Vatican City, December 1942. As war rages across the globe, Pope Pius XII prepares to deliver his annual Christmas message. It is perhaps the most important public address he will ever give - and that's why the Pontiff faces the starkest dilemma of his reign. For months beforehand evidence has been growing of a vast, organised genocide of Jews and other races in German-occupied lands. Now the Vatican is coming under increasing pressure to speak out against Nazi atrocities. In private audiences, the British and American ambassadors to the Holy See urge Pius to show moral leadership by explicitly attacking Hitler in his Christmas message. Yet Pius is reluctant to specifically condemn the Holocaust. He is concerned that speaking out risks making things worse. As Pius writes and discards draft after draft of the message, it becomes clear that there are other factors to explain his ambivalence. Europe's future seems to hang in the balance between Nazism and Bolshevism, and it is the latter ideology that he most fears. (1)
The Saturday play on Radio 4 was a fascinating and brilliant look at a moral dilemma. It was set in a murky period in the Church's history, when the British and Americans ambassadors - Sir Francis Osborne (played by Nick Dunning both) and Harold Tittman (Stuart Milligan) wanted Pope Pius to speak out more forcefully about the Nazi treatment of the Jews. One of the the arguments made by the Pope (Hugh Ross) in the play was that he had to be seen to be even-handed with speaking out on issues of justice, and the British bombing of innocent civilians, for example, would also have to be the subject of his talk if he was to speak out forcefully. He argued that to speak out against wartime atrocities in specific detail would mean he would have to speak of the atrocities also committed by the Allies and the Russians. His housekeeper, Mother Pasqualina, fretful over his health, thought he was doing right because he was the Holy Father.
But meanwhile, he is troubled when praying in solitary places by the appearance of a Carmelite nun, Sister Teresia Benedicta, who chides him for not doing enough for the Jews, and whom he asks Monsignor Tardini to find out details. Her appearances are always when he is alone, and the listener is never quite sure whether she is really there or some kind of vision, but she haunts his meditations, asking him to speak out. Yet she has written to the Pope in 1933, when she was forced to resign her post at Münster because of anti-Semitic legislation brought in by the Nazis, and she questions the Pope about why he did not speak out.
As a child of the Jewish people who, by the grace of God, for the past eleven years has also been a child of the Catholic Church, I dare to speak to the Father of Christianity about that which oppresses millions of Germans. For weeks we have seen deeds perpetrated in Germany which mock any sense of justice and humanity, not to mention love of neighbor. For years the leaders of National Socialism have been preaching hatred of the Jews. But the responsibility must fall, after all, on those who brought them to this point and it also falls on those who keep silent in the face of such happenings. Everything that happened and continues to happen on a daily basis originates with a government that calls itself "Christian." For weeks not only Jews but also thousands of faithful Catholics in Germany, and, I believe, all over the world, have been waiting and hoping for the Church of Christ to raise its voice to put a stop to this abuse of Christ's name.(6)
Later, after his Christmas speech - the title of the play - he is devastated by her appearance, her gaunt emaciated figure, her hair shaven, and her ragged clothing. This last appearance, which turns out to be a dream, is her final one. Monsignor Tardini has found out who she was - she was Saint Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, sometimes also known as Saint Edith Stein, a German-Jewish philosopher, who had become a Catholic nun, who had died in the concentration camps for being Jewish.
Ironically, she had fled to the Netherlands, where the the Dutch Bishops' Conference had taken very much the stand that Pius XII had been requested to take. They had ordered a public statement to be read in all the churches of the country on July 20, 1942, condemning Nazi racism. On July 26, 1942, the Reichskommissar of the Netherlands, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, ordered the arrest of all Jewish converts, who had previously been spared, as an act of retaliation for speaking out, and she had been arrested and taken to Auschwitz concentration camp where she was gassed on August 9, 1942, along with her sister Rosa, also a convert. As the Jewish historian Pinchas Lapide sums up:
"The saddest and most thought provoking conclusion is that whilst the Catholic clergy of Holland protested more loudly, expressly and frequently against Jewish persecutions than the religious hierarchy of any other Nazi-occupied country, more Jews - some 11,000 or 79% of the total - were deported from Holland; more than anywhere else in the West."(2)
How does one speak truth to power, when the power in question is capable of marginalising you and retaliating? This is the theme of the play, and it is as pertinent today as it was then. Should one be confrontational, like the Dutch Bishops, or are there other actions which might actually do more good, even if they are seen as being silent in the face of injustice? The question of dealings with China has cropped up, and the morality of doing business with a regime which has a very poor record on human rights. But has America such a good record itself with a foreign policy real politick often designed to protect American interests, rather than justice, and which suspected terrorists can be abducted and tortured? Is Britain so innocent, with a major export being arms sales, nor to terrorists, but often to despotic Middle Eastern regimes?
