Another Skirmish in the Pius Wars.

Author:Rhonheimer, Martin
Position:Letter to the Editor

In "The End of the Pins Wars" (April), Joseph Bottum pleads for more vigorous efforts "to correct the slander of Pius XII." While welcoming Jose Sanchez' book Pius XII and the Holocaust as well as my article "The Holocaust: What Was Not Said" (FT November 2003) with its "relatively mild criticism" of Pins XII, Mr. Bottum writes that "there is something willful and maddening in their tone of Olympian detachment." This can never "restore the balance" and achieve "historical accuracy," Mr. Bottum contends. What is needed is "pressure on the other side."

I am no less eager than Mr. Bottum to refute slanders against Pins XII and the Catholic Church. My article stated at the outset that some of the endlessly repeated charges against the Church and Pope Pins XII are "merely exaggerated," while others (especially in books by John Cornwell and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen) are "so devoid of historical foundation that they range from the absurd to the outrageous." I also wrote in the article that "many Catholics--priests, religious, laity, and above all Pins XII--helped many Jews, sometimes at the risk of the rescuers' lives." Mr. Bottum's concern to "restore the balance" seems to have prevented him from seeing that my article was not really about Pius XII, indeed that it exonerated him in large measure. I see the problem not so much in Rome as in Germany--with the German bishops.

The central contention of my article was that the Church's anti-Nazism and antiracism were never intended to defend the Jews from their persecutors, but rather to defend the Church. This is why the German bishops never publicly defended the Jews; and why, for pastoral reasons, they tried instead to find a modus vivendi with Hitler's regime. The article also noted that a widespread anti-Judaism and socioeconomic and cultural (rather than racial) anti-Semitism made it difficult for both Catholics and Protestants to perceive the growing danger threatening Jews.

Clearly, this outlook clouded the vision also of Cardinal Pacelli and Pius XI. They were children of their time and justly concerned with defending their own flock. This concern encompassed baptized Jews but did not extend to Jews in general. Moreover, some of the Nazis' anti-Jewish measures seemed to some church leaders not wholly unjustified. My article attempted to explain why church leaders acted as they did. That, in my view, is the best defense against the slanders, lies, and outrageous absurdities of critics like Cornwell and Goldhagen.

Trying to "restore the balance" and "achieve historical accuracy" by "putting pressure on the other side" is a political approach, not a historical one--especially when this is done at the expense of truth. It is also counterproductive. Exerting pressure arouses mistrust and provokes fresh attacks from the Church's critics. The only good and effective way to parry such attacks is always to tell the truth...

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