Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Misusing History to Influence the Future

by Ronald J. Rychlak


In this article, written in 1992, Dr. Ronald Rychlak examines the age-old concept of rewriting history in order to influence future events for personal gain. He briefly describes the way history has been misused regarding the expeditions of Christopher Columbus and Hernan Cortes. Another example is the recent attack on Pope Pius XII and his actions during World War II, which Rychlak suggests has more to do with influencing the election of Pope John Paul II's successor than anything else.

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Wanderer Forum Foundation, Inc., Hudson, WI, Summer 2002

The concept of revising history to influence the future has been with us since the Fall of man. Cain comes immediately to mind. That first untruth which escaped human lips for the purpose of avoiding distasteful consequences was historical revision.

But while the concept of historical revision is not new, twentieth century technology has exponentially increased the damage which can be done by a person tampering with truth to suit a predetermined agenda. What happens in Jadotville in Africa can be read/heard about within hours in Nome, Alaska; the riots following a Super Bowl are viewed instantly on countless televisions across America; and whatever outrageous idea comes to an individual's mind can soon be a hot topic on local radio talk shows.

Unfortunately, the potential use of the mass media for evil is as significant as is the potential use of it for good. Who can forget the smear job on the explorers of the New World, most notably Columbus and Cortes? My 10-year-old daughter recently lectured me on how Cortes was a "bad guy." Columbus Day is regularly met with demonstrations and cries of "racism" and "genocide." These new visions of traditional American heroes (I'm proud to be a Fourth Degree "Knight of [Christopher] Columbus") just happen to echo the politically correct notions of our day.

A Look At The Explorers

A brief look at the revision of the historical evidence on the exploration of the New World (from "Turbulent Waves of Error," by Laurene K. Conner, The Forum, October, 1992, Wanderer Forum Foundation, P.O. Box 542, Hudson, WI 54016) helps make the strategy clear:

The liberal Governing Board of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. adopted a resolution in May, 1990 bearing the title, "A Faithful Response to the 500th Anniversary of the Arrival of Christopher Columbus." According to this NCC resolution, the quincentennial is "not a time of celebration," rather it is a time to expose "the painful aspects of the American history of racism." Columbus' "invasion" led to "slavery and eventual genocide" of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean Islands; the indigenous people of Central America and South America, and for the indigenous people of Mexico, "slavery, genocide, rape of mineral and other natural resources and a decline in their civilization."

The theme was picked up by the school publisher, Scholastic, Inc., in 1991 which launched a campaign to teach American children "alternative views" of the Columbus legacy through their school "news" publications. Extensive historical scholarship to the contrary was conveniently ignored.

A reference to Columbus' diary gives us an important insight about his mind and his benevolent attitude toward the natives. He wrote: "These people have no religion nor are they idolaters . . . they learn very quickly any prayer we tell them to say and they make the sign of the cross. I believe in short time a multitude of peoples will be converted to our Holy Faith . . . In every place I have entered, islands and lands, I have always planted a cross . . . And I say that Your Highnesses [Ferdinand and Isabella] must not allow any foreigners to set foot here or trade except Catholic Christians since it was the beginning and the end of this enterprise that it should be for the increase and the glory of the Christian religion. No one should come to these regions who is not a good Christian."

After Columbus, there were expeditions from Cuba. During the second, explorers heard, for the first time, the word "Mexico" where gold could be found and saw, and, again, for the first time, saw evidence of the practice of human sacrifice in bloodstained altars adorned with the faces of the gods of the Aztec empire.

The third expedition was led by Hernan Cortes. According to Warren Carroll, (Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Conquest of Darkness, Christendom, 1983) "Cortes was going forth under that same sign [the cross] to found a Christian order upon what was the satanic empire of the Aztecs." The Spaniards discovered along the way how feared and hated the Aztecs were by subject tribes from which men, women, and even children were demanded for sacrifice. As they saw the bloodstained pyramids and rows of human skulls, it was clear to the conquistadors this was a campaign they dared not lose.

