1943: Grievances against the Holy See


During February, the Eighth Army realized that local German advances in Tunisia signaled that no jejeune horoscope could be trusted. Rommel’s progress and the shock of the Battle of the Kasserine Pass were sobering to Allied forces, especially the newly minted American troops. The Nazis had a new dose of adrenalin, and Joseph Goebbels declared a “Total War” against the Allies five days later on February 18, the same day that members of the anti-Nazi youth group, the “White Rose” movement, were arrested.

Communist parties had been illegal through most of Europe before 1939. The Soviet Union gradually entered international politics as Germany withdrew into itself, and by 1941, Holland, Belgium, and Yugoslavia had diplomatic representatives in Moscow. Molotov’s pact with Hitler in 1939 was as cynical as the Russian-German treaty of Rapallo had been in 1922. All that was now overthrown by the decision of Reich leaders to justify National Socialism in the eyes of the church as an anti-Bolshevik crusade. When Finland succumbed to that posture, its minister to the Holy See was recalled to Helsinki.


From the United States, Archbishop Francis Spellman kept close communications with the Vatican Secretariat of State, which he had served as the first American attaché beginning in 1925. He had first met Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, soon to be Pope Pius XII, on a mission in Germany in 1927. Archbishop Spellman’s superior in Boston, the imperious William Cardinal O’Connell, looked down on his diminutive auxiliary bishop in every way: Archbishop Spellman was “what you get when you teach a bookkeeper how to read.” Pope Pius XII thought differently. In this month of February, after the first major American offensive in the Pacific war had secured Guadalcanal, Archbishop Spellman made a “social visit” to President Franklin Roosevelt before leaving for Rome. As Under-Secretary of the Navy during the First World War, Roosevelt had twice rejected Spellman’s request to be exempted from the height requirement for a naval chaplaincy. Roosevelt now told the press that the archbishop was traveling on “ecclesiastical business, arising out of his connection with the American Forces as chaplain-in-chief.”

The Soviets lost the Third Battle of Kharkov on February 16, and the Americans took the Russell Islands, part of the Solomon chain, five days later. In between, on February 17, Archbishop Spellman arrived in Barcelona and, for stated reasons of bad weather, did not proceed to Rome until three days later, where he was received by the pope that evening, and again on February 21 and 22. While in Spain, the New York prelate had called on General Francisco Franco at the El Pardo Palace and the foreign minister, Count Jordana. His was accompanied by the U.S. ambassador, Carlton J. Hayes.

In Washington, Cordell Hull told the press that he did not know the reason for Archbishop Spellman’s trip. The Vatican, confirming Roosevelt’s explanation, said that he was visiting U.S. chaplains in Europe, as well as North Africa and England. According to the Lateran treaty, Italy had granted the right of passage only to regularly accredited Vatican diplomats and cardinals. The archbishop was not a diplomat and not yet a cardinal, and so the Italian government granted him passage as a “special courtesy.” The Brooklyn Eagle wildly speculated that Archbishop Spellman was arranging the departure of the pope for South America.

In these same February weeks,
a Flemish-language broadcaster from Friesland, Ward Hermans, announced over the wireless in response to the Church’s opposition to forced labor:

Their Most Exalted and Most Revered Eminences the Bishops of Belgium recently issued a Pastoral Letter purporting to speak for all workers coming under the labor conscription who have left to work in Germany. They talk of distress, compulsion and the like. Now, there are large numbers of workers who came voluntarily, immediately after the capitulation, just to earn a decent living. They never had an encouragement from the Church, and still they came. . . . Perhaps those in high places knew nothing of the true conditions of the people, but when millions are writing truth in letters of blood, others, however exalted their station, have no right to lie, high up on their pinnacles.

In a similar vein, the Flemish journal De SS Man of February 6 wrote: “Whatever Flemish disease you examine, you always find that the rottenness of the Belgian school organization is the root of the trouble . . . . We mean the numerous schools belonging to all kinds of priests and padres and brothers and nuns, which are the fortresses of their politics.” The same newspaper claimed that “every time they see a plane, the nuns at Melgesdreef school , at Merxem, say a lightning prayer that the Germans may crash to the ground.”

