Assigning Responsibility: The Burdens we Choose

Pope Pius XII
Pope Pius XII
Saint Edith Stein, a Jewish convert
Saint Edith Stein, a Jewish convert
Priests at Dachau
Priests at Dachau

As you might have gathered by my previous writings and choice of subjects, I am a little obsessed with the Holocaust, what it reveals about human nature and society, and our human duty to act responsibly and respectfully in the world, despite its complications and divisions. Each of us has a duty to act to the world's benefit, not its detriment, the apparent simplicity of this duty being complicated by political, economic, social, and personal variations, differences, errors, and misunderstandings. We can be certain that we should do good, not evil, and yet struggle to define what that good is, and where the risks of evil lie. In fact, I think we act better, we do the world more good and less harm, when we act in a condition of uncertainty and doubt, when we remain open to answers, not when we are convinced that we are in possession of THE answer which all others must be compelled to accept for their own, and our, good.

One of the problems of the Holocaust era that touches directly on man's ethical relationship to society, on the notion of responsibility, duty, and appropriate behavior, concerns religion. Pius XII is praised by some for his actions during the war, for his use of the Vatican's limited powers to influence and aid others, while others hold him responsible for allowing evils to occur, for not objecting loudly or fervently enough, nor specifically enough, to the evils that surrounded him, and of which he was aware. In some ways, the difficulty in judging Pius is related not to his individual humanity, but to his position, to his role as Pope, leader of the Roman Catholic Church, with the separate, superior responsibilities that role included. It may be compared to the higher ethical demands we make upon the actions of the United States of America, a country claiming a superior ethical position and value structure than other governments, guided by principles not subject to specious compromises with temporary difficulties, demands we do not make of dictatorships or kleptocracies.

Pius XII is not criminally responsible for the Holocaust. He did not participate in it. Within the limits of what he believed to be both possible and beneficial, he attempted to respond to the radical violence and immorality of the German Reich, as well as to the violence and immorality of the Stalinist state and the extremism of various other political factions alive and active in the 1930s and 1940s. Unlike Hitler and Stalin, the pope was not a totalitarian dictator, even though his power within the church was commanding; local bishops, priests, and Catholic laymen acted contrary to his express orders when they wished to, and so his ability to control events outside Vatican City was thus limited. He could influence, but he could also safely be ignored, deceived, and manipulated.

He was not criminally responsible. Was he, however, morally responsible? Did he fail in his spiritual role as Pope and, as Pope, bear responsibility for this failure? I believe he did. I do not feel it is necessary to assign active malice to the Pope in making this determination, nor is it necessary to pretend that he was a closet Nazi, a Fascist, or any other easily labelled hate-monger. He was, however, human, flawed, and in a difficult position. He was cautious, and sometimes he was too cautious. His responsibility to the Church, to the institutional structure and its material goods, sometimes interfered with his humanitarian impulses, for speaking too strongly, protesting too loudly, might increase threats to the church without realizing the salvation of any person at all. This judgment does not require Pius's demonization, and it does not mean that I neglect the acknowledgement of Pius's difficulties, the dilemmas with which he was faced and the complexities of the situations which he had to judge.

The Roman Catholic Church is an institution with personnel and material goods with which it is greatly concerned. This is natural. However, the Roman Catholic Church is a spiritual edifice, supposedly animated by the Christian ethos and dedicated to the realization of Christian community in the world. The Church fails in its spiritual responsibilities, sometimes in a spectacular fashion, at other times less spectacularly. This, too, is natural, and not specific to the Roman Catholic Church, but a fact of human institutions and individuals at all times, in all structures. The nature of the ethical claims made by the Church increase its duties. The Church has voluntarily taken upon itself a higher purpose, a greater measure of responsibility, and it is this voluntarily increase in responsibility, this burden, that forms the foundation of the Church's claims to authority within secular societies. The Church leads because it is more committed to good, more responsible, and more ethical in its commitments than other structures and organizations. When it fails, as it has most recently failed in the many sexual scandals and cover-ups of recent years, its ability to act as an authority, to command belief and obedience, is compromised.

The Roman Catholic Church was not as compromised in Nazi Germany as were most of the Protestant sects, who were, despite the prominence in resistance literature of the Confessing Church, largely more willing to comply with, or actively support, the Nazi state. The international structure of the Catholic Church, its long involvement in a multi-ethnic spiritual empire, and its hierarchical controls, which allowed the opinions and desires of those distant from Germany and the direct control of the Nazi state to frame official responses and actions in relationship to the state and its racial theories, acted as a protection for the ethical core of the Church, despite its local failures and the actions of renegade members of the clergy and laity. The most direct evidence of the Catholic Church as a source of possible, and sometimes realized, resistance to the demands of the Nazi state may be detected in the virulence of anti-Catholic beliefs and actions, especially in the cadres of the SS, but also in legal prosecutions and the pursuit of public scandals in order to undermine Church authority.

