Did the Vatican do enough?

Did the Vatican do enough? McGill University

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McGill Reporter
November 22, 2001 - Volume 34 Number 06
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 34: 2001-2002 > November 22, 2001 > Did the Vatican do enough?

Did the Vatican do enough?

Historian Michael Marrus is looking for the big picture in the seemingly smallest of places. Marrus, who holds the University of Toronto's Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Chair in Holocaust Studies, is part of a controversial Catholic-Jewish panel formed to investigate the activities of Pope Pius XII and the Vatican during the Holocaust.

Photo Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto surrounded by soldiers

Despite initial support of the project, the Vatican recently denied the international panel access to its unpublished wartime archives, dismissing the research as a "slanderous campaign" against the Church.

Disappointed but un-bowed, Marrus is looking elsewhere.

Marrus began his November 14 lecture at McGill (a co-presentation of the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre's "Holocaust Education" and the Faculty of Law's "Encounters in Human Rights" series) by admitting to "a hunger for new insight.

"Quite frankly," he said, "the subject of the role of the Vatican in the Holocaust is discussed in so many books, so many articles, so many lectures, that I am hungry for some new documents on this subject."

And so Marrus introduced a lone letter, the beginning of a strange historical exchange "sufficiently important and sufficiently wide-ranging in its themes to open up the wider issues."

Jacques Maritain wrote the letter to Giovanni Montini on July 12, 1946. Maritain was one of France's leading Catholic thinkers, and the French ambassador to the Holy City. Married to a woman of Jewish background, and author of books such as The Impossible Anti-Semitism, Maritain had a long-standing, deep interest in the Jewish people. He was, said Marrus, "someone whose anti-anti-Semitic credentials were impeccable."

Giovanni Montini was "the number three or number four man" under Pope Pius XII, essentially working as the Vatican's chief of staff. Montini and Maritain were also friends, Montini having translated Maritain's writings during the 1920s. It was in this personal capacity -- not that of ambassador -- that Maritain wrote his letter.

After effusively praising the pope's wartime efforts to help the Jews, Maritain wrote that he was nevertheless "impelled as a Catholic to present this plea... for the paternal voice, the voice par excellence, that of the vicar of Jesus Christ, to tell the truth to the world and shed light on this tragedy. This has been, permit me to say it, greatly lacking in the world today."

With the Vatican free at last from fear of Nazi retribution, Maritain begged Pope Pius XII to help prevent further tragedy by officially condemning anti-Semitism.

On July 16, 1946, during an audience with the pope, Maritain was informed that the Holy Father had already addressed the issue during a November 1945 sitdown with a delegation of Holocaust survivors. Records of this meeting reveal that, although cordial to his guests and sympathetic to their tragedy, the pope avoided using the words "Jews" and "anti-Semitism."

Stranger still was his rather esoteric conclusion that "you have experienced yourselves the injuries and wounds of hatred, but in the midst of your agonies you have also felt the benefit and the sweetness of love. Not that love that nourishes itself from terrestrial motives, but rather with profound base in the Heavenly Father, whose light shines on all men... and whose grace is open to all those who seek the Lord in a spirit of truth."

Clearly, this was a far cry from Maritain's plea, and his journal entry for July 19 recorded his disappointment.

So, what to make of this historical exchange? Ironclad proof of anti-Semitic sentiment in the Vatican? Or are such accusations, as the Vatican charges, mere character assassination? Marrus argued that it's neither.

Although admittedly not yet fully "to the bottom" of the story, Marrus dissected the frustratingly obfuscated dialogue as a crucial lesson in idioms, contextualizing it as characteristic of the "Vaticanese" in which all holy business was conducted.

Furthermore, he said, the Maritain-Montini-Pius XII exchange marked the beginning of a process which would not only slowly reshape long-standing Catholic thinking about Jews (a process which began to bear fruit during the 1960s, when Giovanni Montini became Pope Paul VI), but was also indicative of a global shift in post-war consciousness.

Rather than slander the Church, or besmirch the reputation of the man currently being considered for beatification, Marrus offered Pius XII's muddied words as simply an example "of the world in which he moved."

The people of 1946, Marrus stressed, didn't think of the Holocaust, or the Jewish people, in the same way as do the people of today. He cited as example the current pope, whose Polish upbringing affords him a deeper, richer understanding of the Jewish people than that of Pius XII.

Referring to last year's papal tour of the Holy Land, Marrus praised John Paul II's eloquent, revolutionary step of placing a message in the Wailing Wall -- John Paul II speaks a "language" that his predecessors did not. Today's Jewish-Catholic lexicon is not that of 1946, but the seeds of change were planted long ago.

"The Holocaust had an impact," Marrus concluded. "It wasn't an immediate impact, but I think it transformed Catholic and Jewish relations. We should not close the book on the past -- which is what some of the conservative forces in the Church seem to have done, by saying that the archives of the wartime period should not be made available.

"In the long run, this is a way to greater understanding. In the long run, this is a direction of progress in Catholic-Jewish relations."

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