Pope Pius XII: Vindication

By Seaman, Mary McWay | New Oxford Review, March 2017 | Go to article overview

Pope Pius XII: Vindication


Seaman, Mary McWay, New Oxford Review


Pope Pius XII: Vindication Church of Spies: The Pope's Secret War Against Hitler. By Mark Riebling. Basic Books. 375 pages. $29.99.

The decades-long controversy over whether Pope Pius XII failed to do and say enough to thwart Nazi atrocities has been dubbed the "Pius Wars." Mark Riebling has struck a firm blow for Pius's defenders by using recently unsealed transcripts and files to turn the oft-repeated narrative on its head. Riebling builds his case around Bavarian lawyer Josef Müller, whom the Nazis called "the best agent of the Vatican Intelligence in Germany." The Nazis eventually arrested Müller for protecting Jews and conspiring to kill Hitler and accused him of "using the spy service of the Catholic clergy." A war hero and "a godfather figure in Catholic Munich," Müller "had led troops, smuggled documents, played politics, plotted murder, wrote sermons, rescued Jews, ransomed bishops, eluded capture, suffered betrayal, endured torture, confounded his captors," and acted as a go-between for the German anti-Nazi movement and Fr. Robert Leiber, advisor to the Pope.

Riebling refreshes readers on the rise of Hitler during the Great Depression, as economic hardship drove multitudes of Germans to embrace the barking Führer and his National Socialist Party. Widespread allegiance to the selfassured, charismatic Nazi leader created a herd mentality that led many to brush off his purges of political rivals, numerous clergy, and Catholic lay leaders. Weary citizens were simply relieved to have a man with a plan, any plan. But not all Germans were so lulled into conformity.

The fearless Müller, on an SS list of Catholic opponents of the regime, joined Msgr. Johannes Neuhäusler in a "counter-Nazi secret service," and Michael Cardinal von Faulhaber asked them to coordinate their work with the Vatican. Faulhaber helped with the first draft of Mit Brennender Sorge (1937), the papal encyclical that urged "overt acquiescence" and "backstairs intercession" against the Nazis. Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, then Vatican secretary of state, "changed the theme to combat," which drew a vicious backlash against the Catholic clergy and Church properties. The Nazis "thwarted the Church's teachings, banned its organizations, censored its press, shuttered its seminaries, seized its properties, fired its teachers, and closed its schools." Priests were labeled "political enemies of the Germans," and churches were desecrated.

Pacelli, as Pope Pius XII, was a political realist and supporter of "militancy, mutiny, and espionage." Regarding Pius's public relations, Riebling says that "Allied and Jewish press agencies still hailed him as anti-Nazi during the war. But in time, his silence strained Catholic-Jewish relations, and reduced the moral credibility of the faith." It appeared that "during the world's greatest moral crisis, its greatest moral leader seemed at a loss for words." But here the spies are key: Müller later admitted that "during the war his anti-Nazi organization in Germany had always been very insistent that the Pope should refrain from making any public statement singling out the Nazis and specifically condemning them and had recommended that the Pope's remarks should be confined to generalities only."

Pius relied on German clergymen for updates, and German Jesuit and Dominican leaders formed the Orders Committee, which acted as a front for a Church intelligence service. When the Nazis marched into Prague in 1939, they arrested opponents of the Third Reich and imprisoned Jesuits. Poland was the next target, and an SS spy chief declared that Catholic priests "must all be killed." Later that year, Müller became part of a secret plot against Hitler engineered by Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, chief of German military intelligence, and he passed a plea from the German resistance to the Pope's advisors.

Riebling reveals the clergy's growing involvement in political matters as Pius partnered with the resistance. In time, the "plotters asked the pope not to protest" the Nazis in order to protect German Catholics. …

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