Historical sources often present the Holocaust as the logical conclusion of traditional Catholic anti-Judaism; the pope should be demonized because he headed an institution that was the source of the hatred of Jews. Is this accusation fair?
Few episodes in recent Church history arouse as much attention as the alleged silence of Pope Pius XII regarding the Holocaust. Despite the fact that many respected scholars—including Jewish ones—have demonstrated that the pope gave European Jews much aid, this negative image of Pius XII prevails in many circles. Interestingly, unlike Pius, Allied leaders such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill did absolutely nothing to aid European Jews, although they do not have the same stigma. Perhaps this is because Pius XII is a symbol. Historical sources often present the Holocaust as the logical conclusion of traditional Catholic anti-Judaism; the pope should be demonized because he headed an institution that was the source of the hatred of Jews that culminated in the Shoah. Is this accusation fair?
In the Imperial War Museum of London’s otherwise excellent exhibit on the Holocaust, one can view a short documentary on the history of anti-Semitism. Before jumping into Nazi ideology, the film details Christian misdeeds against Jews during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. While the narrator of the documentary in the London museum explicitly states that modern anti-Semitism had little to do with traditional anti-Judaism, a similar documentary on the history of anti-Semitism in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum makes no such demarcation; it jumps directly from medieval anti-Judaism to the Dreyfus affair and the rise of the Third Reich.
Often times in texts about the Holocaust, the idea that the Nazi ideology was an extension of Christian anti-Judaism is presented as axiomatic. The problem with this presentation of history is that it solely focuses on Christian anti-Judaism. Why is it not acknowledged enough that the ancient Hebrew people were persecuted by many other groups? Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, and Romans all harmed Jews long before Christ was born. Perhaps this is because the Holocaust happened in Europe and was perpetrated by the traditionally Christian German nation. Was this the extension of Christian anti-Judaism?
Indeed, negative attitudes towards Jews among Christians have a long history. For centuries, Christians often blamed Jews for killing Christ; only did the 1965 document Nostra Aetaete officially absolve them of this charge. When bubonic plague ravaged Europe, many Christians in Europe accused Jews of poisoning wells. Throughout the centuries, Jews were accused of kidnapping Christian children and using their blood to make matzos (blood libel). During the Crusades, Christian soldiers killed numerous Jews on the way to the Holy Land. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council decreed that Jews wear special clothing to distinguish them from Gentiles. As recently as the nineteenth century, Pope Pius IX reopened the Roman ghetto—the last European ghetto before the Nazis came to power—and the Vatican kidnapped a Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara, who was raised by the pope and became a priest.
All these are troubling aspects of the historic relationship between Christianity and Judaism. Pope John Paul II was right in apologizing in the name of the Church in 2000 for these and other historic abuses at the hands of Catholics. However, this is only one part of the story. There is also a long tradition of the Church’s defense of the Jews. While it is true that the Church’s relationship with Judaism improved radically in the past half-century beginning with Pope John XXIII, who removed the prayer for the conversion of the “perfidious Jews” from the Good Friday liturgy and especially under John Paul II—who had Jewish friends growing up in Poland and was the first pope to make an official visit to a synagogue, who established diplomatic ties between the Holy See and Israel, and who condemned anti-Semitism vocally and explicitly—these two were not the first major papal allies of the Jews.
The first was Pope Gregory the Great (590-604), one of the four Latin Church fathers. He issued the edict Sicut Judaeis, which stated that the Jews “should have no infringement of their rights…. We forbid to vilify the Jews. We allow them to live as Romans and to have full authority over their possessions.” During his pontificate, Gregory the Great repeatedly intervened on behalf of the Jews; for example, when the bishop of Palermo confiscated Jewish schools and synagogues, the pope intervened to stop him. More papal edicts prohibiting violence against the Jews, forced baptism, and other abuses, and promising papal protection, were signed by later popes, including Calixtus II, Clement VI, Boniface IX, and Martin V. Numerous edicts by medieval and Renaissance popes starting with Innocent IV’s 1247 bull also condemned the blood libel myth.
The anti-religious polemicists who topped the bestseller lists several years ago—including Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins—often present Adolf Hitler as a Catholic and claim that the Holocaust was the result of historical anti-Semitism. In fact, Hitler most qualifies as a lapsed Catholic. As an adult, he no longer participated in the sacraments. His wedding with Eva Braun was a secular civil ceremony. The Nazi leadership was not influenced by Christianity, but instead was fascinated with Germanic mythology, the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, and the mysticism of the Far East, of which S.S. head Heinrich Himmler was especially enamored, believing that the origins of the Aryan “master race” could be traced to India.
