Pius XII and the Sexual-Abuse Crisis

By Rev. Richard P. McBrien
The Tidings
Downloaded September 27, 2003

The cover of the Sept. 1 issue of America, the Jesuit weekly magazine, portrays the late Pope Pius XII at prayer, with the caption, "The Vatican and Nazism."

The issue contains two articles relevant to the topic: one by Charles Gallagher, a Jesuit seminarian with a Ph.D. in American Catholic history, regarding a 1938 letter he discovered which is indicative of the personal anti-Nazi sentiments of then-Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (elected pope the following year), and another by Robert Krieg, a colleague and friend in the Theology department at the University of Notre Dame, on the Vatican Concordat which the Holy See, represented by Cardinal Pacelli, had signed with the German Reich in 1933.

On the Sunday after this issue of America appeared, The New York Times published a lengthy article on the Gallagher piece under the headline, "New Look at Pius XII's View of Nazis," with a photo of Mr. Gallagher in clerical shirt and collar.

The reporter, Laurie Goodstein, is not to be faulted for her otherwise informative and even-handed story. She and The Times are to be faulted, however, for ignoring Robert Krieg's article in the same issue. It provides the underlying reason why Cardinal Pacelli and the Vatican generally treated the Hitler regime with such care in public, despite their sometimes scathing comments about it in private, exemplified by the confidential memorandum written by Pacelli to Joseph Kennedy, then-U.S. ambassador to England.

Indeed, the Krieg article suggests a connection between the motive behind the Vatican's dealings with the Nazis in the run-up to the Second World War and its subsequent handling of the sexual-abuse crisis that erupted in full force last year in the United States and elsewhere.

Professor Krieg discounts the conventional explanations of why the Vatican entered into a concordat with such a despicable regime, thereby giving it the political cover in the world community that it so desperately needed.

Surely the most extreme view is that Cardinal Pacelli, as Vatican secretary of state and later as pope, was at heart an anti-Semite, a Nazi sympathizer, and a willing tool of the Third Reich --- "Hitler's Pope," as one author contemptuously called him.

Others have charged him and the Vatican with an innate preference for dictatorships over democracies. Still others have pointed to the Vatican's apparent hope that Hitler might function as a bulwark against Communism --- a threat which the Vatican deemed even greater than Nazism.

Cardinal Pacelli's own justification for signing the 1933 concordat, expressed in a letter to the British minister to the Holy See, and cited in Krieg's article, was that "The spiritual welfare of 20 million Catholic souls in Germany was at stake, and that was the first and, indeed, only consideration."

Although the church received a number of concessions from the German government, it made many of its own in return: clergy were not to engage in any "political" activity; bishops were to swear an oath of loyalty to the Reich and would sponsor only those lay organizations dedicated to charitable works and other narrowly-defined "religious" activities; and church publications were to be subject to Nazi censorship.

As Robert Krieg astutely points out, the concordat "embodied a problematic theology of the church, for it implicitly reduced the church to an organization concerned solely about a private, otherworldly realm unrelated to the social and political aspects of human life." Moreover, it was an ecclesiology that regarded the church primarily, if not exclusively, as a hierarchical organization with the pope at the top and the bishops as his subordinates.

Among the concordat's significant ecclesiological consequences were the further limitation of the authority of the German bishops in relation to the Holy See, and the deeper inculcation of the Vatican's directive to place the welfare of the institutional church ahead of all other considerations.

Krieg notes that, in the current sexual-abuse crisis, some bishops "have placed the interests of the institutional church ahead of the well-being of the victims of sexual abuse." Again and again, in depositions and other discovery procedures, it became unmistakably clear that the primary concern of the bishops had been to protect the church from scandal. Every other consideration, including the protection of children and young people, was secondary to that.

Professor Krieg concludes his article with the hope that, if the Holy See and the bishops were facing the Third Reich today, "they would be impelled by Vatican II's ecclesiology to act differently than Pius XI, Cardinal Pacelli and the German bishops did in 1933."

Unfortunately, too many church officials did not act any differently in the matter of sexual abuse by priests. It was a case again of bad ecclesiology.

Father Richard P. McBrien is the Crowley-O'Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.


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