The Catholic Church’s response to the Holocaust is re-examined through historic footage, rare documents and contemporary interviews in the documentary HOLY SILENCE. Pope Pius XI was unequivocal in denouncing the anti-Semitism taking hold in 1930s Germany. As World War II looms on the horizon, Pope Pius XI called on a humble American priest to help him challenge the evils of Nazism and antisemitism. But Pope Pius XI died in February 10, 1939, and his successor, Pius XII, carried out a very different response to Hitler and the Holocaust.
HOLY SILENCE asks what was the proper response of the Roman Catholic Church to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Should the Catholic Church have publicly and explicitly denounced the Nazis and their anti-Jewish policies, as Pius the Eleventh did in the last 3 years of the 1930s? Or should the Catholic Church work behind the scenes in helping shelter Jews in monasteries but refrain from making anything but the vaguest criticisms of the Nazis and remain silent on the Holocaust, as Pius the Twelfth did during World War II?
During the late 1930s, Pope Pius the Eleventh grew increasingly alarmed over the treatment of the Jews in Germany. During the last 3 years of his pontificate, Pius the Eleventh took steps that publicly confronted Hitler’s authoritarian government and his anti-Jewish policies.
In 1937, Pius the Eleventh had 300,000 copies of the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge smuggled into Germany to be read at every Catholic pulpit on Easter Sunday that condemned the Nazi’s ideas of racial superiority and the idolizing of the state. After the Easter address, the Nazis seized twelve printing presses, and hundreds of people were sent either to prison or the concentration camps.
In a public address in the Vatican to Belgian pilgrims in 1938, Pius the Eleventh said that anti-semitism is incompatible with Christianity and that all Christians are Semites. On November 11 1938, following Kristallnacht, Pius the Eleventh joined Western leaders in condemning Kristallnacht, a pogrom against Jews carried throughout Nazi Germany.
In 1938, Pius the Eleventh secretly commissioned American Jesuit journalist John LaFarge to write the encyclical Humani generis unitas that would condemn racism in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, and to explicitly condemn Nazi Germany’s anti-Jewish policies. Pius the Eleventh was to publicly deliver Humani generis unitas at a bishops meeting on February 11, 1939. But Pius the Eleventh died of a heart attack on February 10.
While Pius the Eleventh was willing to publicly confront Hitler, his successor, Pius the Twelfth was unwilling to attack Hitler except in the vaguest terms that the Nazis could easily disregard. In secret, Pius the Twelfth allowed monasteries to shelter Jews seeking refuge from Nazi persecution and he tried to work behind the scenes to find diplomatic solutions to aid Jewish refugees. There is no question that Pius the Twelfth opposed the Nazis. The question with Pius the Twelfth is whether he had a moral responsibility as the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church to speak out publicly against the Nazis, especially when he found out about the enormity of the Holocaust. If Pius the Eleventh was willing to publicly speak out against the Nazis, why couldn’t Pius the Twelfth?
This question has great relevance today for all religious leaders who face a resurgence of authoritarianism and a rise in human rights violations against vulnerable minority groups.
In the Philippines, Latin America and many other countries, the Roman Catholic Church is one of the few institutions with the clout and the influence to defend democracy against autocratic leaders and speak out against the harassment of persecuted minorities.. How should Catholic leaders confront the authoritarian governments in their countries and protect the human rights of targeted minority groups?