The Nazis were not atheists, but pagans. They were, however, strongly anti-Christian. After coming to power, the Nazi persecuted the Catholic Church in Germany. Catholic youth organizations and newspapers were banned, as was the Catholic Center Party. In Dachau, the first concentration camp, they imprisoned many priests in a famous priest block.
Of course, there were Catholics who acted deplorably during the Holocaust, and their misdeeds have to be enumerated. Arguably, the most pernicious was Monsignor Jozef Tiso. Following Nazi Germany’s annexing of Czechoslovakia, a Slovak fascist puppet state was formed headed by Monsignor Jozef Tiso, a Catholic priest. In 1939, Tiso’s puppet state sent 50,000 Slovak soldiers to aid in the German invasion of Poland. Tiso passed anti-Jewish legislation requiring Jews to wear yellow armbands and banning marriages between Jews and ethnic Slovaks. Tiso also helped the Germans deport 70,000 Jews to concentration camps. In 1942, he gave a speech in which he defended these deportations. Two years later, when the Slovak resistance launched an anti-Nazi uprising, Tiso accused the Jews of leading the rebellion and continued to support the deportations. Adolf Hitler himself was greatly impressed with Tiso’s sadism: “It is interesting how this little Catholic priest Tiso is sending us the Jews!” he remarked.
Slovakia’s fascist government was unique in that it was led by an ordained clergyman. However, there were two other pro-Nazi puppet governments that claimed to be Catholic in nature. The first was in Croatia. In 1941 in German-occupied Yugoslavia, the fascist Ustaše formed the Independent State of Croatia, a puppet state of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The Ustaše made Catholicism the official religion of the regime and committed acts of genocide against Serbs, Jews, and Roma. The Ustaše’s treatment of Serbs, more than 300,000 of whom were killed, mostly in concentration camps located in Croatia, was especially barbaric: The Croat education minister wanted to murder one-third of the Serbs, forcibly convert one-third to Catholicism, and expel the remaining third. However, Jews were also targeted, and the Ustaše were complicit in the killing of 30,000 Jews.
Another Catholic pro-Nazi puppet state was founded in Vichy France, headed by World War I hero Marshal Philipe Petain from 1940 to 1944. Wanting an ethnically French and Catholic state, Vichy adopted Nuremburg-style laws that discriminated against Jews and pursued pro-natalist policies among autochthonous French. The French police helped the Germans deport almost 80,000 French Jews to concentration camps. In numerous roundups, French policemen herded Jews onto trains sending them to near-certain death often without the presence of a single German. The Vichy French themselves built and ran concentration camps in France in which Jews, Roma, and political dissidents were interned.
Looking at the examples of Slovakia, Croatia, and France, one could be tempted to believe that the Catholic Church, if not indirectly responsible for the Holocaust, was Nazi Germany’s partner in exterminating European Jewry. However, the mature historian must always look at the entirety of a situation before passing a judgment. There were many counterexamples of lay and ordained Catholics who acted heroically to aid Jews.
In all three Catholic fascist puppet states mentioned above, there were numerous priests and bishops who aided Jews. In Slovakia, the Greek Catholic bishop of Presov Pavel Gojdic, in particular, was a resister of the Holocaust. In 1939, he wrote a letter to the faithful in his diocese protesting against the discrimination of Jews. When the Slovaks and Germans began deporting Jews to concentration camps, Bishop Gojdic wrote a protest letter and informed the Vatican of the deportations. He also directly helped several Jews. In Croatia, the cardinal-archbishop of Zagreb, Aloysius Stepinac, initially welcomed the Ustaše regime and the creation of a semi-independent Croatia, although he did publicly condemn the government’s persecution of Jews and secured hiding spots for Jews. In France, many bishops directly aided Jews; the most famous was Cardinal Pierre-Marie Gerlier of Lyon who hid Jewish children in convents and parishes.
Elsewhere in Europe, priests and bishops also actively opposed the Holocaust. In 1942, the Dutch bishops wrote a letter condemning the deportations of Jews that was read in all parishes in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands; as a punishment, the Germans increased deportations of Jews, especially targeting converts. In Hungary—which by 1944 was ruled by a fascist puppet state that collaborated with the Nazis in deporting Jews to concentration camps, but before was a relatively safe country for refugees, Jewish and otherwise—the nation’s primate, Cardinal Jusztinián György Serédi helped find shelter for many of the 150,000 Polish refugees who fled the country after the German-Soviet invasion of 1939, many of whom were Jewish. In 1944, as Nazis and Hungarian fascists began deporting Jews, Cardinal Serédi publicly protested. In the United Kingdom, which avoided Nazi occupation thanks to victory during the Battle of Britain, Cardinal Arthur Hinsley organized a Catholic Day of Prayer for Poland in Westminster Cathedral in 1942, publicly condemning Nazi atrocities against Poles and Jews. In western Ukraine, Greek Catholic monasteries protected several hundred Jewish children from German Nazis and Ukrainian nationalists. Martin Gilbert, an esteemed historian of the Holocaust, estimates that hundreds of thousands of Jews across Europe were saved by Catholics.
