Pius XII failed to speak out against the Nazi murder of Jews because he feared making things even worse. German bishops failed to condemn Nazi atrocities because they feared for the church in Germany. Polish Christians failed to shelter Jews because if caught the penalty was death-not only for the rescuers, but for their entire families.

So runs the list of reasons for the passivity of Catholics in the face of Nazi terror. There were, of course, important exceptions. Like Berlin’s Msgr. Bernhard Lichtenberg, who was arrested by the Gestapo after he openly prayed for Jews in 1941. Or Alfred Delp, SJ, who was implicated in a plot to kill Hitler. Or the little-known Joseph Schmidlin, SVD, who taught Catholic theology at Münster and refused to greet other professors with “Heil Hitler,” as required by law. In 1935, he wrote the pope demanding a break of relations between the Vatican and Hitler, whom he called a “devil.” These three priests paid with their lives for their uncompromising defiance. Dozens of other vowed religious risked death by sheltering Jews. But these were cases of individual heroism, hundreds among millions, exceptions that proved the rule. The rule for Catholics in Nazi-controlled Europe was passivity verging on complicity. If one surveys the devastated continent of 1945-with cities in rubble, millions dead, seas of refugees-one has to wonder: What difference did Christians make?

The question is especially acute in Nazi-friendly Hungary. There Nazi terror did not limit Christian action. Until 1944 there were no German troops in the country. And when they entered in March to keep Hungary from defecting to the Allies, the church remained a pillar of the Hungarian political order. At that point, Hungary sheltered the one remaining intact Jewish community in Nazi-controlled Europe. But now, under urgent German prodding but minimal German military force, Hungary’s government quickly forced Jews into ghettos, and in less than two months deported some four hundred fifty thousand to Auschwitz. Very few returned.

Where was the Hungarian Catholic Church in all this? In his excellent and tersely argued monograph, Paul A. Hanebrink shows that the church paved the way for the destruction of Hungary’s Jews. From the 1880s, Catholic intellectuals and priests helped create an ideology of the Hungarian “Christian nation” that cast Jews as hostile to Hungary’s interests. This nationalism reached obsessive proportions after World War I, when Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory. Previously, the country’s secular elites had integrated Jews into Hungarian society as a counterweight to other ethnicities, like Rumanians, Slovaks, and Serbs. But when these groups got their own states, Jews became Hungary’s only significant minority. As such, they became the target of scapegoating.

The Catholic press contributed mightily to this endeavor, identifying Jews as corrosive to Christian morality. Catholic leaders-including the Cardinal Primate Jusztinián Serédi-supported restrictions on the number of Jews in the professions and at universities. In 1938, laws designed to “protect” Hungarians from the Jewish “race” by mandating further limits on Jewish business life were implemented with support from the church.

It would be unfair to say that Catholics and other Christians (mainly Calvinists and Lutherans) did absolutely nothing. There were dozens of brave nuns, priests, and laypersons who gave help and shelter, especially in Budapest, and saved thousands of lives. For its part, the Hungarian episcopate issued a series of protests. Yet as Hanebrink argues, the wording of these protests left no doubt that Catholic leaders were worried about the welfare not of all Jews but of Jews who had converted to Christianity. The government therefore could appease the church by making exceptions for “non-Aryan” Catholic clerics, who did not have to wear the Yellow Star.

Until his dying day, Adolf Eichmann was proud of the administrative feat of having coordinated the deportation of almost half a million Hungarian Jews in a mere six weeks. Could Catholic protests have stopped him? Perhaps not. But what if Catholic prelates had translated their muffled backroom protests into unmistakable censure and carried it to thousands of pulpits on successive Sundays? At the very least, the apparatus of death might not have functioned with the infernal smoothness that so pleased Eichmann.

Are these pious hopes fueled by the knowledge of hindsight? A letter sent by Vilmos Apor, bishop of Gyo?r, in April 1944 to Cardinal Serédi suggests not:

It fills me with great sorrow that Your Eminence has finally renounced his intention of publicly defending universal human rights, humanity, and the sacrament of baptism in a joint pastoral letter to all the Catholic faithful. I am convinced that the present government regards this as a sign of weakness in us and as an encouragement to proceed further along the path it has taken. And with these methods most of the faithful learn nothing of our fundamental attitude and our practical measures. How can they! We are thus also responsible for the fact that many Hungarians are taking part, more or less in good faith, in the enforcement of merciless regulations and are applauding doctrines which are to be condemned.

