Pius XII to Roosevelt: Please Spare Us 

The Telegraph in the UK and other newspapers recently reported about a letter written by Pope Pius XII to President Roosevelt. In this letter, dated August 30, 1943, the pope begged President Roosevelt to spare Rome from Allied bombing. At a time of devastating clashes between American and German forces in Anzio, Monte Cassino and elsewhere, the pope rightly feared the Americans would bomb Rome and thus likely destroy the hundreds of church properties in Rome and the Vatican, destroy priceless Vatican treasure, and even the very symbols of Catholic identity and power, from the basilica of St. Peter’s to the lives of the pope, the curia, and thousands of other members of the clergy.

Gabriel Wilensky

Pope Pius was certainly preoccupied with protecting Rome. So much so that he seems to have neglected worrying about other things, like protecting lives, preventing mass murder, and saving souls, for instance.

When Berlin’s Bishop Preysing pressured the Pope to speak out against the murder of the Jews, the Pope replied that to him the most pressing issue was maintaining the Church’s unity and the trust of Catholics on either side of the conflict. To the pope, the murder of millions of Jews was less important than causing the millions of Catholics fighting in the German armed forces some moral anguish. When a correspondent for L’Osservatore Romano asked the pope whether he was not going to protest the extermination of the Jews, the pope answered, “Dear friend, do not forget that millions of Catholics serve in the German armies. Shall I bring them into conflicts of conscience?”[i]

“Pope Pius also seemed to have forgotten to instruct the faithful listening that murdering Jews was a crime and a mortal sin, which meant millions of Catholics went on merrily murdering Jews with a clean conscience. They never heard from the infallible vicar of Christ or the vast majority of the clergy that being a part of the machinery of extermination was a guaranteed ticket to hell.”

He also wrote to Bishop Preysing that he felt he had to do whatever was necessary, including sacrificing his moral standing, to maintain the safety of Rome. And at least with Sir Francis D’Arcy Osborne, the British Ambassador to the Vatican, the pope had lost his moral standing. It’s not too surprising then to know that Osborne wrote, “I am revolted by Hitler’s massacre of the Jewish race on the one hand and, on the other, the Vatican’s apparently exclusive preoccupation . . . with the possibilities of the bombardment of Rome.”[ii] Osborne had been frustrated with the pope for a long time. He had written to the pope on September 1942 asking him to condemn the extermination of the Jews of Europe. But the pope did not allow himself to get entangled in any such public denunciations. As Osborne wrote to him, “A policy of silence in regard to such offenses against the conscience of the world must necessarily involve a renunciation of moral leadership.”[iii] Still, the pope would not budge. The British and the Americans continued to pressure him until they finally got the pope to make the first of his two declarations that could be construed as some sort of condemnation of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question”. The vehicle for the first of these was the pope’s Christmas 1942 message, broadcast over Vatican Radio and heard by millions of people. In this tepid and innocuous message, delivered at a time when millions of Jews had already been murdered, the pope spoke for about forty-five minutes on other topics, and only at the end uttered a few sentences lamenting that “hundreds of thousands” of innocent human beings “were doomed to death”. The pope chose not to mention that those doomed to death were Jews, or that the ones killing were Germans, or that what was happening was mass murder. As always, this was delivered in that typical Vatican language so vague and obtuse no one really understood what was being said. As the German ambassador to the Vatican reported to his superiors after a similar communiqué, “There is less reason to object to the terms of this message . . . as only a very small number of people will recognize in it a special allusion to the Jewish question.”[iv]

Pope Pius also seemed to have forgotten to instruct the faithful listening that murdering Jews was a crime and a mortal sin, which meant millions of Catholics went on merrily murdering Jews with a clean conscience. They never heard from the infallible vicar of Christ or the vast majority of the clergy that being a part of the machinery of extermination was a guaranteed ticket to hell. Aside from the crimes committed by clergy before, during and after the Second World War, and the colossal moral failures of the Church vis-à-vis the Holocaust, the Church also failed miserably as a pastor of souls.

[i] Statement of Dr. Senatro on March 11, 1963, at a public discussion in Berlin. Quoted in Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, p. 304.

[ii] Quoted in Garry Wills, Papal Sin, p. 66.

[iii] Owen Chadwick, Britain and the Vatican during the Second World War, p. 212-213.

[iv] Weizsäcker to the Foreign Ministry, October 28, 1943, PA Bonn, Inland IIg, 192.

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