The illustrious Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen was wont to say, "Don’t pay attention to what people say. Pay attention to why they say it." The Archbishop’s wisdom applies to many critics of Pope Pius XII, particularly a good number who have published books critical of the Pope in the last decade. These authors consistently and stridently excoriate the pontiff for his alleged actions and inactions before and during World War II. John Cornwell infamously dubbed Pius XII "Hitler’s Pope" in a best seller released in 1999, and a parade of emulators have followed, including Garry Wills, James Carroll, Daniel Goldhagen, and Susan Zuccotti. In examining their writings, one quickly discerns he is not dealing with dispassionate inquiry aimed at setting the historical record straight. Rather, a decided bias directed at discrediting Pius XII and the Church becomes manifest to one extent or another.
Ronald Rychlak takes note of this trend early on in Righteous Gentiles. "As Rabbi David Dalin has noted," Rychlak states, "many of the critics are not honestly seeking the truth; they are instead distorting the truth in order to influence the future of the Catholic Church." Adds Rychlak himself, "The Nazis despised him, the victims praised him, and the rescuers cited him as their inspiration. . . . There is simply no legitimate excuse for ignoring the evidence the way that modern papal critics have done." For Cornwell, Wills, and Carroll, their bias seems to stem from a desire to change various Church teachings, particularly those regarding sexuality morality, and for writers like Goldhagen, who is their Jewish moral analogue, the changes would be even more radical.
Rychlak and Dalin have become Pius XII’s two most prominent defenders in America. Rychlak weighed in first with Hitler, The War, and The Pope (Our Sunday Visitor, 2000), presenting mainly a chronological overview of the Pope’s actions and an epilogue in which he took on Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope. In Righteous Gentiles, Rychlak is much more the apologist, responding well to all of the major claims of all of the books in the past five years. And Rychlak does so with his trademark calm, incisive, and thorough manner, which is undergirded by a bulldog tenacity for the truth.
Having read a lot and written a good deal on the Pius XII controversy, I join others in saying that Righteous Gentiles has become the definitive work in setting the record straight on Pius XII. That chorus of affirmation includes Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., and Fr. Peter Gumpel, S.J., whom Rychlak correctly identifies as the relator (independent investigating judge) of the Pope’s canonization cause, while his publisher mistakenly refers to Fr. Gumpel on the dustcover as Pius XII’s postulator (official advocate). Included is a chapter on "the hidden Pius XII," which, often using secular and other non-Church sources of the time, shows how off-the-mark are stereotypes that portray the Pope "as rude, aloof, cold, uncaring, and sometimes downright evil."
If you want an up-to-date volume that hits on all of the major issues, but not in great detail, Rabbi David Dalin’s The Myth of Hitler’s Pope is the best choice. It is a well-written, tightly edited work. Dalin has a doctorate in history, and the book’s contents include an overview of historical Jewish-Catholic relations, an illuminating presentation of Pius’ days as a youth and his prepapal service, and a trenchant account of how the liberal media in general and certain writers in particular have rarely been objective journalists, historians, and so forth, in reporting on the Pius controversy.
Dalin also makes the distinctive contribution of reporting on a cleric who faithfully served Hitler, Muslim mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini, who was successful in blocking the escape efforts of many Jews from wartorn Europe. Both authors cover similar territory in defending the Pope, including controversies surrounding the concordat signed with Germany in 1933 ; the roundup of Italian Jews in Rome in October 1943; and how the Pope was viewed by Jews, the secular media, and the Nazis of the time. Some people might be very surprised to learn that listening to Vatican Radio was a capital crime in Nazi Germany during the war, and that Time magazine stated in August 1943, "It is scarcely deniable that the Church Apostolic, through the encyclicals and other Papal pronouncements, has been fighting totalitarianism more knowingly, devoutly, and authoritatively, and for a longer period of time, than any other organized power."
Both Dalin and Rychlak greatly credit William Doino, a Catholic writer who has made the defense of Pius XII his life’s mission. In The Pius War (Lexington Books, 2004), which includes various responses to critics of the pontiff-including offerings from Rychlak and Dalin-Doino provides an annotated bibliography that exceeds 180 pages. The work of the Pius apologists is making a difference. In a 2006 conference in Rome, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State, said that Pope Benedict XVI was taking a special interest in the canonization cause of Pius XII, noting his "considerable work" to combat the Nazis. When Pius XII’s canonization does come, the work of Rychlak, Dalin, and Doino, among others, will rightly be acknowledged as having contributed to the cause.
- Thomas J. Nash (from Lay Witness magazine. www.cuf.org)
You can purchase The Myth of Hitler's Pope here.