Perhaps the most surprising Catholic who aided the Jews was General Francisco Franco. This right-wing military dictator, aided by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, likely saved more Jews than any other political leader during World War II. The devoutly Catholic Spanish dictator refused to hand over Jews who had sought refuge in neutral Spain. Franco instructed Spanish diplomats in Nazi-occupied Europe to aid Jews. He also helped Jews obtain Spanish passports and flee to Latin America. In total, General Franco is credited with saving about 40,000 Jews.
Two countries where Catholic aid to the Jews merits special mention are Poland and Italy. Before the Second World War, Poland had Europe’s largest Jewish population, at more than three million. Invaded by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, non-Jewish Poles themselves suffered greatly during the war, losing two to three million people. Even without figuring in Jewish losses, Poland lost the largest proportion of its pre-war population of all European countries. It is true that before 1939, anti-Semitism increased in Poland, and that the Church was not immune to this. In 1936, the country’s primate Cardinal August Hlond issued a pastoral letter in which he accused Jews of spreading pornography and Bolshevism (although the letter also condemned physical violence against Jews and anti-Jewish prejudices, even though the author of the letter clearly himself had such prejudices).
Yet despite these souring relations—and despite the fact that Poland was the only occupied country where aiding Jews was punishable by death and that Polish priests themselves suffered under the occupation enormously, as half of all Polish priests and numerous bishops were deported to concentration camps—the Polish Church’s aid to the Jews was enormous. In his authoritative history of the Jews in Poland and Russia, Prof. Antony Polonsky of Brandeis University writes that 1,000 of 1,600 Polish convents sheltered Jewish children during the Holocaust. Irena Sendler, the famous Polish social worker who helped smuggle 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, often placed the children in convents and remarked in an interview with Anna Mieszkowska that she never had a priest turn down a request to aid a Jewish child. The Polish bishops never issued a document officially condemning the Holocaust. However, they never made an official protest against the massive deportations of Polish priests, either. Actions speak louder than words: Recent research reveals that of the thirteen Polish bishops who were not killed by the Nazis, exiled, or deported to concentration camps, eleven are documented as having aided Jews. One of the exiles, Bishop Karol Radoński, officially condemned the Holocaust on the radio in London.
Italy merits mention because the Vatican, whose wartime role has been the source of much controversy, is located there. Of the 45,000 Jews registered in Italy’s 1938 census, 7,000 fled the country and 8,000 died in concentration camps; this makes Italy’s wartime Jewish survival rate one of Europe’s highest. Naturally, there are numerous reasons for this: the Jewish population there was relatively small; the punishments for aiding Jews in Italy were not as draconian as in, say, Poland; and Italian Jews were not isolated from the rest of the population in walled or fenced ghettoes, as in Eastern Europe. At the same time, given the facts that in 1938, Mussolini passed anti-Semitic laws banning Jews from Italian public life and banning intermarriage and that the Italian Fascist militia collaborated with the Nazis in hunting down Jews, this high survival rate is remarkable.
Another reason for the high survival rate of Italian Jews must be attributed to the Catholic Church. Pope Pius XII is frequently presented as “Hitler’s pope” or as the “silent pope.” The truth of the matter is that Pius XII appealed to the Italian monasteries to hide Jewish children and himself hid several thousand Jews in Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence, and in the Vatican itself. Reading the testimonies of Italian Holocaust survivors, it is clear that many Italian Jews were rescued by priests or nuns. Additionally, Pius sent protests to the pro-Nazi governments of Hungary and Slovakia, begging them to halt the deportations of Jews to concentration camps (tragically, without effect). Pius XII used a network of his papal nuncios across Europe to help persecuted Jews flee to Latin America or neutral countries and to secure hiding places; the most famous were Monsignors Angelo Rotta, papal nuncio to Hungary, and Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, Vatican ambassador to Greece and Turkey.
Pius XII’s record is imperfect. Before World War II, he pressured Poland to give the Free City of Danzig to Nazi Germany to avoid military conflict. After the war, the Vatican assisted some Nazi criminals in fleeing to Argentina; was Pius unaware of this? He also did not condemn the post-war pogroms against Jews that occurred across Eastern Europe. However, Pius’ record regarding the Jews is certainly better than that of President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, who as Jewish historian Walter Laqueur has chronicled in extensive detail, were well-informed about the Holocaust. However, they did not intervene, despite the fact that, unlike Pius XII, they had the military capacities to do so. For example, President Roosevelt refused to increase immigration quotas to allow more Jewish refugees from Europe to seek asylum in the United States, while his Department of War decided to not bomb the death camp crematoria.
