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Pius XII and the Croatian Holocaust
June 28, 2010
by William P. Meyers

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The Roman Catholic Church has nominated Pius XII (born Eugenio Pacelli) for sainthood. There are a few flies in that sacred ointment.

Apologists for Pius XII (should you have to apologize for the behavior of a saint) portray him as a brave, good man who just happened to become Pope in Fascist Europe just before the outbreak of World War II. The Jewish Holocaust has been the center of controversy: did Pius do all he could to save the Jews from burning in Hitler's ovens?

Before forming a conclusion, you might want to consider how others fared, because the Holocaust was not just the work of Hitler, and Jews were not its only victims. There was the largest holocaust of all, the atheist holocaust, which Pius XII lobbied for, and which Catholics simply will not discuss. Perhaps crucial to the saint debate was the holocaust in Croatia.

Croatia has had an on-again, off-again history as a state. After World War I it was made part of the new superstate of Yugoslavia. During World War II it enjoyed a brief period (1941 to 1945) of independence, then was absorbed back into (newly socialist) Yugoslavia.

Without excusing bad human behavior, let's just admit that the Balkans is a rough neighborhood and has been since pre-Roman times. In particular, Orthodox Christian Serbs, Moslems, and Roman Catholic Croats had been living and fighting with each other long before Pius XII was born. It is possible the tragic mass murders in Croatia during World War II would have happened even if he did not encourage them. But he did encourage them.

First as a child of Vatican lawyers, then as an up and coming lawyer, bureaucrat and diplomat for the Vatican, Eugenio Pacelli had always favored the ideas that the Pope should have absolute power within the Roman Catholic Church, and that all governments should acknowledge the Pope as a sort of global emperor and direct representative of God. Yes, he was crazy, but then he never got out much; he was feeding on the ever-present alternative reality kept up inside the Vatican.

Pius XII hated communism and atheism and even liberalism and democracy (until his side lost World War II, then he changed his tune a bit). He wanted all governments to be monarchies or dictatorships, run just as the Church was run, with absolute obedience and no room for deviation or individualism. He hated Jews (lots of evidence of that is available; ignore it at your soul's peril), thought Protestants should be forced back into his church, and believed atheists should be shot if they refused to convert. You would think he might go easy on Eastern Orthodox Christians, who are usually lumped in as being very close to the Roman Catholic Church. You would be wrong. They refused to accept the authority of the Pope, and several of their diocese had set up by Saint Paul himself.

In 1941, with the war going full tilt, people in Yugoslavia, as elsewhere, had some difficulty picking sides. The Croats (not all of them, of course ...) sided with the Fascists; there was a large, pre-existing fascist organization, the Ustashe. Like almost all the fascists [see Fascism], the Ustashe was mainly Catholic. Led by Franciscan priests, the Ustashe started slaughtering Eastern Orthodox church members, who were mainly ethnic Serbs. The Ustashe killed Jews too, but, strange to us, did not attack the substantial Moslem minority.

You can read some details in Hitler's Pope by John Cornwell (pages 248-267), including what is known about the extensive reports sent to Pius XII about the slaughters, and his encouragement of the Catholic leaders of fascist Croatia.

When you put it all in context, you begin to wonder what a Catholic saint is. I attended Catholic School in the U.S. (where I was taught to hate Jews, Protestants, and atheists), and I got a different view of the saints. They were either victims (martyrs) who gave up their lives to spread the glorious gospel of Jesus, or they very kindly people who helped others who were in need.

I am sure that Pius XII did some good things in his life. But look at his associates. He loved Petain and General Franco. He was in bed with Hitler: his struggles with him were over who would be top dog. He did not speak out clearly against the Nazi attacks on, well, anyone, not even German Catholics. He viciously attacked Catholics who did not agree with him, using his power as Pope to silence anyone who deviated from his insane approach to theology and Church governance.

If that makes the man a saint, I'm glad to be numbered with the sinners.

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