News reports regarding recently opened Vatican archives confirm that Pope Pius XII knew about the Holocaust as early as 1942. That is no surprise. The Vatican had extensive contacts across Europe. But such revelations about the tragic relationship between Catholics and Jews reminded me of an uncomfortable episode early in my time as editor of Commonweal. Unpacking a few boxes of papers recently, I came across a copy of the May 2004 issue of Catholic Digest. As you might suspect, that monthly magazine, which was founded in 1936 and folded in 2020, was modeled after Readers Digest. For a period, it had a circulation in the millions. The May 2004 issue featured articles titled “Fascinated by Mary?”, “Miracle in a Bottle” on Lourdes, a historical note on “What Happens When a Pope Dies?”, and some health items—“Stroke!” and “Skin Cancer: Five Facts you Must Know.” There were ads for Catholic religious orders and charities as well as one for investing in gold coins. There was also an article titled “The Suspicious Catholic.” It was a profile of me.
I had worked with the author of that profile for five years at a mid-size Connecticut daily newspaper. We were friendly. I had left the paper fourteen years before to join Commonweal. When I became editor of Commonweal in 2003, he contacted me, said he had been doing freelance work for Catholic Digest, and asked if he could write about my appointment as editor. I was somewhat hesitant, since my old colleague was both an enterprising reporter and something of a provocateur. Nevertheless, I said yes. He interviewed me over the phone, and his questions often seemed to focus on the fact that I was not married to a Catholic but to a Jew. Since he was Jewish himself, someone who was also in a “mixed” marriage, I didn’t think too much of that line of questioning at the time. Perhaps I should have.
Most of the article was unobjectionable, but it did touch on subjects that a certain kind of Catholic would find disturbing—especially the fact that none of my three children were baptized or raised Catholic. As I explained to the author of the profile, my wife is the daughter of Holocaust survivors and she was uncomfortable baptizing our children after what her parents had been through in Germany and Poland during the war, where the Church did almost nothing to stop the persecution of the Jews. The Church’s failure to loudly condemn the Nazis was something I had struggled with, but I was eventually convinced that Catholicism is not “inherently anti-Semitic.” Vatican II, Nostra Aetate, and Pope John Paul II were a great help in that regard. As for the religious education of our children, I explained that “everyone always says example is the greatest teacher. My Catholicism is the greatest example.” (We’d see about that!) When it came to my broader theological views, I described myself as being somewhat theologically conservative but open to change. “People can disagree with the Church and still be faithful Catholics,” I said.
I’m not sure if it was that last sentiment, the religious education of our children, the ambiguous title of the article, or just plain old anti-Semitism that set off Catholic Digest’s readers, but the response was vehement and almost entirely negative. Curiously, I ran into the publisher of Catholic Digest not long after “The Suspicious Catholic” was published. He told me the magazine had never received so much hate mail about one article.
Which brings me back to Pius XII, the Holocaust, and my in-laws. I don’t think there is any doubt that Pius and the Vatican knew about mass killings early on, just as the new revelations indicate. Nor is it a secret that Pius’s fear of Soviet Communism and his experience and justified fear of German Communists as a diplomat in Weimar Germany distorted his judgment. Of course, he was not entirely wrong about the Soviets. Stalin, like Hitler, was a genocidal monster. Should Pius have publicly condemned the Nazi murders of Jews? Of course. Would it have made a difference? I don’t think so. Would most German Catholics have abandoned the Nazis even if the pope told them to? That is fantasy. Like most Europeans, nationalism was the overriding faith of most German Catholics.
I once asked my father-in-law what, if anything, could have stopped Hitler and the Holocaust. He had been deported from Germany to Poland along with thousands of other Jews in 1938. He was imprisoned in a concentration camp and the Warsaw Ghetto. He and his wife hid out for six years, returning to Germany in the last year of the war, hoping to end up in a zone controlled by the Americans or the British rather than the Soviets. They lucked out. He dismissed notions that some papal statement or Allied “rescue plan” would have ended the slaughter. There was only one thing that could end the Holocaust, he said, and that was the total military defeat of Germany.
I don’t want to make apologies for Pius’s inaction, but neither do I want to minimize the complexity of his wartime situation or exaggerate his power to stop the Nazis. Indeed, it is sobering to think of the choices he had in dealing with an unapologetically genocidal regime. I was reminded of his predicament when Mitt Romney recently spoke about why his fellow Republican senators failed to vote to impeach Donald Trump. They were fearful, scared by violent threats against them and their families if they convicted Trump. The dangers facing Pius, and those he was in some sense responsible for, were of magnitudes greater than anything those senators feared. Pius wielded no power beyond his example and powers of persuasion, while the likely consequences of any condemnation of Hitler were dire. On the other hand, Republican senators had real power, and a vote to impeach Trump would have made an enormous, possibly democracy-saving difference. Or so thinks this suspicious Catholic.