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Scholar Ronald Rychlak Defends Wartime Pope

JACKSON, Mississippi, JAN. 14, 2006 (Zenit) - Despite what some modern critics say, Pope Pius XII launched a multifaceted response to the Nazi campaign against the Jews.

So says, Ronald Rychlak, an adviser to the Holy See's delegation to the United Nations, University of Mississippi law professor and author of "Righteous Gentiles: How Pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church Saved Half a Million Jews from the Nazis".

Rychlak shared with us some of the information he has amassed in defense of Pius XII and the Church, and how Catholics can respond to detractors.

Q: How is this book different from those that have previously defended Pope Pius XII? What new information does it reveal?

Rychlak: In "Righteous Gentiles" I directly respond to arguments made by the critics of Pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church during the Nazi era. I generally tried to avoid doing that in my last book -- "Hitler, the War, and the Pope" -- because I wanted to lay out the facts chronologically and just as they happened.

Philosopher Michael Novak, author of the foreword to "Righteous Gentiles," pointed out that over the past five years there have been so many books and articles that set forth arguments against the Church that a book responding to them had become necessary.

That's what I have tried to do with this book: address each and every argument that has been lodged against Pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church during the Holocaust.

As for new information, the first chapter of "Righteous Gentiles" sets forth 18 new pieces of evidence that have come to light in recent years. Each one casts a positive light on Pius XII and the Catholic Church.

The book also discusses Pope Pius XII, the Germany clergy and other rescuers from nations throughout Europe. Those topics have not, for the most part, been discussed in other recent pro-Pius XII books.

Q: How did Pius XII and the Catholic Church respond to Nazi aggression?

Rychlak: Pius XII's response was multifaceted. He opened buildings throughout Rome, providing food, shelter and clothing to all those in need. He also made many statements in opposition to the Nazis and in support of the Jews.

His first encyclical, "Summi Pontificatus" -- released just weeks after the outbreak of war -- expressly mentioned Jews and urged solidarity with all who profess a belief in God. Allied forces later dropped thousands of copies behind enemy lines for propaganda purposes.

In his 1942 Christmas statement, Pius spoke on behalf of "the hundreds of thousands who, through no fault of their own, and solely because of their nation or race, have been condemned to death or progressive extinction."

His 1943 encyclical "Mystici Corporis Christi" explained: "Our paternal love embraces all peoples, whatever their nationality or race." He went on to say that Christ, by his blood, made Jews and Christians one "breaking down the middle wall of partition ... in his flesh by which the two peoples were divided."

Pius XII also used his representatives throughout Europe to intervene on behalf of Jewish victims. He sent open telegrams complaining to collaborating governments and commiserating with the persecuted.

He established the Pontifical Relief Commission which distributed food, medicine and clothing in 40 countries during the war, and he created the Vatican Information Office which supplied information about missing persons and helped reunite families -- all without any discrimination on the basis of race, religion or nationality.

Many Catholic rescuers were inspired by the repeated appeals in support of Jews that were broadcast on Vatican Radio. Some rescuers even testified to direct papal orders that they received to help victimized Jews.

The Pope's position, like his means of inspiring the resistance, was well understood during the war. The New York Times reported that because of him, "hiding someone 'on the run' became the thing to do."

The Congregation for the Causes of Saints, following a 39-year investigation into Pius XII's life, concluded that the only way to save the Jews was with "secret but efficient ways to shelter them, provide them food and clothing, and move them to neutral countries. Pius XII did this in a manner unequaled by any state or organization."

Q: What did you find in your research of Church archives, especially the confidential Vatican report on Pius XII?

Rychlak: I was able to draw upon documents that I saw for the first time in March 2003, when I traveled to Rome to examine materials from newly opened Vatican archives. I returned to Rome in April 2004, at which time I was given extraordinary access to the still-confidential internal Vatican report -- the "positio" -- prepared by historians for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

This eight-volume work includes sworn testimony from about 100 witnesses who knew Pius XII. It also reviews all the scholarship in the area -- critical and supportive -- and looks to the victims, the rescuers and the Nazi villains.

Relying on this evidence, and applying reasonable standards to evaluate his leadership -- as opposed to the ever-shifting and unfair procedures adopted by so many critics -- it sets forth a compelling case that he lived a life of heroic virtue.

Q: Why do so many scholars and critics want to find Pius XII culpable in Nazi atrocities?

Rychlak: The "positio" concludes that there is a campaign to denigrate the personality and work of Pius XII. This should not, I think, be taken as an orchestrated campaign of critics working in conjunction.

Rather, many of the critics share a view of the world that runs counter to the Catholic Church, and they have tried to advance their view and discredit the Church by denigrating Pope Pius XII.

Read through to the end of most of these books and you will find that the authors are critical not only of Pope Pius XII, but also the late Pope John Paul II, the positions expressed by Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, traditional Catholic doctrines of papal supremacy, the all-male priesthood and especially Catholic sexual teachings.

In fact, because the Catholic Church stands as the pre-eminent voice advancing the very concept of ultimate truth, it is their main target -- not Pius or any other individual.

Q: What factual evidence can Catholics cite in response to criticism of Pius XII and the Church during World War II?

Rychlak: Much of the evidence, including sheltering, feeding and clothing the Jews of Rome, is well known. The same goes for his public statements and the offer of gold to pay a ransom so that the Nazis would not deport Roman Jews. The diplomatic protests and radio broadcasts are not as well known, but are just as important.

Some of the newly discovered evidence that is set forth in "Righteous Gentiles" includes letters from Pius XII containing money to be used to help interned Jews.

There is also a 1933 letter from Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli -- the future Pius XII -- instructing the papal representative in Germany to intervene with the Nazi government regarding "anti-Semitic excesses in Germany."

In 1923, Pacelli -- who was then the papal representative in Germany -- wrote to Rome reporting that "right-wing radicals" and "followers of Hitler" were persecuting Catholics and Jews.

He praised the "learned and zealous" archbishop of Munich who had been attacked by the Nazis because he "had denounced the persecutions against the Jews."

Q: Why is Pius XII's exoneration crucial to future Catholic-Jewish relations?

Rychlak: As Jews and Catholics have come together in recent years, this issue has remained a stumbling block. It's unfortunate, because we share so many interests and outlooks. We need to get to the truth, which will permit us to focus on joint efforts and shared heritage.

That, not revision of Catholic doctrine or social teaching, is the important result that should come from honest research into the Catholic Church during the Nazi era.

Q: Why do you think the Jewish people should award Pius XII the title of "Righteous Gentile"?

Rychlak: Since 1963, a commission headed by an Israeli Supreme Court justice has been charged with awarding the title "Righteous among the Nations."

In general, when a non-Jewish person risked his or her life, freedom and safety in order to rescue one or more Jews from the threat of death or deportation, without exacting monetary compensation, the rescuer qualifies for consideration as a "Righteous Gentile."

As Rabbi David Dalin has long asserted, based on the record that we already have, Pope Pius XII fully deserves that designation. I also think that this designation would once-and-for-all resolve the controversy and heal the divisions.

The Holocaust was a horrible era in the history of mankind. The best way to assure that it is not repeated is to deal honestly with the facts.

The victims of that era thanked Pius XII, the rescuers identified him as their inspiration and the Nazis detested him. Those who want to revise history have ignored this evidence.

I hope that "Righteous Gentiles" can, in some small way, help restore the truth.

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Keywords

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