Holocaust 2: Too Tenderly

This post discusses the way in which some scholars deal with the issue of the Roman Catholic Church and the holocaust between 1941 and 1945.
It has been said that Pope Pius XII was an anti-Semite, that he did not care for the plight of the Jews, that he was not a decisive pope, or that he did not speak out enough on behalf of the persecuted Jews. On the contrary, scholars, Roman Catholics and non-believers say that Pope Pius XII did exactly what was needed and possible in those days of war and destruction. Personally, I don’t think that this Pope was an anti-Semite or that he was insensitive, but if we look at how the Roman Catholic Church acted and reacted to the holocaust at the local level, it is not so very clear how Pius XII managed his Church during WWII. Sometimes authors rather leave difficult questions like these aside.
Indeed, more than once historical accounts are out of balance. The spotlight is on the more positive aspects, while unpleasant episodes remain in the dark. For example, in ‘Die katholische Kirche in der Slowakei 1939-1945’ in Religion under Siege, vol. I, p. 169, the Viennese professor of university Emilia Hrabovec correctly explains how, in 1941, the Slovak bishops ‘rejected all racism and drew the attention to the equality of all men before God’ thus ‘condemning the discrimination of each and every Jew’. However, just a few lines further down, Hrabovec shortly discusses a 1942 public statement by the Slovak bishops which was ‘unique to Central Eastern Europe’. But she does so without describing the content.
Hrabovec refers to a pastoral letter of 26 April 1942, which reiterated common prejudices against the Jews and condoned restrictive, i.e. discriminatory measures, and even deportation (albeit conditional). The bishops disapproved of racism, that much is true, but at the same time they expressed the need to protect the nation against the harmful influence of the Jews: ‘In just a short time [the Jews]  have appropriated almost the entire economic and financial life of the country at the expense of our people. Not only in the economic sphere, but also in the cultural and moral domain they have damaged our people. The Church cannot be opposed, therefore, if the state with legal regulations hinders the dangerous influence of the Jews.’ (Actes et documents du Saint Siège, vol. 8, nr. 360, p. 515-519 – read the full text in English at paulonpius.blogspot.com)
Publishing this letter was not exactly an act of courage. In fact, the Slovak bishops aligned themselves with the moral (non-biological) nationalism of State President Dr. Jozef Tiso (an active priest) and government policies to exclude the Jews from society and economy ever since 1939. Therefore, the 1942 letter could well be interpreted as a device to please Slovak authorities as well as the papal diplomatic representative Mgr. Giuseppe Burzio. After all, on 31 March 1942, Burzio had written to the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Luigi Maglione, his superior, that President Tiso, bishop Ján Vojtaššák of Spiš, a high ranking state official as well, and other clerics in government positions and Parliament ‘were beginning to cause serious harm to the Church’. (ADSS, vol. 8, nr. 334, p. 488 – text in English: paulonpius.blogspot.com)
In his review of Religion under Siege, vol. I, James R. Felak concluded: ‘some of the contributions have a tendency to handle the Church and its exponents far too tenderly’. Felak’s comment was spot on.
Another example, is the ‘biografia critica’ of bishop Ján Vojtaššák, which I read in 2003. It does not do what one could expect from a critical biography: to investigate the serious allegations brought forward against the bishop. The author left out that the bishop of Spiš was very much into politics during World War II; that he allegedly told a fellow bishop ‘that the Jews are Slovakia’s worst enemies’ and that the Church would do better not to interfere with their deportation. (ADSS, vol. 8, nr. 334, p. 486-489) The rather serious accusation that Vojtaššák had turned a Jew over to the authorities was not even mentioned. The biography contains, however, a carefully selected quote from the 26 April 1942 letter, which should put the bishop in the most favourable light possible. Back in 2003 bishop Ján Vojtaššák was a candidate for beatification.(FH)

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  • I. Chalupecký, Vojtaššák Taliansky životopis, s.l., s.d. [Vojtaššák Biography in Italian, document in MSWord, 2003];
  • J.R. Felak, ‘Religion under Siege, Vol. 1’, Catholic Historical Review, 96 (2010) 2, p. 384-386, notably, p. 385;
  • E. Hrabovec, ‘Die katholische Kirche in der Slowakei 1939-1945’, J. Bank and L. Gevers (eds.), Religion under Siege, vol. I: The Roman Catholic Church in Occupied Europe (1939-1950), Leuven 2007, p. 139-172.