How then, when the Church retained the ability to be seen as an enemy of the regime, did it, and Pius, fail in its moral responsibilities? The Church did not accept the racist doctrines of the Nazi state. It did not embrace them. However, when converted Jews were threatened, the Church could not protect them. In some cases, it did not try. It accepted martyrdom for others, for the Catholics redefined as Jewish by the Nazis, revealing as it did so that there remained a difference between the Catholic born and the Catholic made. Making Edith Stein a saint under Pope John Paul II did not remove this failure from the history of the Church.

The Roman Catholic Church, with most Europeans in the 1930s, recognized the existence of a 'Jewish problem', and the Jewish problem was not a ;problem in the way European populations treated the Jew, but the Jews themselves. The Church, therefore, could object to excesses, to mistakes in treatment and radical solutions to the problem, but in accepting the people as the problem in the first place, it could only do so by pleading for more rational, humane solutions, for discrimination, confinement and degradation instead of extermination. It accepted that the Jews were the problem. The rest was a debate on the appropriate solution. The error was one shared with the majority of the population of Europe at the time, but it was an error nonetheless, and one which the Catholic Church, guided by its ethic, should not have made. It is an error for which the Church is responsible.

Pius II should have named names, firmly and without reservation declared not only what was wrong, but who was in error. Pius's statements condemning racism, certain actions, and atrocities, while clearly speaking of Germany, and understood by the regime as applying to Germany, did not name Germany, nor the regime, nor the perpetrators of wrongs. They remained diplomatic, subtle, refined. The persons to whom they were addressed, however, were not diplomatic, subtle, or refined. The reserve of the good diplomat was for them an opportunity to ignore, to deny, and, simultaneously, to attack the critic as prejudiced and unreasonable. Pius was not temperamentally suited to calling out the devil, and that is what was needed. That was the act that would have been true to the spirit animating Christianity which the Church could, and should, voice.

Pius XII had a spiritual responsibility greater than that of laymen or even mere priests in the Church. He had that responsibility as Pope. It was a burden he chose to accept. He was a burden he ultimately failed to fulfill as truly as he might have. And yet, he did do good. He did save Jews, both Jewish converts and Jews who did not convert, and he ordered others to do so, he supported others who did so on their own initiative. He did not praise the devil, nor ally himself to him. He remained independent, critical, sorrowful, and perplexed. The problem with Pius is not that he did nothing, but that he did not do enough. In the circumstances, simultaneously responsible for a Church, negotiating a difficult situation within Italy, and responsible to many separate populations in the wider world, it may have been impossible for him to have done enough. But it is his silence, his diplomacy, that ultimately condemns him, not as a criminal, but as one who should not be sanctified, one who did not illustrate the extreme bravery and commitment to Christian principles that, in my mind, a saint must have.

More troubling than Pius's actions during the war, which, while disappointing, are at least understandable, is the Catholic Church's use to war criminals after the war as an escape route. The Church saved murderers from justice, and it did so without the excuse of ignorance. It was not the only institution to do so, of course; the United States also saved murderers, like Klaus Barbie, who reached Bolivia instead of a French court. He was only tried many years later, after successfully hiding himself within Latin America. The United States knew the French were looking for this torturer, but they did not care. They had other priorities, namely avoiding the embarrassment of acknowledging their employment of him in post-war Europe under the paranoia of Cold War concerns. That the Church forgives is understandable within the rule of its theology, but it is not given to this forgiveness to prevent justice or secrete criminals in foreign parts. Today, after reading of the Rwandan genocide, and the role of churches and churchmen in that genocide, I ask what the Church has done regarding priests and nuns who actively participated in the murders of parishioners. I do not know what it has done, but I am sure that it should do something, should act publicly and firmly in a rejection of what was done by those wearing the collar or the habit, as part of its spiritual mission on earth.

A clear argument can be made that during the war actions that were too direct, too risky, might have ended with the death of those who acted. Indeed, attempting to save Jews, if detected, did end the lives of the saviors and those whom they tried to save. However, morally, ethically, there are situations in which the fear of death is not an excuse, but the foundation of a failure, an understandable flight for which understanding does not obviate responsibility, although the responsibility of the man who runs, who flees responsibility, is less direct than that of the man who kills, certainly lesser in its gravity, and not subject to criminal prosecution. Nor should it be. Not every fault, not every failure, is a criminal action. But merely falling short of criminality is not heroism. It is not innocence. It is not sanctity.


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