COMMENTARY: A Professor’s Fresh Look at Pope Pius XII

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

(Eugene Kennedy, a longtime observer of the Roman Catholic Church, is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author most recently of “My Brother Joseph,” published by St. Martin’s Press.)

(UNDATED) Pope Pius XII has become the ecclesiastical counterpart of the actor Eric von Stroheim. Because of his bristling portrayals of villains, the latter became known as “the man you love to hate.”

Even such an ardent defender of the faith as English historian Paul Johnson, a conservative Catholic, judged Pius XII harshly. In his “A History of Christianity,” he concludes that the pope failed to rally Catholics against Hitler and when he finally condemned Nazism in “June 1945, the Germans had surrendered and Hitler was safely dead.”

Indeed, after 40 years of almost uninterrupted criticism, symbolized in the play “The Deputy” in which Pius is explicitly faulted for failing to save the Jews from extermination, the readily accepted sophisticated opinion is that the wartime pope never surrendered the sympathy for Germany that he acquired when he was Vatican representative to that country and that even the long-term solvents of history will never remove the stain on his honor.

Many Catholics lower their eyes and accept this judgment as final, saying, in essence, isn’t it too bad that Pius XII failed at a moment of supreme moral challenge? This was particularly true last year when the English journalist John Cornwell published “Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII,” excerpts of which appeared in glossy magazines while he rode the sensationalism circuit, including “60 Minutes,” suggesting that the only attitude Catholics can have about Pius is “sincere regret.”

Now, a brave man and a careful scholar, Ronald Rychlak, professor at the University of Mississippi Law School, has published “Hitler, the War and the Pope,” in which he examines and dismisses the one-sided case that has become the liberal populist myth about Pius XII.

In a telephone conversation, Rychlak, who is not Catholic, told me that several years ago a colleague’s remark that Pius XII “was a Nazi” stirred his interest in the matter and six years ago he began his research. Although it was out of his field, he felt that the “real issue here is justice. He was a good man who did everything he could after he was caught up in a horrible situation.”

Rychlak did extensive research in Rome and concluded that, in the circumstances, about which we can, from a safe distance, confidently and perhaps smugly moralize, “the pope did everything he could _ he tried to stop the war, he cooperated in an attempted coup, he passed messages along _ everything he did points to a right-minded man.”

While documenting a fresh look at Pius XII, Rychlak also examines the claims that Cornwell, who is a Catholic, made in such a gaudy fashion last year. The journalist, he finds, uses one example, of a rabbi denied an audience, to prove that Pius was indifferent if not anti-Semitic. Cornwell selectively omits the audience arranged for the rabbi with the Vatican secretary of state and does not cite the rabbi’s long letter of gratitude to the pope for making this possible.

Cornwell patches together his charge that anti-Semitism “permeated” Pius’ life from similar bits and scraps, such as comments by underlings while Pius served in Germany, while ignoring the many documents from the same era, such as the 1916 Roman condemnation of anti-Semitism in Poland and the eloquence of the future pope, then Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli, against this same scourge.

His most pointed reappraisal is of Cornwell’s statement that, after examining the thousand-page depositions of several people who knew or worked with Pius XII, he “left in a state of shock,” implying that what he had read proved beyond a doubt the pope’s anti-Semitism.

Rychlak, however, visited the same archive and checked Cornwell’s supposed citations from these sworn statements.

“There was not a single point,” Rychlak says, “that referred to anti-Semitism. There was not a single bad statement about the pope.”

Rychlak exposes Cornwell’s techniques as those of the magician who distracts us with his colorful conversation while engineering an illusion of historical research.

“The sad thing,” Rychlak observes, is “how well Cornwell’s book sold. Yet it is a book filled with personal interpretations and interpolations that is terribly unfair to Pius XII.”

Rychlak’s careful book, as complete as a lawyer’s brief, will prompt readers to re-examine the charges now worked into the grain of culture against Pius XII and the politically correct opinion of him as a near-Nazi.

You would think that this would get at least as much attention as Cornwell did when he heaved his Molotov cocktail of charges at the late Pius XII.

But what do you think the odds are that professor Rychlak’s refreshing work will be excerpted in “Vanity Fair” or that he will be invited to appear on “60 Minutes”?


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