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Why Pope Pius XII Was Right


By Ronald J. Rychlak | October 1998
Ronald J. Rychlak is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He is currently putting the finishing touches on a book-length manuscript entitled Hitler, the War, and the Pope.

During World War II, the Catholic Church, on the instructions of Pope Pius XII, sheltered Jews and other victims of the Nazis, provided falsified travel documents to those who could benefit from them, distributed food and clothing to those who suffered, comforted the injured and grieving, and transmitted vital information to the Allied military leaders. But because Pius XII did not publicly and repeatedly denounce Adolf Hitler, his role remains a point of controversy.

Some commentators charge that Pius XII’s “silence” reflected moral cowardice, and that he failed to give guidance to his flock. Others variously assert that the Vatican was concerned only about Catholic victims, not Jews; or that the Church was overly influenced by worldly considerations; or that the Holy See was anti-Semitic; or that the Pope’s dread of Communism blinded him to the truth about the Nazis. One writer (Jack Chick, Smokescreens, 1983) has gone so far as to say: “Pope Pius XII should have stood before the judges in Nuremberg. His war crimes were worthy of death.”

Let us leave that ferocious assessment to one side while we reacquaint ourselves with the historical record, a record quite accessible yet not widely known. It shows not only that Pius did an enormous amount of work on behalf of suffering humanity, but also that his choice to work steadfastly behind the scenes was the best choice he could have made.

We must go all the way back to the First World War, when the man who would become Pope Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli, was hard at work in Munich as the Vatican’s nuncio (ambassador) to the German state of Bavaria. Germany was a major participant in that war and was viewed by many as the chief aggressor. Pacelli was charged with presenting Pope Benedict XV’s peace plan to German leaders. He carried out the assignment and, while it did not directly lead to peace, several of Benedict’s proposals were included a year later in President Woodrow Wilson’s 14-point plan that helped bring the hostilities to an end.

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