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The Pius Wars? No longer a slur on Pius XII, but the Pope’s own war against Hitler

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 11, 2016

Do you recall the Pius wars? The conflict over the legacy of Pope Pius XII is probably best known from John Cornwell’s highly-biased book Hitler’s Pope, a title that is also a shameless bit of name-calling. But that was in 1999. Since then so many scholars have leapt to the Pope’s defense that even Cornwell was forced to back off. Beginning in 2004, he has progressively reduced the force of his charges, stating that it is impossible to know the Pope’s reasons for silence about the plight of the Jews under Adolf Hitler, but continuing to damn him for not explaining that silence after World War II ended.

Sadly, Cornwell is more Rottweiler than historian, and even in his later critiques he overlooks the obvious. In fact, everybody who cared to resist anti-Catholic bias in the immediate post-War period knew exactly why Pius XII maintained a long silence after a few early condemnations of Nazi policy. It is because he was begged to do so by both Catholic and Jewish leaders in the countries under Hitler’s control. They repeatedly insisted that explicit papal denunciations would be met with an escalation of Nazi attacks on both Catholics and Jews.

Even I knew this as a small boy growing up in the 1950s, just as I knew that the most prominent Jewish leaders had publicly thanked the Pope after the War for all he had done behind the scenes to save the lives of European Jews. Cornwell should have remembered that the public narrative on Pius XII did not turn ugly until after Rolf Hochhuth wrote The Deputy, a popular play in 1963 which recreated the Pope as an evil collaborator with the Nazis. The timing was very convenient, since Pius XII had died in 1958.

Church of Spies

But that was then and this is now. Not only have a large number of scholars and Jewish leaders proved the falsity of the idea of “Hitler’s Pope”, but the final nail in this myth’s coffin was hammered home late last year by Mark Riebling, in his meticulously researched book Church of Spies (published by Basic Books). Subtitled “The Pope’s secret war against Hitler”, Church of Spies includes 73 pages of footnotes and a 27-page bibliography (all in fine print). This means we have a narrative of 250 pages supported by 100 pages of “scholarly apparatus”. Riebling’s study simply cannot be dismissed.

Riebling is an expert writer on top-secret intelligence, perhaps best-known for his 1994 book Wedge: The Secret War between the FBI and the CIA. The reason Riebling is so successful at laying to rest the myth of Pius XII’s collaboration with Hitler is that he doesn’t speculate endlessly on the Pope’s official statements, wondering why Pius did not say this or that. Instead he painstakingly describes the Pope’s leading role in a network of Catholic spies which aimed to assassinate Hitler and place the German government in the hands of political and military leaders who would restore “a decent Germany”.

In other words, the reason Pius XII backed away from open denunciation of the Nazis, including the specific condemnation of their treatment of Jews, was not only to avoid making things worse, as was always known. Nor was it only to protect the Pope’s efforts to hide Jews in the Vatican and get them to safety in other countries, for which the Church has been repeatedly thanked by Jewish leaders. No, beyond these two excellent reasons, the Pope wanted to deflect attention from his personal orchestration of an intelligence ring that was prepared to act in accordance with Catholic teaching on tyrannicide.

Reads like a novel

Church of Spies is not only extensively researched but also dramatically written. Each one of the experts solicited for the book jacket blurbs has called attention to the author’s remarkable blending of scholarly research, narrative brilliance, and suspense. Sam Harris called the book “fascinating”; Gerald Posner called it “a spy thriller…[a] crackling narrative”; George Weigel referred to it as “gripping”; Michael Burleigh praised it as “exciting and original”; and Rabbi David Dalin characterized Church of Spies as “groundbreaking and riveting”. Church of Spies quite simply reads like an adventure novel from the first page to the last.

In its pages, through the words and actions of the men and women who were plotting against Hitler, we learn that only the Catholic Church had both a moral theology adequate the task and an organization sufficient to the needs of an effective spy network. On the Pope’s orders, bishops, priests, and especially Jesuit and Dominican religious, gathered information and made personal alliances in the effort to find a way to remove Hitler from power, a man widely believed by Catholics who knew him to be under direct diabolical influence.

The perfectly normal traffic of priests, religious and lay Catholics to and from Rome provided a cover for both the distribution of intelligence and the discussion of plans. Priestly and lay members of the secret resistance took huge risks to see the project through, and most of them survived until near the very end. Unfortunately, however, Hitler several times eluded or survived assassination attempts, including one bombing in which the officers around him were killed but the Fuhrer was wounded only superficially. There may have been something diabolical about these escapes as well. Ultimately, after all, Hitler died by his own hand.

A complex and incredibly difficult task

The Church was uniquely suited to orchestrate a coup. Most Protestants found they had no way to justify political assassination, since the extent of their reasoning about politics was usually an adherence to St. Paul’s injunction in Romans 13:1: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” Catholic moral theology, by contrast, justified tyrannicide (see, for example, St. Thomas Aquinas), and the Church also had a ready-made network of bishops, priests and religious who could gather intelligence and pass it on to Rome. Thus the few Protestant leaders who were willing to act, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, welcomed and collaborated with the organization provided by the Catholic Church.

Readers may wonder, then, why the task proved so difficult and took so long to develop. The answer to this is also found in Catholic moral teaching, which justifies tyrannicide, just as it justifies war, only if certain conditions are met. Broadly speaking, this moral justification depends on the likelihood that assassination will make things better. First and foremost, tyrannicide must not lead to civil war. And in the context of World War II, the assassination had to be orchestrated in such a way that the Allies would recognize an effective change of regime as a basis for making peace. Nor could Germany be left to the tender mercies of the advancing Soviets, under Stalin.

For these reasons, a moral assassination attempt could not be planned without making provision for how the vacuum of power would be filled, and whether the change would be recognized by those in the war against Germany. This required not only the establishment of a strong network of German political and military figures who were prepared to step quickly into key positions but also careful coordination with other world powers, particularly Great Britain and the United States. Pope Pius XII and the Vatican were in a unique position to coordinate these revolutionary and diplomatic efforts, but they still took time—and sometimes events occurred (like a random failed assassination attempt) which put the Nazis on alert, forcing all involved to keep a lower profile to avoid discovery.

In Church of Spies, you will get to know the key laymen, priests, and religious who worked tirelessly in great peril for years to try to “solve the problem” posed by Adolf Hitler. While many were ultimately captured and killed, some did survive under remarkable circumstances, so there is even—in part—a happy ending. Once you’ve read Church of Spies, you’ll be convinced that the book’s subtitle is extraordinarily apt. From now on, the phrase “Pius wars” can only refer to “the Pope’s secret war.” As Mark Riebling so decisively expresses it at the end of chapter one, the key lesson is simply this: “The last day during the war when Pius publicly said the word ‘Jew’ is also, in fact, the first day history can document his choice to help kill Adolf Hitler.”

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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