Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

"Not Enough" vs. "Plenty": Which Did Pius XII Do?

Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

"Not Enough" vs. "Plenty": Which Did Pius XII Do?

Article excerpt

THAT SUSAN ZUCCOTTI AND RONALD RYCHLAK--AMONG many others--have been quarreling about the role of Pius XII during the Holocaust does not necessarily mean that they disagree; more precisely, it doesn't mean that they disagree about what they think they are disagreeing about--or that they disagree as much as they think they do. Zuccotti claims that whatever Pius XII did in facing the threat and events of the Holocaust, it wasn't enough; (1) Rychlak claims that whatever Pius XII might not have done during the Holocaust, he did plenty. (2) These two claims are by no means contradictory: it may well be (it almost certainly is) that Pius XII did not do enough and yet that he did a good deal. So the two authors could both be correct when they think they're disagreeing--although they might also disagree with this attempt at reconciliation. Even if they did accept it, moreover, that would not resolve the controversy to which they and others have contributed in assessing the initiatives and responses (or lack of them) by Pius XII during the Nazis' "Final Solution of the Jewish Question." For the crucial measure in conducting a moral inventory of Pius XII's policies and conduct in respect to that event--indeed, required for a moral inventory of anyone's actions or inactions at any time--is not a summons to abstract principle on the question of whether Pius XII did enough (which so few people ever do) or whether he did plenty (which a lot of people do, and did), but by the judgment of particular actions which he took when he need not have or which he failed to take when he could (and should) have. As moral decisions are in the end always singular and concrete irrespective of how general or abstract the ideals they aspire to, so moral assessments of those decisions also have to be, and can be, immediate and individual--and unequivocal.

I would cite here specifically two examples of Pius XII's refusal to act--"refusal" rather than "failure" since the inaction was surely the result of conscious decisions. The first example goes unmentioned by Zuccotti and Rychlak in their discussions; both authors refer to the second example, but each finds a different turn in it than the one I suggest. Even in a world where moral ambiguity is granted an unavoidable place, both these acts of omission seem straightforwardly wrong; this is the case even when the acts are defended, as they typically are and have been, by strong prudential or instrumental arguments.

The first of these omissions is the fact that not once in the twelve years of Nazi rule or in the six years of World War II did the Pope use the instrument or even the threat of excommunication against leaders of the Nazi regime or against their subordinates or against their accomplices inside and outside Germany; this was the case although many of these perpetrators and the populace at large who took their cues from them were raised as Catholics and maintained their identities as Catholics at the same time that they were participating in or abetting the Nazi "project." The possibility of excommunication was an instrument directly in the Pope's control; he did not require an army to issue or enforce it, he did not have to capture the people who would be affected by the decision; he could have acted by words alone. And indeed, only a few years after World War II ended (1 July 1949), he did exactly this in a blanket condemnation of Communism and of those of its adherents who mistakenly believed that their polit ical allegiance was compatible with a commitment to Catholicism; those adherents, he warned, would have to make a choice: Either/Or. Yet during the years leading up to and then of the "Final Solution" he refused to take any such action with respect to the Nazis themselves or to their accomplices even in heavily Catholic countries like Poland, France, Hungary, or Italy itself

Any explanation must remain speculative as to why Pius XII, who from the time of his Munich years as papal nuncio beginning in 1917 was a fierce and open enemy of Bolshevism, would wait until the post-War period before ordering the excommunication of "Catholic" Communist adherents. …

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