It is true that when Pius XII condemned the Holocaust (on Vatican Radio, for instance), he used generic terms rather than referring to specific atrocities. Still, we must remember that Pius previously was a Vatican diplomat. He likely knew that speaking out too forcefully could have unintended tragic consequences; the abovementioned example of the increased deportations of Jews following the Dutch bishops’ letter shows this. The fact is that Pius XII saved thousands of Jews, including a great many Italian Jews, by hiding them in the Vatican, securing hiding places for them in Italian convents, and helping Jews through to his network of papal diplomats. Pius compares favorably not only to the wartime leaders of the United States and Britain, but above all to another prominent cleric, Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem who openly supported Nazi Germany’s Jewish policy.
The historical relationship between Catholics and Jews has frequently been portrayed in a negative light. The fact that Catholics did commit many transgressions against their elder brothers in the faith over the past two millennia is a historic fact. However, as we have seen, this relationship has often been portrayed in a one-sided way. Alongside genuine examples of Catholic mistreatment of Jews, such as the Fourth Lateran Council, we have examples of medieval bishops condemning anti-Semitic canards. In addition to perverted priests like Tiso, there were many Catholic bishops, priests, and nuns in every European country who helped Jews.
Before making a judgment on the relationship between Catholicism and the Holocaust, it is worth asking: Which group of Catholics truly lived out the Church’s teachings on the Jews? In Catholicism, the doctrine of mortal sin, the notion that all humans have an inherent tendency to commit wrong, is strong. This is why the sacrament of reconciliation is so important in Catholicism. Even very saintly men and women confess their sins (in fact, they do so more frequently than ordinary mortals). Were Catholics who harmed Jews acting out of their own iniquity, or because of their faith?
Unique among most of the world’s great religions, Christianity proposes a system of ethical universalism. As St. Paul said, there is no man or woman, Greek or Jew, slave or free. The parable of the Good Samaritan shows that the Church eschews any primitive tribalism; all are to be treated equally. Nowhere in the New Testament is it said that Jews (or any other ethnic or religious group, for that matter) are somehow inferior. And with the exception of the Fourth Lateran Council, never did the official teachings of the Church promote any discrimination against Jews.
In addition to human corruptibility, is there any other origin of this well-documented, long-standing tradition of Christian hostility towards Jews and Judaism? In my opinion, two additional factors were at work. First, there is the fact that Christianity was born of Judaism, and so the two religions began as competitors. In addition to the battle for souls, many Christians have traditionally been disappointed that Jews refused to accept their Messiah. Meanwhile, Jews have themselves often been mistrustful towards Judaism. The Talmud presents Jesus Christ in an extremely negative light, while in Israel Jewish fundamentalists have set fire to churches, and Christians—both ethnically Jewish ones and Palestinian Christians—are treated as second-class citizens (and sometimes not citizens at all) in Israel. I mention these facts not to suggest equivalence between Christian mistreatment of Jews and Jewish prejudice against Christians—throughout the ages, Christian atrocities against Jews have been far more numerous—but to instead show how a certain mutual distrust often results from religions with a similar origin.
Second, there is the fact that human beings seem to have an inherent nasty tendency towards tribalism. Throughout most of European history, Jews have dressed differently, worshipped differently, spoken a different language (Ladino or Yiddish as opposed to the local language), and looked different in terms of physiognomy. Unfortunately, people often don’t like those who are different. This is reflected in the fact that the Nazi ideology singled out the Roma and Sinti peoples for extermination, just as it did the Jews. Like Jews, Gypsies are of non-European origin and, like the Jews prior to 1948, have no state. Anti-Roma prejudice, both popular and institutional, is still strong today across Europe.
In conclusion, the historic relationship between Catholics and Jews has often been fraught. Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of recent popes, anti-Judaism is marginalized within the Catholic Church. It is quite telling that the most anti-Semitic faction within the Church today is a schismatic one, the Society of St. Pius X started by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. However, the history of Catholic-Jewish relations has often been told in a one-sided way. In particular, the Holocaust is not an extension of Catholic tradition, and the attitudes of the Church towards Jews during that period must be presented in a more nuanced light. Catholics have every right to protest when the history of their Church is presented in a distorted fashion. The historical legacy of anti-Semitism is not limited to the Christian world, and in addition to Catholics acting ignobly towards Jews, there were many Catholic protectors of them.
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The featured image is a painting of Saint Gregory the Great (circa 1614) by Jusepe de Ribera and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.