Barefooted Franciscans followed after the soldiers to bring to the native peoples the peace of Christian culture. Many were converted. It was just over a decade later that Our Lady graced the Mexican people with her appearance to Juan Diego.

When was the last time in these recent years of revised history have you or your children heard about the noble efforts of those great Christians? "Genocide" and "racism" again are the only themes that we hear when too many modern historians talk of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. That is a travesty.

Eruption Of A Papal Controversy

With this unfortunately successful example of history revised in mind, it should come as no surprise that another Catholic leader should merit a full media smear campaign. With the elapse of time and the passing of many of the principals of the event, open season has been declared on Pius XII, but more specifically, the Church he served so well. This battle is not really about a long-deceased Pope, but is part of an ongoing battle to discredit unpopular but valid Catholic teachings.

In the past few years, close to a dozen books have been released focusing on the leadership of Pope Pius XII during World War II. Several of them, including my own, Hitler, the War and the Pope, are favorable treatments of the wartime pontiff. The books which vilify the Pope, however, received the lion's share of the attention. The most notable example is John Cornwell's Hitler's Pope, which became something of a bestseller and was even profiled on the television show, 60 Minutes.

Cornwell's thesis is that Pius was so concerned about centralizing Catholic authority in a strong papacy that he turned a blind eye toward the growth of the Nazis. Most serious students of Church history have rejected that argument, but quick on Cornwell's coattails came Gary Wills' Papal Sins, Susan Zuccotti's Under His Very Windows, James Carroll's Constantine's Sword, Michael Phayer's The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965, and David I. Kertzer's The Popes Against the Jews. All of these books criticize Pius XII (and, in most cases, other popes) for various shortcomings, particularly the Church's treatment of the Jews.

The sudden interest in Pope Pius XII came as a surprise. When I began researching the Church and the Holocaust about 10 years ago, it was not a hot topic. Very little had been written about the controversy during the previous decade. I assumed that my book would sit quietly on a shelf, rather than being embroiled in an international controversy. It turns out, however, that the sudden interest in this matter has much more to do with Pope John Paul II (and his eventual successor) than it does with Pius XII himself.

Writing in The Weekly Standard, Rabbi David Dalin noted "a disturbing element in nearly all the current work on Pius: Except for Rychlak's Hitler, the War and the Pope, none of the recent books — Cornwell's vicious attack in Hitler's Pope to [Ralph] McInerny's uncritical defense in The Defamation of Pius XII — is finally about the Holocaust."

For the most part, books about Pius XII and World War II are not expounding on an issue of current importance. But most are all about using the sufferings of Jews 50 years ago to force changes upon the Catholic Church today. The changes that these authors are trying to force upon the Church may vary slightly from one book to another, but they tend to come from the typical list: ordination of women, popular election of bishops, and changes in teachings on celibacy, contraception, and abortion.

Building A Case Against Papal Authority

The reason for the sudden flurry of activity and the urgency of the advocates relates to the perception that we are nearing the end of Pope John Paul II's pontificate, and the desire to play some role in the selection of the next Pope and in the direction of his teaching office. This is most evident in the last chapter of Hitler's Pope, which is about John Paul and entitled "Pius XII Redivivus," but it permeates Papal Sin, Constantine's Sword, and The Popes Against the Jews.

The argument that these authors make is that John Paul II has been leading the Church back to a more highly centralized, autocratic papacy, similar to that of Pius XII. John Paul's conservatism is equated with Pius XII's alleged anti-Semitism, and the Vatican's position on papal authority is cast as somehow being in line with papal complicity in the Nazis' extermination of the Jews. The arguments do not hold up, but that matters very little. As Rabbi Dalin concludes, the Pius XII matter is really "an argument about the direction of the Church today, with the Holocaust simply the biggest club available for liberal Catholics."

