John T. Pawlikowski, O.S.M., "The Catholic Response to the Holocaust," in Michael Berenbaum and Abraham J. Peck, eds., The Holocaust and History: The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed, and the Reexamined, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998, pp. 551-565



Abstract by Jerry Darring


In the preface to his article, Pawlikowski says that 1) our examination of institutional Catholicism should include not only Pius XII but also church bodies and leaders in the various countries in Europe; 2) we cannot assume that we would have acted more responsibly than them; 3) we should analyze each country's response rather than generalize about the Vatican or overall Catholic responses; and 4) the church should welcome critical scrutiny of its activities during the Nazi era.

Pawlikowski begins by outlining the thesis of Fr. Robert Graham, S.J., that Pius XII must be judged a "great humanitarian." According to Graham, Pius XII was in constant communication with Jewish leaders. He intervened strenuously but with varying degrees of success, on behalf of Jews in Slovakia, Rome and Hungary. Graham considered Hungary a prime example of "active Vatican commitment for the safety of the Jewish community" (p. 554). Pawlikowski criticizes Graham, first of all, because of his polemical stance defending Pius XII and his neglect of important questions. Graham, for example, never asks if Vatican interventions were sporadic or a long-term policy. He implies that Vatican efforts were as strenuous early on as they were towards the end of the war, and that the Vatican collaborated with Jewish organizations throughout the period of the war. And Graham never questions the Vatican view of the church and its defense of the established social order.

Having critiqued Graham, Pawlikowski turns to the analysis of Dr. Gerhart Riegner of the World Jewish Congress. Riegner was himself involved in Jewish efforts to save European Jewry, and he explained how the Jewish leadership overcame its earlier reluctance and appealed to Pius XII for help. He conceded that the Vatican made a difference in Slovakia but not in any other countries. Riegner studied Vatican-Jewish relations and concluded that the Pope's response was weak except in Hungary, where effective and energetic action contributed to the saving of many Jewish lives. He concluded as well that the Vatican may never have understood the full scope of the catastrophe befalling European Jewry, and at any rate it was never a high priority at the Vatican. Pawlikowski's only question about Riegner's analysis is his seeming conviction that a strong papal statement would have saved many more Jewish lives.

Pawlikowski concludes with a review of several other scholarly viewpoints. Fr. John Morley showed that overcautious Vatican diplomacy, not crass papal indifference to the plight of the suffering masses, kept the Vatican from doing more to save Jews. Michael R. Marrus also traced the limited Vatican response to Vatican diplomacy based on political neutrality and the protecting of Catholic interests. "For Marrus the controlling reality under Pius XII was the preservation of the church. All else took a backseat" (p. 560). Richard Lukas, a Polish-American historian, concludes that the Vatican could have done much more to help Poland, and he points out the Pope's widespread unpopularity among Poles during the war. English Catholic historian J. Derek Holmes presented a more favorable view of the results of Vatican diplomacy, while Canadian Anglican historian John Conway attributed the weakness of the Vatican responses to the belief that "the Church's well-being was inevitably tied to the preservation of the old social order in Germany and elsewhere in Europe" (p. 562).

Pawlikowski concludes from all this that 1) the accusations of "silence" against Pope Pius XII and the Vatican are unfounded; 2) Pius was committed to a "diplomatic" church model, a view that the Church is beginning to put aside as it speaks more forthrightly about issues; 3) the Church is more willing to put itself at risk so as not to write off certain groups as "unfortunate expendables"; 4) traditional Catholic antisemitism does not seem to have been a major factor determining Vatican policy, although it probably did play a role in such countries as France, Germany, Austria, Poland, and Slovakia; 5) because of his high personal regard for the German church, Pius may have been influenced by the Germans' "relief that the Jewish community's 'subversive' influence on the traditional social order was being removed" (p. 564).