A man publicly labeled as “Hitler’s pope” instead deserves to have his historical reputation cleared, according to a spate of recent scholarship on World War II and Pope Pius XII.
Indeed, the wartime pope should be recognized as a “righteous gentile” at Israel’s most important Holocaust memorial, said scholar Ronald J. Rychlak, who made his case last year in his book “Righteous Gentiles: How Pius XII and the Catholic Church Saved Half a Million Jews from the Nazis.”
“He deserves that designation,” said Mr. Rychlak, a law professor and associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Mississippi in Oxford and an adviser to the Vatican’s delegation to the United Nations. “When you … look at all of the people who were sheltered and clothed by the Catholic Church under the inspiration and direction of Pius XII, he did tremendous work saving victims of the Nazis.”
Rabbi David G. Dalin made a similar estimate and recommendation in his book “The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: How Pope Pius XII Rescued Jews from the Nazis,” citing Jewish historian and diplomat Pinchas Lapide’s estimate that Pius and the Catholic Church rescued more than 700,000 Jews during the Holocaust.
Since 1962, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial and Museum at Yad Vashem has honored as “righteous gentiles” about 11,000 non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, and the rabbi said Pius should be honored among them.
“He probably rescued more Jews than any single individual. From that vantage point, Pius XII deserves recognition,” said Mr. Dalin, professor of history and political science at Ave Maria University, a Catholic university in Naples, Fla.
Pius, born in 1876 as Eugenio Pacelli, reigned as head of the Catholic Church from 1939 until his death in 1958. During the war, the Vatican remained neutral, as required by the treaty with German ally Benito Mussolini that guaranteed church sovereignty over a small sliver of the city of Rome. But the Vatican sympathized with the Allied powers, said William Doino Jr., a Catholic researcher and writer living in western Connecticut and a contributing editor to Inside the Vatican, an international monthly Roman Catholic publication.
“He was on the right side of the struggle and an enemy of Hitler,” Mr. Doino said.
After the war, Italian leftists responded to Vatican condemnation of communism with propaganda saying Pius was in league with the Nazis, but their attempts to blacken his reputation failed, Mr. Rychlak said.
“When Pius XII died in 1958, there were tributes from virtually every Jewish group around the world,” he said.
In 1963, German playwright Rolf Hochhuth drew on the communist propaganda to write “The Deputy,” which accused the pope of silence and inaction toward helping the Jews and began the decline in Pius’ reputation.
“The play and a number of books that followed that are basically fiction, very poor history and very inaccurate history,” said Drew L. Kershen, professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law in Norman.
In 1999, journalist John Cornwell attacked the pope and the Catholic Church in “Hitler’s Pope,” a moniker Mr. Cornwell has since recanted, Mr. Rychlak said.
At the time, Mr. Rychlak had submitted the manuscript for “Hitler, the War, and the Pope,” published in 2000. After hearing of Mr. Cornwell’s work, he added an epilogue to respond to the charges. Other writers took up the issue of Pius and the Catholic Church during World War II with attacks or defenses of the church’s actions.
Not long after “The Deputy” was released in 1965, Pope Paul VI began the lengthy process of declaring Pius a saint.
“It’s quite impossible for Pius to be Hitler’s pope, a vindictive, small-minded church bureaucrat and Jew hater, with the opposite view, which is he is very likely to be declared a saint of the church for his stand against Hitler. He can’t be both things,” said J. Fraser Field, executive officer of the Catholic Educator’s Resource Center in British Columbia.
For his second book, Mr. Rychlak took a lawyerly approach as he examined each of the charges against the pope, researched church archives, including a confidential Vatican report on Pius, and documented what he did to help the Jews.
Some of the charges against Pius, Mr. Rychlak said, had more to do with efforts to influence the selection of Pope John Paul II’s successor and with dislike for the Catholic Church and its teachings on matters related to sex and sexuality such as priestly celibacy, contraception and the all-male priesthood.
“John Cornwell was right in one respect. Hitler has a favorite cleric, but he was wrong who it was,” Mr. Dalin said, giving that title to Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the anti-Semitic grand mufti of Jerusalem, whom Mr. Dalin calls “Hitler’s mufti.”
“He established several anti-Jewish riots. He led these riots, which resulted in the killing of many Jews,” the rabbi said.
A Jewish historian coming to the defense of Pius is significant, said Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things magazine, and Mr. Dalin’s co-editor of “The Pius War, Responses to the Critics of Pius XII,” which was published in 2004.
“The stereotype is it is only right-wing Catholics who would defend this indefensible man, and here we have a Jewish rabbi and a serious historian doing it,” Mr. Bottum said, claiming that the “Pius war” is now mostly over.
“It was a long and arduous struggle, vituperative and cruel, but, in the end, the defenders of Pius XII won every major battle. Along the way, they also lost the war,” he said in the introduction.
The war is lost, he said, because Pius’ reputation remains poor despite the scholarly defenses, because what the public remembers are only the charges.