Many people have justifiably called Pope John Paul II the "Man of the Century" for the 1900s. As such, he is not an easy target for papal critics. For that reason, they have sought to find other ways to attack the papacy as an institution. That is where Pius XII fits in. If the critics can show that he was flawed, especially in something as fundamental as opposition to the Nazis, then they can argue that Popes can be wrong about celibacy, women priests, artificial contraception, abortion, and liberation theology. It's an old ploy, dating back to the serpent and Eve.

Of course, it is not easy to criticize Pope Pius XII on this count. Since playwright Rolf Hochhuth first raised these charges in the 1960s with his play, The Deputy, thousands of pages of documents have been released showing that Pius encouraged Catholics to shelter and assist Jews and other victims of Nazi persecution. Those documents confirm the assessment of those who bore witness at the time, like the Chief Rabbi of Romania, Dr. Alexander Safran; the Grand Rabbi of Jerusalem, Isaac Herzog; the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Eugenio Zolli; the World Jewish Congress; The New York Times; the National Jewish Welfare Board; the Italian Jewish community; the War Refugee Board; Maurice Edelman, President of the Anglo-Jewish Association; the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra; Giovanni Montini, who later became Pope Paul VI; and Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII. Tributes to Pius XII's courageous stand against the Nazis continued throughout his life and a new flood appeared in 1958, upon his death.

So how do the critics challenge Pius XII on this point? The revisionists of history have their own agenda and techniques to achieve their end. Rabbi Dalin explains the technique: "It requires only that favorable evidence be read in the worst light and treated to the strictest test, while unfavorable evidence is read in the best light and treated to no test." With a dual standard like this, papal critics "have little trouble arriving at two pre-ordained conclusions. The first is that the Catholic Church must shoulder the blame for the Holocaust . . . And the second is that Catholicism's guilt is due to aspects of the Church that John Paul II now represents."

This dual standard and misuse of history is evident in James Carroll's Constantine's Sword. The thesis of that book is that anti-Semitism is inherent in all four Gospels and in St. Paul's letters. Carroll acknowledges that Popes and bishops throughout history denounced persecution of Jews, but because they were influenced by political concerns and because anti-Semitism is inherent in the Gospels, centuries of Christian anti-Semitism culminated in the Holocaust.

Constantine's Sword is presented as "a history," but most of the research is from controversial secondary sources (Hans Kueng is a favorite), and Carroll fails seriously to discuss conflicting evidence and arguments. For example, Carroll makes much of the letter written by Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) in 1933 requesting a papal encyclical condemning Nazism. He does not, however, explain that the 1937 encyclical, Mit brennender Sorge (With Burning Anxiety, one of the strongest condemnations of any national regime that the Holy See ever published), did just that.

Nor does he discuss the less formal Vatican condemnations of anti-Semitism in 1916, 1928, 1930, 1938, and 1942.

An example of Carroll's willingness to accept and advance anti-papal accounts too readily can be found in his report of a supposed death-bed condemnation of Pius XII by Pope (now Blessed) John XXIII. No eyewitness has ever come forward to support Carroll's thesis. Pope John's private secretary, Loris Francesco Capovilla, who was with Pope John at the end has another story. He emphatically denied the story, calling it "a lie." Pope John always praised Pius. Before he was made pope, John was offered thanks for his wartime efforts to save Jewish refugees. He replied: "In all these painful matters I have referred to the Holy See and simply carried out [Pius XII's] orders: first and foremost to save Jewish lives." Yet this is at least the third time that Carroll has advanced the phony deathbed story in print (and he does so twice in this book!).

Carroll's proposed resolution to the anti-Semitism that he finds in the Gospels involves convening Vatican III, at which (in addition to a typical index of proposed reforms) the Church would acknowledge errors in the Gospels, learn to preach against those errors, and reject the belief that Jesus is the only way to salvation.

