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Heroes or Villains?

The Catholic Bishops of Europe and the Nazi Persecutions of Catholics and Jews

By Vincent Lapomarda, S.J

Publisher: Edwin Mellen Press

Pages: 309 pages

Price: $149.95

Review Author: William Doino Jr.

William Doino Jr. is a contributing editor of Inside the Vatican, an online columnist for First Things, and author of "An Annotated Bibliography of Works on Pius XII, the Second World War, and the Holocaust," as it appears in The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII (Lexington Books, 2004).

Few subjects generate as much interest — and debate — as the Catholic Church’s record during the Holocaust, and for understandable reasons. The Church believes she was founded by Jesus Christ to be His teaching instrument on earth, proclaiming and upholding divinely revealed truth. It is only right, therefore, to evaluate how the Church’s leaders fared when confronted with the worst evil of the twentieth century. Since the end of the Second World War, numerous historians have addressed this question, but if an answer could ever be provided, it would have to be (1) tentative, since only God can pass final judgment on individuals, and (2) multi-dimensional, since the Catholic hierarchy — like all humanity — has been so broad and diverse.

As director of the Hiatt Holocaust Collection at the College of the Holy Cross and author of the acclaimed book The Jesuits and the Third Reich, Vincent Lapomarda, S.J, is a recognized authority in this area of research. His new book The Catholic Bishops of Europe and the Nazi Persecutions of Catholics and Jews seeks to survey and analyze the hierarchy’s wartime record, amid a sea of controversy. It succeeds remarkably well; the book is nuanced, insightful, and extensively researched.

Any book chronicling the activities of bishops inevitably comes back to the supreme leader of them all — the bishop of Rome — and that is where Lapomarda begins. His introduction highlights the character and conduct of the men who most recently preceded Pope Francis. All of them, he notes, were guided by timeless Christian principles and were fully aware of modernity’s dangers. Beginning with Pius XI’s great encyclicals against fascism, Nazism, and communism, and continuing with Pius XII’s Summi Pontificatus, the papacy took a powerful stand against totalitarianism — so much so that by 1943 Time magazine paid this extraordinary tribute: “No matter what critics might say, it is scarcely deniable that the Church Apostolic, through the encyclicals and other papal pronouncements, has been fighting against totalitarianism more knowingly, devoutly and authoritatively, and for a longer time, than any organized power…. The Catholic Church wants a conservative reconstitution of society in the name of God, justice, peace. Moreover, it insists on the dignity of the individual whom God created in his own image and for a decade has vigorously protested against the cruel persecution of the Jews as a violation of God’s tabernacle.”

The Popes who succeeded Pius XII — Angelo Roncalli (John XXIII), Giovanni Battista Montini (Paul VI), Albino Luciani (John Paul I), Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II), and Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) — all resisted Nazism as young men, seminarians, or priests. Similar convictions held sway among a wide spectrum of Catholics during the war — though not all. Fr. Lapomarda is frank about that and makes no excuses for the enablers, compromisers, and collaborators who betrayed the Judeo-Christian tradition. He does, however, highlight the noble deeds of Catholic leaders who’ve been forgotten by mainstream historians and even by Catholics themselves.

Focusing on the Catholic bishops — without overlooking nuncios, religious, and ordinary laymen — Lapomarda examines each country affected by the war, and considers how Catholics, especially those in positions of power, reacted.

In Germany, the epicenter of Nazism, hardly any established force — churches, media, academia, business, or the arts — resolutely fought Hitler, but what resistance did exist often came from faithful Catholics, whom Hitler, being an apostate himself, detested. Fr. Lapomarda makes clear that racism and anti-Semitism were the foundational evils of Nazism and that exterminating Jews remained Hitler’s overwhelming priority. He makes no attempt to “Christianize” the Holocaust or to blur the distinction between Christian suffering and the genocide of the Jews. At the same time, the persecution of faithful Catholics was ferocious, and the ultimate destruction of the Church was always a Nazi goal.

