All opinions expressed are those of the writer.

Christianity is a faith founded on ideals of love and friendship for our fellow man, and since the 1960s, the Catholic Church has devoted serious efforts to deepening interfaith relations, especially those between Christians and Jews. Through these efforts, Christians around the world have begun to place more importance in understanding and valuing the Jewish roots of their faith. Recently, with the reappearance of antisemitism across Europe and North America, as well as the opening of Pope Pius XII’s (1939-1958) archives, there has been increased interest in uncovering the whole truth of Vatican policies during WWII.

For a brief moment in early March, the sealed Vatican archives of Pope Pius XII were opened to researchers from across the globe. Traditionally, the Vatican seals all archives of past popes until 75 years after their pontificate comes to a close; however, international and interreligious interest in the Vatican’s WWII and early Cold War history convinced Pope Francis to open these archives a few months early—just in time to be closed again, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Until now, historians have only been able to make educated guesses as to the thought process behind the Pope’s public and private policies. Under Pope Pius XII, the Church refrained from making public statements about the Holocaust and seemed to silently watch as the Jewish community of Rome was raided and sent to their deaths at Auschwitz. At the same time, the Vatican was secretly hiding hundreds of Jews within its own sovereign, neutral walls.   

The archives of Pope Pius XII, known before his election as Eugenio Pacelli, hold the answers to several questions that historians have been clamoring to answer for over half a century. The questions that are of most interest to Christians today concern the Vatican’s interactions with the Nazi regime just beyond their city walls. What did the Pope know about the Nazi agenda? What was the Vatican’s true stance on the Holocaust as it was occuring? And, how did the Holocaust change the Vatican’s approach to interreligious dialogue? 

Yad Vashem offers a comprehensive summary on their website of what is currently known to answer these questions; namely, that Pope Pius XII was horrified by the Nazi inhuman cruelty toward the Jews. However, he was not so moved as to revisit the antisemetic roots and repercussions of certain Church doctrines. 

The most notable discoveries from the archives to date are a series of letters related to Vatican knowledge of the Holocaust, and the Church stance on the fate of Jewish children placed in their care during the war. According to The Times of Israel, The US government asked the Pope if he would be able to corroborate the news of genocide coming out of occupied Poland and Ukraine, but the Pope replied that he could not. 

During the days that researchers were able to access the archives, The Times of Israel reports that religious historian Hubert Wolf from the University of Münster uncovered several letters addressed to Pius XII, detailing personal accounts of the “outright diabolical” and “incredible butchery” of Jews and other minorities in countries occupied by the Nazis. It remains unknown why the Pope chose not to share this information with the allies, but historians believe that further analysis of Pius XII’s archives will paint a clearer image of the choices he made.     

Historians also discovered several papal correspondences relating to the Finaly Affair in France at the end of WWII. During the Nazi occupation of France, two orphaned Jewish brothers were taken in by a Catholic woman and hidden in a school run by a group of Nuns. After France was liberated, surviving aunts came forward to claim guardianship of their nephews, but the Catholic community of Grenoble refused to comply with court orders to transfer the boys into their aunts’ care, because, without the consent of their family, they had been baptised as Catholics. 

According to existing doctrine, Jewish children who were baptised into Catholicism became the spiritual wards of the Church, and could not be returned to their Jewish family for fear that they may be influenced into reverting to their previous faith. David Kirtzer wrote in his article for The Atlantic, that there was Church precedent to support this belief: 

In 1858, the Holy Office and the pope at the time, Pius IX, learned that a 6-year-old Jewish boy in Bologna, Italy, had been secretly baptized by the family’s illiterate teenage Christian maid, who said she feared the boy was dying. They instructed the police of the Papal States… to seize the child, whose name was Edgardo Mortara. The boy was sent to a Church institution in Rome established for the conversion of Jews and Muslims… and Edgardo’s abduction set off a worldwide protest. Despite the pressure, the pope refused to have the child released.”   

Archival letters show that Pope Pius XII, following this precedent, instructed his ambassadors to maintain the status quo on the issue of baptised Jewish children being kept out of their Jewish family’s care. This led to the Finaly boys’ eventual kidnapping to Spain, where they were hidden in the care of monks before finally being returned to France and their waiting family.  

Researchers were only afforded a short window of time to access the Vatican archives, and there are sure to be many hard truths to learn; however, the secrets within these vaults are not likely to dramatically change or challenge Catholic-Jewish relations. In 1965, Pope Paul VI, the second pope after Pius XII, introduced Nostre Aetate, a public declaration of Church intentions to pursue interfaith friendship and dialogue with nonchristian religions. This document is the first of its kind, and started a wave of similar declarations from other religious leaders.

In Nostre Aetate, the Catholic Church looks back on its history of crusade, inquisition, and fear of the influence of other religions, and chooses to grow beyond those mistakes to walk the path of peace. The Church publicly disavowed the commonly held belief that all Jewish people should be held responsible for the death of Christ, affirmed the Jewish covenant with God, and detailed theological reasons for all Christians to respect the Jewish and Muslim faiths. Nostre Aetate ends with the declaration that, “We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God… The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion.” 

The Catholic Church continues to maintain the stance that all people and all faiths must be honored and respected by Christians. In response to the recent resurgence of antisemitism in the western world, Pope Francis stated last November in a general audience…in the last century, we saw very great brutality perpetrated against Jewish people and we were all certain that this had ended. But scattered here and there, today the habit of persecuting Jews is beginning to reappear. Brothers and sisters, this is neither human nor Christian.” Regardless of what new discoveries come to light as the papal archives open, we can expect the Catholic Church to continue to encourage Christians to learn from past mistakes, and grow in interfaith understanding.    

Links:

Yad Vashem: https://www.yadvashem.org/articles/academic/pius-and-the-holocaust.html

Times of Israel Article: https://www.timesofisrael.com/researchers-say-vatican-archives-show-pope-pius-xii-knew-of-wwii-killing-of-jews/#gs.gc47aj

The Atlantic Article: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/08/the-popes-jews/615736/

Nostre Aetate Document: https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651028_nostra-aetate_en.html

Pope Francis General Audience: http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/audiences/2019/documents/papa-francesco_20191113_udienza-generale.html

 

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