Pope Pius XII has been praised and criticized for his actions and inactions during WW II. John Cornwall in Hitler’s Pope was among the critical.
Riebling portrays the Pope as willing and ready to speak out against the Nazis but restrained by the German Catholic Church.
Within Germany the Catholic cardinals and bishops thought it counter-productive to have the Pope protesting Nazi actions against the Jews for the Nazis already saw the Church as their enemy. Those leaders expected reprisals that would not just be limited to the Church. When Dutch bishops spoke out against Jewish deportations from the Netherlands there was a deportation of 80,000 Jews. Furthermore, they believed the Pope would, as an outsider, be considered as interfering in German politics.
In 1942 a German priest, Father Leiber convinced Pius, not to publish a public protest:
The pope would do better to keep a public silence and do whatever he could in secret. Pius handed the pages to Leiber, who threw them into the kitchen fireplace and watched them burn.
Yet the most important reason for public silence was the part being played by the Church in German Resistance to Hitler. There is abundant documentation in the book that Church clergy and lay persons were important members of the Resistance.
Plotters inside Germany sought secure means to liase with the nations fighing the Nazis. Led by Admiral Canaris of the German Abwehr they sought to use the Catholic Church’s reliable and secret means of communications between Germany and Rome.
The Church has always maintained its private means of communications to and from Rome.
While the Nazis did achieve some penetration of the Church the Pope continued to have trusted agents and couriers that kept communications flowing.
The Vatican knew the Nazis would seek to infilitrate it and was wary of Nazi spies. In scenes that would seem implausible in a Hollywood thriller meetings were held in a crypt at St. Peter’s where excavations were being done to see if the grave of St. Peter was beneath an altar. In the depths of the great Basilica plots were refined and information assessed.
What startled me was the direct participation of Catholic priests and lay people in the plots against Hitler. There were two planned coups that faltered at the last moment that preceeded the assassination attempt in the summer of 1944.
In all the plots the Pope had given his blessing and approval while the consipirators kept his name from the documents should the plots fail. Had they succeeded the Pope was ready to offer assistance in mediation and peace talks.
In most great ventures there are little known heroes. Joseph Muller is among the least known characters of WW II. He was the key man for the Pope in Germany on connections with the German Resistance. My next post will further discuss this amazing man.
In his work he was greatly aided by a network of Bavarian Jesuits.
The plotters wanted to be known as representatives of Decent Germany.
I was intrigued by the theological justifications for the killing of Hitler. While the Catholic Church had developed moral reasoning on the killing of tyrants centuries ago the Protestant Churches of German did not have a comparable analysis which hampered those plotters who were Protestant.
Count Claus von Stauffenberg, the day before he attempted to assassinate Hitler went to confession and possibly sought a special blessing of the Last Rites because of the anticipated danger to his life.
When the plot failed the investigations and punishments were brutally conducted. How the Catholic participants faced the SS interrogators was profound and inspiring. We do not think often of modern martyrs.
While Pius, for the sake of the Church, was discreet the records clearly show he approved of the Church’s participation in the plots against Hitler which meant the Church was sanctioning his assassination.
While the coups were worthy causes they were and are a perilous path for a Church to engage so directly in violent government overthrow. Riebling sums up the dilemma:
In war the Vatican tried to stay neutral. Because the pope represented Catholics of all nations, he had to appear unbiased. Taking sides would compel some Catholics to betray their country, and others their faith.
Riebling is not going to convince those who condemn Pius that he played a significant role in challenging the Nazi regime but his secret actions were far more significant than I had ever realized. The Catholic Church was the leading support of the German Resistance who conspired against Hitler and the Nazis.