The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965

By Baranowski, Shelley | Shofar, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965


Baranowski, Shelley, Shofar


by Michael Phayer. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000. 301 pp. $29.95.

Few topics connected with the Holocaust have aroused more controversy than the "silence" of the Vatican, and especially that of Pope Pius XII, as millions of Jews were shot and gassed in German-occupied Europe. Beginning with Rolf Hochhuth's explosive play The Deputy (1962) and culminating in John Cornwell's polemical work, Hitler's Pope (1999), Pope Pius has received stinging indictments for his supposed coldness and indifference to the fate of the Jews, his pro-German sentiment that discouraged him from denouncing that nation's genocide, his obsessive anticommunism, and his putative antisemitism. Despite the Second Vatican Council's official renunciation of antisemitism in the mid-sixties and the recent pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II to Israel, the present pontiff's moves to canonize Pope Pius continue to unsettle Catholic-Jewish reconciliation.

Michael Phayer's sober and judicious new book, the product of extensive archival investigation and years of research on Christians and Nazism, brings a needed perspective to a debate that has often shed more heat than light. First, Phayer widens his lens to include Catholic clergy and laity instead of focusing exclusively on the papacy. Papal power notwithstanding, the individual and collective agency of millions of believers and thousands of priests, brothers, and nuns demands consideration, according to the author, if we are to ask what the church might have done to alleviate the plight of the Jews. Second, Phayer pushes beyond the question of what the church did or did not do during the Holocaust to assess its position toward antisemitism in the two decades following. He concludes with the proclamation of Nostra Aetate, which, although weaker than more forceful earlier drafts, absolved the Jews of collective responsibility for the cruxifixion. In so doing, Phayer explores the Catholic Church's slow and painful acknowledgment that without centuries of Christian antisemitism, the Holocaust would have been impossible. That recognition resulted from the insistence of Catholic rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust and especially from the collaboration between the French Jewish scholar, Jules Isaac, and the rescuer Germaine Bocquet. Bocquet not only hid Isaac from the Germans but also provided him with the research material for his pioneering work, Jesus and Israel, which began to transform Catholic-Jewish relations.

Nevertheless, Pius occupies center stage, for as Phayer recognizes, a hierarchical church grounded in the doctrine of papal infallibility was of necessity shaped by decisions from the top. The author's assessment of the pope is low key but devastating. Pius but weakly challenged the murderous antisemitism of the Croatian Ustashi at a time, late 1941 and early 1942, when a strong condemnation from the Vatican might have stemmed the bloodletting and served notice to the Germans that their own escalating violence against the Jews would be opposed. The Vatican possessed extensive intelligence about the extermination of Croatian and Polish Jews, yet it chose not to share information with, nor did it provide financial support to, resistance groups throughout Europe, including Catholic clergy and laypeople who in ad hoc fashion strove to protect Jews in their vicinity. Although the Vatican tacitly supported the convents, monasteries, and parish churches in Italy that hid Jews, it did nothing to discourage the German deportation of Jews from Rome when German diplomats deeply feared that it would. …

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