human history is postwar and prewar at the same time. Pius XII never doubted that, after a hot war, a cold war would be long. Jozsef Cardinal Mindszenty was a symbol of the affliction of a new darkness, and the pope defended him with an uncompromising zeal that sustained the cardinal in later years when he felt bereft. The pope was satisfied that tyrants should die and closely followed attempts on the life of Hitler. As an incarnation of the tradition of immutable natural law, he concisely explained capital punishment: "Even in the case of the death penalty the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. Rather, public authority limits itself to depriving the offender of the good of life in expiation for his guilt, after he, through his crime, deprived himself of his own right to life." His simultaneous impulse of mercy could be startling, as when he twice pleaded for clemency for the convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg — and, in an unprecedented act, published his appeals to President Eisenhower in L’Osservatore Romano.
It is dangerous to play Monday-morning quarterback when taking the measure of a man’s soul. In American-Indian lore, you can only know a man if you have walked in his moccasins. With a pope, this means walking in the Shoes of the Fisherman, and only a pope can do that. His was a rare voice in a world of immoral silence. Today that silence is deafening in those same institutions that, in those war years, ignored the progress of evil: the universities, the media, and the courts. No one who lives is subhuman: no baby, however young, and no invalid, however old. To say that in our generation is to indict the academics, journalists, and jurists who stammer when the voice of God calls out, as in Eden: "Where are you?"
Rev. George W. Rutler is the pastor of the Church of our Saviour
in New York City. His latest book, Coincidentally: Unserious Reflections on Trivial Connections, is available from Crossroads Publishing.