Twisting The Facts

In The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965, Michael Phayer builds hypothesis upon supposition upon assumption to lead his readers wherever he wants them to go. At the heart of his argument is a notorious round-up of Roman Jews in October of 1943. Without proof, he asserts that the Pope knew of this in advance but failed to warn anyone. Then, he disregards credible evidence of papal protests after the round-up. Thus, when it advances his argument he will accept rumor, but when evidence contradicts his case he will ignore hard facts.

To explain the Pope's alleged "silence," Phayer cites the Pontiff's desire to see Germany crush communism by defeating the Soviet Union. We now know, however, that in separate audiences with diplomats from Italy (1941), Spain (1942), and Hungary (1943), Pius called the Nazis "far worse than the Soviets." He also agreed to reinterpret certain prior teachings on communism so that President Roosevelt could extend the Lend-Lease program to help the Soviet Union in its war against Germany. The recently dissolved joint Catholic-Jewish commission that was charged with studying the wartime documents of the Vatican confirmed that Pius did not favor the Germans over the Soviets. Unfortunately, most papal critics are reluctant to let facts interfere with their theories.

In her book, Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy, Susan Zuccotti reports on research that took her into archives that others had not yet mined. What she found — time and time again — was that Catholic clergy and lay persons defied the Nazis and the Fascists by providing food, clothing and shelter to Jews and other refugees. As a result of these efforts, while approximately 80 percent of European Jews perished during World War II, 85 percent of Italian Jews survived Nazi occupation. Moreover, almost all of the Catholic rescuers thought that they were doing what the Pope wanted them to do.

Zuccotti's findings fit with the conclusion that Pope Pius XII was a courageous leader, deeply involved in rescue work, but she gives no credit to Pius! In fact, she is highly critical of him and of Pope Pius XI. She insists that there is no evidence of papal involvement in rescue activity. To make her argument, Zuccotti — time and time again — discounts or dismisses the testimony of the people who were there:

  • When discussing a bishop who said he was holding a letter from Pius directing Catholics to shelter Jews, she suggests that the bishop falsified this claim because he "may have considered it useful to make his assistants believe that they were doing the Pope's work."
  • She contends that nuns who credited the Pope for having ordered their convents opened to Jewish refugees were "eager that Pius XII receive credit for the work of their order."
  • Citing a letter from A. L. Eastman, of the World Jewish Congress, thanking the Pope for helping free imprisoned Jews, Zuccotti says: "Eastman must have known better."
  • She quotes the papal nuncio in Vichy, praising Pope Pius XII for condemning the persecution of Jews and others, but then accuses the nuncio of having fabricated the papal responses.
  • Discussing expressions of gratitude from Jewish people following the war, she attributes their attitude to "benevolent ignorance."
  • In an even more disturbing analysis, she suggests that Jewish chaplains simply lied when they credited papal rescue efforts because they were "anxious to protect and preserve the fragile goodwill between Jews and non-Jews that seems to be emerging from the rubble of the war in Italy."

At other points along the way, Zuccotti dismisses letters of thanks from Jewish people because "The Holy See had done nothing more for the Jewish Internees than for non-Jews." Favorable accounts of the Pope's efforts to help Jews are dismissed as "less than honest." Testimony from the future Pope Paul VI is dismissed because, according to Dr. Zuccotti, he "knew perfectly well" that his statement was wrong. This does not even address the other credible evidence that Zuccotti failed to mention at all. In the final analysis, while she claims to have shown a lack of papal involvement in rescue efforts, all she really has shown is that she does not believe any of the evidence that she has reviewed.

Flawed Understanding Or Deliberate Falsehood?

These papal critics have identified historic issues and episodes in Christian-Jewish relations, but they have not done them justice. In making their arguments, they reveal a serious flaw in their understanding of Catholicism, Christian teaching, and especially the leadership style of Pope John Paul II. John Paul's important impact on world events came about precisely because he did not primarily seek to be a political force. His strategy was culture-driven and evangelical. The Pontiff's contribution to the downfall of the Soviet Union was that he launched an authentic and deep challenge to the lies that made communistic rule possible. He fought communism in much the same way that Pius XII fought Nazism: by challenging the intellectual foundation on which it was based.