Bishop Apor maintained a simple faith in the church’s teaching mission that his superiors had evidently lost. Explanations for their silence vary. Supporters note a bargain Cardinal Serédi struck with Hungarian authorities: the government promised to halt the deportations if the episcopate withdrew plans to have priests read a condemnation at Sunday Mass. Indeed, a halt came to deportations, sparing the Jews of Budapest. Yet this was due more to the pressure of the Western allies, the Vatican, Switzerland, and Sweden than to the furtive negotiations of Hungary’s Catholic leaders.

Critics focus on the content of the letter that was never read. Failing to rise above the anodyne phraseology of the Vatican-speak of this period, it also bore traces of anti-Judaism, and did not defend Jews by name, speaking rather of “some of our fellow citizens” who are victims of a “series of measures that are against the laws of God.” When the unread letter did make explicit reference to Jews (“Jewry”), it was to applaud anti-Semitic policies taken earlier in the decade:

We have no doubt that a part of Jewry has had a guilty subversive influence on the Hungarian economic, social, and moral life. It is also a fact that the others did not stand up against their coreligionists in this respect. We do not dispute the fact that the Jewish question must be resolved in a legal and just manner. Therefore we do not object, but actually hold it desirable, that in the economic system of the country the necessary measures be taken and the rightfully objectionable symptoms be remedied.

Thus, the episcopate took the occasion of the Jews’ destruction to tell them, once again, that they were collectively guilty, if not of sins of commission, then of sins of omission. Rather than condemn evil, the church took pains to reshape its language so as not to give offense to Hungary’s fascists.

What penalty would Hungary’s church leaders have incurred by speaking out in defense of the Jews? Very little. For example, nothing happened to Bishop Apor, though he reminded Catholics that the “commandment of Christianity about love” applied equally to Jews. Until the seizure of power by Hungarian Nazis in October 1944, Hungarians who sheltered Jewish neighbors risked police observation, loss of jobs, and perhaps internment camps, but not death.

Hungary’s bishops probably never doubted that they were defending “Christian Hungary.” Yet in retrospect, this seems the most dubious element in any justification of their behavior. In their eyes “Christian” meant little more than “not Communist” and “not Jewish.” Readers of Hanebrink’s book will be appalled by the apparent intellectual poverty of Hungary’s Catholics. In the rare cases when Catholics cited Scripture or tradition, the argumentation appears politicized and opportunistic, far from the “folly and scandal of the Cross.”

Yet Hungarian Catholicism was no simple affair; it also included the courageous nun Sr. Margit Slachta, who condemned murders of Jews by Hungarian forces in the Ukraine in 1941, saying that they were done “in the name of Christianity, but against the spirit of Christianity.” Hanebrink’s book gives us no explanation of how Hungarian Catholicism also produced people like Sr. Slachta. Undoubtedly, chauvinist nationalism was the strongest influence on Hungarian Catholics in the early 1940s. But Hanebrink also tells us of a “small but intellectually prominent group of Catholics” who opposed racism and extreme-right politics. We learn some of their names-Count Gyorgy Szechenyi, Gyula Szekfu, Jeno? Katona-but we learn nothing about the inspiration they may have drawn from Catholic tradition for their opposition to Nazism. What caused them and dozens of others to swim against the current of their time?

The question involves more than simply honoring a relatively few courageous individuals. Their day is not so far from our own. Within a mere two decades of the tragic events of 1944, the church as a whole-with strong support of the bishops of Central Europe-moved to condemn racism and anti-Semitism. If the anti-Semitic views described by Hanebrink were so inextricably linked to Christian thought, then how did the church manage to disavow them?

Catholic opponents of Nazism were certainly exceptional, but they were not unimportant. We now recognize them as what John Courtney Murray called “the growing end of tradition.” If we want to understand how the church became what it is, then it will not do simply to catalogue the failings of Catholics in the past. We must also try to fathom how a minority managed to explode the governing assumptions of their time.

Published in the 2007-05-18 issue: 

John Connelly, a frequent contributor, is completing a book on the history of Eastern Europe, 1784 to the present.

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