In the face of this onslaught, a number of German bishops — notably Konrad von Preysing of Berlin, Johann Sproll of Rottenberg, and Matthias Ehrenfried of Würzburg — stood out as true disciples of Christ, becoming champions of the oppressed and fierce opponents of Hitler. Michael Cardinal von Faulhaber of Munich had a much more uneven record, like most of the other German bishops — succumbing, as they sometimes did, to defective notions of patriotism. But their record was not without honor, as proven by the frequent Nazi attacks against them. Totally inexcusable, however, was the behavior of Bishop Conrad Gröber of Freiburg (known as the “brown” bishop for his compliant attitude under the Third Reich) and especially Franz Rarkowski, the notorious military bishop, whose wartime exhortations make for painful reading. Fr. Lapomarda rightly calls the latter’s conduct “absolutely deplorable.”

Clerical collaboration also occurred in the Nazi satellites of Slovakia and Croatia, although there too were exceptions: Bl. Alojzije Stepinac, archbishop of Zagreb and a fearless opponent of racism and anti-Semitism, being foremost among them.

In Italy, France, and Hungary, episcopal opposition to Hitler was notably intense, and in the Netherlands striking: The Dutch bishops openly condemned Nazi atrocities with words of fire. And yet, as Fr. Lapomarda shows, “speaking out” did not always save lives but sometimes actually cost them, as the Nazis frequently hunted down those who protested, taking savage revenge against them and other innocents. The ongoing danger of reprisals was a major factor in the wartime decisions of Catholic officials and something to keep in mind when evaluating their conduct.

Poland is a case in point: In a country brutally invaded and then decimated by the Nazis — who established most of their extermination camps there — Poles caught protecting Jews were severely punished and often executed. And while Polish anti-Semitism was undeniably active, Polish Catholics should be better known for their life-saving compassion and extraordinary heroism. The many Polish martyrs (including bishops) who died acting out their Catholic faith are an eloquent testimony to that. So too is the fact that Poland has more “Righteous Gentiles” honored at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust Memorial, than any other nation.

The countries mentioned above are only a portion of those covered in the book. All told, Fr. Lapomarda examines over twenty, and demonstrates how widespread and effective Catholic resistance was during the war years, disproving oft-heard claims that it was sparse and feeble.

Not to be forgotten are the many papal nuncios who, under the direction of Pius XII, tirelessly worked to assist the persecuted. Exceptional in this regard were Andrea Cassulo in Romania, Angelo Rotta in Hungary, and the aforementioned Angelo Roncalli, the future John XXIII, in Greece and Turkey. (The first two have already been declared Righteous by Yad Vashem, and a movement is under way to have Roncalli honored.)

One other Vatican diplomat not nearly as well known, but who should be, is Giovanni Ferrofino, secretary to Archbishop Maurilio Silvani, the apostolic nuncio to Haiti. On the direct instructions of the Pope, both men made numerous wartime visits to Rafael Trujillo, strongman of the Dominican Republic, and — amazingly — were able to secure thousands of visas for desperate Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe, thus ensuring their survival. “In one of Archbishop Ferrofino’s interviews,” adds Fr. Lapomarda, “he recalled how Pius XII, by banging his hand on the table, expressed frustration at the failure of the Americans to help the Jews. All of Ferrofino’s testimonies, written and oral, are in the archives at Yad Vashem.” Perhaps that is one reason why Israel’s Holocaust Memorial recently revised its previously critical exhibit on Pius XII to acknowledge the growing evidence in Pius’s favor.

One thing that stands out in Fr. Lapomarda’s valuable study is his command of the available evidence, including recent findings, from primary sources, specialized literature, and personal testimonies. He has a true historian’s ability to synthesize a vast array of material and keenly assess it for the reader’s edification.

Impressive as it is, Fr. Lapomarda’s book is likely to be challenged — and, in fact, already has been. One contentious reviewer alleged that Lapomarda ignores archival sources and is over-protective of the Catholic clergy — charges that are demonstrably untrue and academically unfair. It will not be easy to change the views of those determined to cast the Church and the Pope as perpetrators rather than victims. Stuck as they are in a world of endless recrimination, sweeping generalizations, and outdated information, the Church’s critics ignore evidence that challenges their one-sided narratives. Fair-minded readers, however, will welcome Fr. Lapomarda’s book as a helpful corrective to the broadsides published against the wartime Church. The Catholic Bishops of Europe and the Nazi Persecutions of Catholics and Jews is an outstanding example of the new scholarship taking place, and a sign that balance and integrity is finally returning to this important field of historical inquiry.

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