But this was 1942, and by 1943, the Nazis were on the point of invading the Vatican. Italy had been invaded, and Pius was faced with the choice of how to act when the Nazis could, at any time, take over the Vatican. There is a signed deposition from General Karl Wolff, SS commander for Italy and deputy to Heinrich Himmler, "which states that in September 1943 Adolf Hitler ordered him to develop a plan to invade the Vatican, kidnap the Pope, seize the Vatican assets, and kill the Roman Curia. This plan was to be carried out immediately." The Pope was aware of this, and had made contingency plans, but it meant that any speaking out would risk losing all. Instead, the Vatican moved behind the scenes to save as many Jews as they could.
On September 8, 1943, the Nazis invaded Italy and, suddenly, the Vatican was the local authority. The Nazis gave the Jews 36 hours to come up with 50 kilograms of gold or else the Nazis would take 300 hostages. The Vatican was willing to loan 15 kilos, an offer that eventually proved unnecessary when the Jews obtained an extension for the delivery. Pius XII knew that Jewish deportations from Italy were impending. The Vatican even found out from SS First Lieutenant Kurt Gerstein the fate of those who were to be deported. Publicly, the Pope stayed silent. Privately, Pius did instruct Catholic institutions to take in Jews. The Vatican itself hid 477 Jews and another 4,238 Jews were protected in Roman monasteries and convents.(3)
The Israeli consul, Pinchas E. Lapide, in his 1967 book, commented that: ""Any words of Pius XII, directed against a madman like Hitler, would have brought on an even worse catastrophe... [and] accelerated the massacre of Jews and priests."
But could the Pope have done more? He had seen how speaking out against the Nazis provoked reactions, and perhaps thought that he could do more without losing his authority and being directly confrontational. He was also well aware that the Soviet forces, if they overran Europe, would also have a policy of exterminating Christianity, as he had seen since the Russian revolution:
The Pope's reaction to the Holocaust was complex and inconsistent. At times, he tried to help the Jews and was successful. But these successes only highlight the amount of influence he might have had, if he not chosen to remain silent on so many other occasions. No one knows for sure the motives behind Pius XII's actions, or lack thereof, since the Vatican archives have only been fully opened to select researchers. Historians offer many reasons why Pope Pius XII was not a stronger public advocate for the Jews: A fear of Nazi reprisals, a feeling that public speech would have no effect and might harm the Jews, the idea that private intervention could accomplish more, the anxiety that acting against the German government could provoke a schism among German Catholics, the church's traditional role of being politically neutral and the fear of the growth of communism were the Nazis to be defeated (2)
In the end, he made a Christmas speech:
Christmas Message of 1942.
My Dear Children of the Whole World:
As the Holy Christmas Season comes round each year, the message of Jesus, Who is light in the midst of darkness, echoes once more from the Crib of Bethlehem in the ears of Christians and re-echoes in their hearts with an ever new freshness of joy and piety. It is a message which lights up with heavenly truth a world that is plunged in darkness by fatal errors. It infuses exuberant and trustful joy into mankind, torn by the anxiety of deep, bitter sorrow. It proclaims liberty to the sons of Adam, shackled with the chains of sin and guilt. It promises mercy, love, peace to the countless hosts of those in suffering and tribulation who see their happiness Shattered and their efforts broken in the tempestuous strife and hate of our stormy days
with that, is the condemnation of communism:
Always moved by religious motives, the Church has condemned the various forms of Marxist Socialism; and she condemns them today, because it is her permanent right and duty to safeguard men from currents as thought and influences that jeopardize their external salvation. But the Church cannot ignore or overlook the fact that the worker in his efforts to better his lot, is opposed by a machinery which is not only not in accordance with nature, but is at variance with God's plan and with the purpose He had in creating the goods of earth.
and in that speech, carefully coded, without naming the Jews, he came as close as he felt able to mention their extermination by the Nazi war machine:
hundreds of thousands who through no fault of their own, and solely because of their nation or race, have been condemned to death or progressive extinction.
Could he have said more? As it was, there were complaints about that sentence from both sides - the Allies who didn't think it went far enough, and the Axis powers who thought it said too much. Moreover, the Pope was aware that Mussolini could quickly shut off electrical power to Vatican Radio during any broadcast. In fact, two days after Hitler became Chancellor, the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio talk which focused on the difference between a leader ("Führer") and a mis-leader ("Verführer"). He was cut-off in mid-sentence. This is the lesson that Pius was painfully aware of: those who were in a position of power, can easily act as bullies to silence anyone who which might challenge their authority, and use the whole propaganda machine of the State to destroy them.
And yet, if the Nazis had won though, how long would it have been before they would have destroyed the Church. Perhaps, as Martin Niemöller noted, there must be a time and a place to speak out:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me -- and there was no one left to speak for me.
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