Pius XII, co-conspirator in tyrannicide

ROME. The great Piazza San Pietro is a five minute walk from where I’m living during Synod-2015. About three-quarters of the Square is bounded the famous Bernini colonnades, which reach out from the Vatican basilica as if to embrace the world. Along the open “front” of the Piazza and along the perimeter of the colonnades, a broad white stripe is embedded in the street.  The casual visitor might mistake it for a kind of “No Parking” sign.

In fact, that white strip marks the border between Vatican City State and Italy. And for many during World War II, it signified the boundary between life and  internment, imprisonment, or death.

When Italy declared war on the Allies – after the initial, swift success of the German invasion of the Low Countries and France seemed to suggest who was going to win World War II – Allied diplomats accredited to the Holy See but living in Rome fled into the Vatican and were housed there throughout the war. So did democratically-minded Italians on Mussolini’s hit list – like Alcide de Gasperi, who would become Italy’s first post-war Christian Democratic prime minister.

Another boundary of consequence was defined by the walls surrounding the papal villa at Castel Gandolfo. Thousands of Italian Jews were hidden there, and dozens of babies were born in Pope Pius XII’s bedroom, some of them given the names “Eugenio” or “Eugenia” in honor of the pontiff who saved their parents’s lives.

These facts of Pius’s actions, like his quiet orders to hide Roman Jews in Catholic facilities, are reasonably well-known, if often ignored in the polemics that surround the debate over Pius XII’s and the Holy See’s actions (or inactions, or silences) during the war. A new book by intelligence specialist Mark Riebling, Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler (Basic Books), adds a mass of new evidence to what we know, now, about what the Pope and the Church did to deal with the mortal threat to civilization posed by Hitler and German National Socialism.

In a word: Pius was complicit in a variety of plots, initiated by patriotic, anti-Nazi Germans, to assassinate Hitler and replace the Nazi regime with a government that would make peace with the West.

That Pius was involved in at least one such plot has been known for decades, thanks to Owen Chadwick’s Britain and the Vatican During the Second World War, which drew extensively on the records of Great Britain’s representative to the Holy See during the war, D’Arcy Osborne. Church of Spies, which is based on exhaustive archival research (including a close reading of the Nuremberg trial transcripts), demonstrates that the plot mentioned in Chadwick’s book was not the only such enterprise, and that Pius XII’s closest aide, Father Robert Leiber, SJ, was the key liaison between the Pope and the various plotters, working in discrete tandem with a German Catholic lawyer, Dr. Josef Mueller.

None of these multiple attempts to eliminate Hitler and replace the Nazi regime got to the trigger-point, with the exception of the Stauffenberg plot (cinematically memorialized in Valkyrie). And it has long been known that many German officers refused to participate in such plots because of their personal oath of loyalty to Hitler; they may have detested him, but they had sworn to uphold him. Riebling shows that another difficulty in gathering sufficient manpower behind any plot was the difference between Catholic and Protestant German generals: the Catholics, tutored by Thomas Aquinas, had a theological rationale for morally defensible tyrannicide, while the Protestants, mired in a Lutheran theory of state authority, had no such moral compass; quite the opposite, in fact.

Church of Spies does not, and cannot, settle the question of whether Pius should have spoken out plainly and unmistakably in condemnation of the Holocaust; that he refrained from doing so because he thought that would intensify the murderous bloodletting of the Third Reich seems well-established, if unlikely to persuade all of the wisdom of the course he chose. But Church of Spies ought to end the “Hitler’s Pope” nonsense.

“Hitler’s Pope” would not have aided and abetted plots to kill Hitler.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash