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Sainthood doublecross?

Was Israel tricked into supporting sainthood for Hitler’s pope? An Israeli negotiator and a Catholic theologian both maintain that shortly after World War II the Vatican promised to recognise Israel if their diplomats and politicians would defend Pius XII against charges that he had turned his back on the Jews.

Was Israel was tricked into supporting sainthood for Hitler’s pope?

 In 1948 the new and embattled state of Israel was eager for international recognition. Yet as late as the following year Pope Pius XII called for sacred sites to be wrested from Israel and placed under international control, including the city of Jerusalem. [1] Attempts to placate the Vatican gave it leverage. This inclined Israeli diplomats and politicians to quote extravagant figures for the Jews rescued by Pius XII, even though it’s generally acknowledged that "with few exceptions, he intervened actively only to save baptised Jews". [2]

1. Kevin Madigan teaches at Harvard Divinity School and Catholic Theological Union. He discusses the reasons for "the now thoroughly discredited statement of Pinchas Lapide [3], who estimated that Pius 'was instrumental in saving at least 700,000 but probably as many as 860,000 Jews from certain death at Nazi hands' ". (More on Lapide's phantasy figures here.)

Why, defenders of the wartime pontiff invariably inquire, would an Israeli and a Jew like Lapide have reason to exaggerate? In this and similar cases, the answer is transparently clear: political exigency.

Lapide was in the 1960s an Israeli consul in Milan and was attempting, at the time he made his inflated estimates, to secure Vatican recognition for the state of Israel. Similar motives explain statements made in the immediate postwar period by Golda Meir and Moshe Sharett, foreign ministers of the new state of Israel. Had these statements been accurate within even an order of magnitude, Pius would perhaps deserve to be honoured. […]  They were not. Whatever was thus gained diplomatically by these statements — in the short run, precious little — was purchased at the cost of considerable historical untruth. [4]

2. Arthur Hertzberg of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation (IJCIC) was chairman of the Jewish delegation during the 1971 negotiations with the Vatican. He gives a rare behind–the-scenes account of his dealings Archbishop Jean Jerome Hamer who was entrusted with direct instructions from the Vatican.

…I decided to inquire about the Vatican's agenda and, in exchange, to let its representative know what practical results Jews desired

Archbishop Hamer accepted an invitation to join me that night at my hotel for a private meeting. I began by asking him: "What do you and your people want from us?" He responded as an experienced diplomat: "You first."

I did not hesitate. "The Jewish community needs and wants an end to Christian anti-semitism, and we are waiting impatiently for the Vatican to recognize the State of Israel." Hamer responded equally quickly. "The eradication of anti-semitism from Catholic teaching," he said, "is a prime objective of the Church, and it will happen soon." He added that the recognition of the State of Israel, however, was a political question and that "the Jews would have to take that up with the Vatican's Secretary of State." I then asked him what the Church's objectives were. "The Vatican wants the Jews to stop accusing it of not having helped during the Nazi period. We want you to realize that Pius XII was a far better friend of the Jews than is commonly acknowledged. In any event, we want the hostility to end."

It had become clear to me that there was some linkage in the archbishop's mind between the Church's ridding itself of anti-semitism and the Jews' muting their criticism of the Church's conduct during the Nazi era. […I told him,] "If shutting off the criticism is a precondition for cleaning anti-semitism from Church teaching, then such a deal cannot be made." [5]

Unfortunately the deal already had been made. For instance, on the day of Pius XII's death in 1958, Golda Meir, then Israel's Foreign Minister, cabled a very diplomatic message of condolence to the Vatican claiming that "…When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the Pope was raised for the victims". [6]

So what did this bargain with the Vatican actually bring? Israel did its part quickly and well, by unreservedly lending its credibility to help skew the historical record. Then it waited for both recognition of the new state and the renunciation of the anti-semitism that had fuelled the Holocaust. It waited and waited. 

Finally, 45 years after the founding of the state of Israel, the Vatican offered recognition – with a new condition – Israel must accept a concordat. This it did in 1993, and another one in 1997 and now it is under pressure to accept a third.

And what of the Vatican envoy’s 1971 promise that the Church would "soon" eradicate anti-semitism? In 1965, it had finally got around to stating that all Jews are no longer to be blamed for killing Christ [7], but that was six years earlier, so Archbishop Hamer’s promise must have been about doing something more than retiring a nasty bit of dogma. 

 Many Jews expected that the Vatican would finally express some regret for the almost two thousand years of official Church anti-semitism which had fuelled the pogroms and the Holocaust. But such hopes were naïve. Why should the Vatican confront the historical record when it had already got Israel to whitewash it? Israeli diplomats and politicians had been tricked into absolving the wartime pope, so what was left to apologise for?

Now the Vatican is free to proceed with the canonisation of Pius XII. In fact, having secured Israeli endorsement of Hitler’s pope, the Vatican was also free to revert to its classic strategy of mixed signals. 

"[In the 19th century] the Jews were officially seen by the popes as 'souls to be saved' while other members of the clergy were permitted to promulgate the Jewish ritual murder myth." [8] This theological tap-dance is still going on. The Jews may now no longer officially be seen by the popes as the killers of Christ, but in 2000 the German Jesuit Gumpel, entrusted with guiding Hitler’s pope to sainthood, stated publicly that, of course, "the Jews killed Jesus"…. [9]

Jewish anxiety about Catholic anti-semitism gives the Vatican useful leverage with Israel, so why not keep a good thing going?


1. Pius XII, Redemptoris Nostri Crucitatus, 15 April 1949, #9, #11.

2. Arthur Hertzberg, "The Catholic-Jewish dispute that won't go away", Reform Judaism, November 1999.[]=1777&voir[]=4984

3. Dr. Paul O'Shea (a respected Catholic historian), "Pinchas Lapide and Rubbery Figures", Paul on Pius, 3 April 2010.

4. Kevin Madigan, "Judging Pius XII", The Christian Century, vol. 118, 14 March 2001.  For copyright reasons this is now only available in a blog reposting:

4. Hertzberg, ibid.

6. Golda Meir quoted in the article criticised by Madigan above: Rabbi David Dalin, Ph.D., "A Righteous Gentile: Pope Pius XII and the Jews".

7. “Nostra Aetate”, ("In Our Time" ), proclaimed by Pope Paul VI on 28 October 1965.

8. Thomas J. Williford, "Chapter IV, Conservative Political Rhetoric: The Judeo-Masonic Conspiracy Theory", Armando los espiritus: Political Rhetoric in Colombia on the Eve of La Violencia, 1930-1945, 2005, p. 153. Footnoted to David I. Kertzer, The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001) 86-105, 158-163, 197-201, 214-218.

9. "Shadow of anti-semitism hangs over Vatican", CBC News, 11 November 2000.

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