As nuncio, Secretary of State, and finally Pope, Eugenio Pacelli (Pope Pius XII) tried to bring about a public moral culture which would secure the future peace in Germany, Europe, and ultimately the world. Had he immersed the Church in secular politics without challenging the moral fabric of the ideology, his effort would have been in vain. As it was, there was terrible suffering, but things could have been worse. Like John Paul II, Pius XII planted seeds that are still bearing fruit.

Pope John Paul II has recognized the parallels between his efforts and those of Pius XII, perhaps better than anyone else. The current Pope, of course, did not have a horrible war to contend with, nor was he threatened with the possibility of Vatican City being invaded, but given those differences, the approach each leader took was similar. As John Paul has explained: "Anyone who does not limit himself to cheap polemics knows very well what Pius XII thought of the Nazi regime and how much he did to help countless people persecuted by the regime."

Rather than trying to drive a wedge between the Catholics and Jews in order to advance political agendas, authors (particularly self-proclaimed Catholic authors like Carroll, Cornwell, and Wills) ought to be celebrating the historic developments in these relations, which are better now than at any other time in history. Here are some highlights:

  • In 1986, John Paul became the first pope to ever visit a synagogue.
  • In 1993 he oversaw the signing of the Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel, which was followed with an exchange of ambassadors.
  • In 1994, during his trip to the death camps of World War II, Pope John Paul II reached out to Jewish people, saying that "anti-Semitism is a great sin against humanity, that all racial hatred inevitably leads to the trampling of human dignity."
  • In 1995, an olive tree was planted in the Vatican Gardens as a symbol of Vatican / Israeli diplomatic relations. Those ties were strengthened in 1997 with an agreement placing Roman Catholic institutions in Israel under jurisdiction of Israeli law.
  • In 1996, on behalf of the Pope, Edward Cardinal Cassidy lit the first ever Hanukkah candle at the Vatican. That was followed with a Vatican-sponsored symposium examining the roots of anti-Judaism.
  • In 2000, Pope John Paul II visited Israel. "There are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah, the 6 million," he said on a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. The culminating event, however, was the heartfelt written prayer that the Pope lovingly placed in a crevice of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, on the last day of his visit. "We must ensure that never again will evil prevail. I fervently pray that this tragedy will lead to a new relationship between Christians and Jews."

These developments are truly historic. They also hold out the promise of a much brighter future. They are the events that should be kept in focus.

The attempt to usurp the Holocaust and use it for partisan purposes must be seen for what it is. Anyone who seriously studies the Church during the Second World War knows that Pius did everything that he thought possible to feed, shelter, and clothe all those who were suffering. He ordered buildings under his direction to be opened to Jews and other refugees, and he inspired others to do the same. He spent his entire personal fortune helping others during the war. Jewish author Pinchas Lapide estimates that he saved as many as 860,000 Jewish lives during the war.

Courting Danger

The abuse of history of Pius XII and Jews in World War II is historical revisionism of the most vicious kind. When dealing with historical revisionists, their agenda must be kept in mind. The current attack on Pius is in reality an attack on Pope John Paul II and the teachings and traditions of the Catholic Church. These authors are trying shape the future of the Church, not to report honestly on its history. They are ignoring witnesses and disregarding evidence. They are not advancing historical truth; they are misusing it for partisan purposes. With something as real and as evil as the Holocaust, that is a very dangerous thing to do.

DR. RONALD RYCHLAK is a Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of Mississippi; author, Hitler, the War and the Pope; contributor to the Washington Post, New Oxford Review, Our Sunday Visitor; television guest on EWTN, ABC's 20/20, CSPAN2's Book TV, and Catholic Answers radio; consultant to the Holy See's Delegation to the United Nations.

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