In what used to be Occupied and Unoccupied France, Emmanuel Cardinal Suhard and Pierre-Marie Cardinal Gerlier presided over meetings of bishops in early February. Cardinal Suhard, having had two audiences with the Holy Father, wrote in a pastoral Letter that the pope was well aware of conditions in France. He expressed concern for French prisoners of war and for the clergy shortage, commending the extra-diocesan seminary at Lisieux, which was supplying priests to any part of the country. In the same week, Rev. Paul Doncoeur, S.J., the national French leader of the Catholic Boy Scouts Movement, was arrested by the Germans. Father Doncoeur had been a leader in the liturgical movement animated by the studies of Lambert Beauduin, Aime-Georges Martimort, Henri de Lubac, and Louis Bouyer. Father Doncoeur used the Boy Scouts as a laboratory for some of the attempts at liturgical renewal and lay evangelization. He survived arrest, dying in 1961. After the war, he was a technical consultant for the 1948 film Joan of Arc with Ingrid Bergman.

The Journal de Genève disclosed that in October the Vatican had received a list of complaints from Germany. First, Nationalist-Socialist leaders had been offended that the pope left Rome when Hitler visited. The last grievance was about the Catholic chaplains among the Polish troops in Russia. The complaints would cease and all would be “forgotten” if the Holy See would temper its ways.

The new “Physicians Chamber” established in Holland was taking strides toward a comprehensive government health care plan under the direction of a board including Dr. K. Keijer, who wrote in Het Nationale Dagblad:

With that quiet self-confidence which emanates from our outlook on life, calmly but with the stubbornness we have acquired in the ten years’ struggle for our world outlook, we shall take measures against anyone who impedes the National-Socialist medical program which we have formulated for the Netherlands. Nothing less than the health of our people is at stake, and in the future we shall tolerate no irresponsible experiments in this sphere . . . . Again, but now for the last time, I invite all those in the health services to co-operate, while I on my part am quite willing to overlook mistakes which they have made in the past.

In Vol en Vaderland, an annoyed correspondent signed P. C. Roo wrote: “The Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches have used the German idea of sterilization as a weapon to fight National-Socialism on theological grounds. They consider it unnatural and therefore unpermissible.”

As the life of the mind perdures in its arts, whatever the circumstances, in The Burlington Magazine, Dr. Jacob Hess gave his opinion that the statue in the church of S. Gregorio Magno on the Caelian Hill in front of the Palatine, long believed to be that of St. Gregory the Great, was Michelangelo’s long-lost sculpture of Pope Julius II. Michelangelo had not finished it, and it had been altered to represent St. Gregory by the French sculptor Nicolas Cordier, who died in 1612. Hess had fled Germany’s anti-Semitic statutes for Rome in 1934, where a small grant from the Vatican Library enabled him to edit the Vite of Giovanni Baglione. Fleeing Italy in 1939, he continued his research in London at the Warburg Institute. Interned in Britain as a German in 1940, he returned after the war to Rome. Hess received reparations from the German government in 1950, and in 1953 a Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft funded his work. His house, the Villa Ostia, became a center for the study of baroque art until his death in 1969 at the age of 84.

Cordier, Hess maintained, had been free to revise the Michelangelo work, because the scruples of the Counter-Reformation Curia had considered the Master somewhat less than respectable. Scruples were less demanding in Auschwitz, whose commandant, Asmus von Troschke, a notorious torturer, was appointed by the German high command as curator of the historical monuments of Cracow “for the sake of art and culture.”

Fr. George W. Rutler


Fr. George W. Rutler is pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. He is the author of many books including Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press) and Hints of Heaven (Sophia Institute Press). His latest books are He Spoke To Us (Ignatius, 2016); The Stories of Hymns (EWTN Publishing, 2017); and Calm in Chaos (Ignatius, 2018).

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