Reviewed by Michael Daniel
"Perhaps my solemn protest would have gained me the praise of the civilized world, but I would have brought on to the poor Jews a still more implacable persecution than the one they now suffer". (Pius XII to Fr Don Pizzo Scavizzi, Italian Field Chaplain, p. 111).
Extol the virtues of Pope Pius XII and someone is soon bound to object with the observation that he did nothing, not even raise a protest, to save the lives of the Jews during World War II.
Catholic writer and commentator Ralph McInerny challenges what has fast become a "sacred cow." This easy to read volume sets forth the main evidence for presenting a very different interpretation of Pius XII. Dr McInerney does so, listing examples of when Pius XII's personal interventions, or those of clergy, bishops and nuncios acting on his behalf, saved the lives of thousands of Jews.
The author introduces very little new material, instead, drawing from recent works such as those of Pierre Blet, and especially Pinchas Lapide's important study The Last Three Popes and the Jews.
The portrait that emerges is of a leader who did everything he could to save the lives of the Jews threatened with deportation and extermination. Contrary to outrageous claims that Pius XII was a Nazi sympathiser, the historical record demonstrates that from the first he was an opponent, recognising National Socialism's incompatibility with Christianity.
Pius XII's contribution to Mit Brennender Sorge, Pius XI's condemnation of Nazism, was integral. However, he realised that steps such as direct denunciations, rather than saving Jewish lives, only made the Nazis more eager to round and up deport them, as happened in the Netherlands. Here, following the Dutch Bishops' July 1942 denunciation of Nazi treatment of the Jews, the Nazis rounded up Catholics of Jewish origin, including Edith Stein.
Similarly, Pius XII rejected calls to excommunicate Hitler, having in mind that historical precedents, such as the excommunication of Elizabeth I, had served only to unleash persecution. He chose instead to channel his energies and Church resources into covert operations in which thousands were hidden in convents, monasteries and other Church facilities or spirited into neutral territories.
This is not to suggest that he said nothing. In fact, the Nazis were angered by his muted references to the treatment of minorities, for example in his 1942 Christmas messages.
However, when dealing with Axis satellite states such as Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Italy, where Pius XII realised that direct diplomatic pressure would secure tangible results, he consistently applied diplo- matic pressure which resulted in the saving of thousands of lives. Likewise, there are many documented instances of initiatives taken by local Catholics at the grassroots level with Pius XII's moral support.
McInerny concludes by arguing that, far from being maligned, Pius XII should be venerated as a hero. Citing figures from Lapide which suggest that there were some eight million Jews in Nazi-held territories, of whom six million were murdered, it is suggested Pius XII and the Catholic Church saved between 700,000 and 860,000 lives, that is, almost half of the Jews who escaped or survived the Holocaust.
The work ends by trying to determine the motive for defaming Pius XII, beginning with an examination of Rolf Hochhuth's play The Deputy. McInerny suggests this derived from anti-Catholic sentiment within society and dissent from within against the Church's teaching authority.
The book's main weaknesses are its pedestrian style and occasional poor proof-reading. However, while a largely derivative work, it is well documented.
Michael Daniel is a Melbourne secondary school teacher.