A "Righteous Gentile" Defends Pius XII

Commentary by U.S. Scholar Ron Rychlak

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NEW YORK, OCT. 5, 2002 (Zenit.org).- As a special commentary in the Weekly Analysis dispatch, ZENIT is publishing a piece on Pope Pius XII by University of Mississippi law professor Ron Rychlak.



Author of "Hitler, the War and the Pope," Rychlak has been studying Pius XII and the tense relations between the Holy See and the Third Reich for the past decade.

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A Righteous Gentile Defends Pius XII
By Ronald J. Rychlak

Before the recent abuse scandal, perhaps the biggest ongoing controversy involving the Catholic Church had to do with Pope Pius XII and the relationship between the Holy See and the Third Reich during World War II. The Church is considering Pius for sainthood, and the Vatican's investigating judge has said that there is an excellent case to be made.

Pope John Paul II has called Pius "a great Pope." Golda Meir and numerous other Jewish leaders from that era praised Pius for his support of victims during the Holocaust. Critics, however, charge that he turned a blind eye to Jewish suffering in the Holocaust. Some have even alleged that he was sympathetic to Hitler's cause.

Much of the debate centers on the activities of papal nuncios and other Catholic officials around Europe. It is indisputable that many of them risked their lives and more to protect Jewish victims from Nazi persecution. The debate in recent years has focused on whether these rescuers acted on their own or at the behest of the Pope.

According to some accounts, Pius sent instructions to his representatives throughout Europe, telling them to do whatever they could to help Jews and all who were suffering. Many authors have noted that the similar activities undertaken by different individuals in remote areas suggest a common plan, but no copies of a letter from Pius have surfaced and most of the firsthand witnesses are long gone. Recently, however, an eyewitness with impeccable credentials has come forward to set the record straight.

Tibor Baranski, executive secretary of the Jewish Protection Movement of the Holy See in Hungary during World War II, has been honored by Yad Vashem (Israel's Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority) as a Righteous Gentile for his rescue work. Officially he saved 3,000 Jews. Unofficially he saved at least that many more.

Baranski worked closely with Angelo Rotta, papal nuncio in Hungary during the war (who was also recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile). Baranski makes clear, however, that these lifesaving activities were not the lone actions of himself or Nuncio Rotta. "I was really acting in accordance with the orders of Pope Pius XII." Charges that Pius was not involved are "simple lies; nothing else," and claims that Pius should have done more for the Jews are, according to Baranski, "slanderous."

Baranski personally saw at least two letters from Pius XII instructing Rotta to do his very best to protect Jews but to refrain from making statements that might provoke the Nazis. He adds: "These two letters were not written by the authorities at the Vatican, but they were handwritten ones by Pope Pius himself." He goes on to note that "all other nuncios of the Nazi-occupied countries received similar letters." Italian Jews, for instance, were sheltered in monasteries, seminaries and other Church buildings on the "direct instruction of the Vatican."

Baranski explains that for Pius, the first and foremost concern was saving human lives. "It was precisely because [Pius] wanted to help the Jews" that he refrained from making repeated public condemnations. Pius "intervened in a very balanced way," trying to save lives without provoking retaliation. He did not, however, behave differently depending upon the status of the victims. Baranski notes that these same concerns prevented the Pope from making repeated public appeals when the Nazis killed thousands of Catholic priests.

"The Pontiff did not only encourage the nuncio to protect Vatican [baptized] Jews," explains Baranski, "but as many persecuted persons as possible, in the ghetto or elsewhere." The nuncio kept Pius well informed of efforts undertaken in collaboration with other embassies, including close work with Swedish diplomat and rescuer Raoul Wallenberg, who also was declared a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem.

Baranski, who says that he was "fantastically near" to Wallenberg, reports that if Wallenberg were alive today, he would defend Pope Pius XII. In fact, Baranski explains that the Catholic Church collaborated with Wallenberg in his rescue efforts. "Look, there was not problem or disagreement whatsoever between the Catholic Church and Wallenberg. I personally arranged unofficial, private meetings between Wallenberg and Nuncio Rotta." Baranski reports that Wallenberg "knew Pius was on his side." Rotta, Baranski, Wallenberg and -- yes -- Pius XII worked together as a team.

Baranski is now working on a book about his life. It will be an important contribution not only because of the firsthand history it will set forth, but also because of the morality and fundamental dignity of the author. He dismisses or deflects praise offered to him: "Look, dear professor -- the good Lord was so humble to allow a little nobody (me) to work his life-saving mission...." He also tells the story of a Nazi who once asked him: "Why do you, a Christian, protect and defend the Jews?" He replied bluntly: "You are either silly or an idiot. It is because I am a Christian that I help the Jews."

Baranski acknowledges that Catholics might have reasons to apologize to Jews for things that have happened over the course of history. He makes clear, however, that the wartime Pontiff is not a leader for whom Catholics need to apologize. In fact he agrees with the recently published opinion of Rabbi David Dalin. Yad Vashem should recognize Pope Pius XII, along with Baranski, Rotta and Wallenberg, as a Righteous Gentile.