With some regularity, there is a report of what Pius XII (b. 1876; pope 1939-1958) did or did not do to save Jews during the Holocaust. The charge that he was guilty of sins of omission started with a play, The Deputy, by Rolf Hochhuth released in German in 1963. One author, John Cornwell, provocatively entitled a book Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII (1999).
Just as regularly, Pave the Way Foundation issues reports like one last year concerning Pius’ intervention in Rome on October 18, 1943, which saved 11,000 lives. Pave the Way issues reports as it mines the Vatican archives, noting that Pius’ detractors do not bother to explore them. More than a year ago, it issued a report that, when Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, was the papal nuncio (diplomatic representative) to Germany (1917-1930), the Catholic bishops of Germany excommunicated (that is, prohibited the reception of any sacraments by) any Catholic who joined the Nazi party, wore the uniform, or flew the swastika flag – three years prior to Hitler assuming the post of Chancellor in 1933.
Whether or not Pius’ detractors have the facts straight about him or not, they do, however, have their moral principles are right. There is a large common ground between those who attack Pius XII and those who support him.
Both camps believe:
(1) There is an objective right and wrong.
(2) Right and wrong are able to be ascertained by all men and women, in every time, in every place.
(3) Right and wrong do not depend on the circumstances of the time, or on the “moral evolution” or “progress” of the human race. The Holocaust was wrong in the 1940s; it was not wrong simply because we, in our time, deem it wrong. The same is true with respect to slavery. We today judge the slaveholding on the part of many Founding Fathers and Presidents as wrong, even though the first antislavery movement did not begin until 1787. (Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains (2006); movie on William Wilberforce, Amazing Grace (2006).)
(4) Right and wrong are able to be ascertained even in the midst of upheaval (the Great Depression and World War II: political instability, hyperinflation, hunger, unemployment, armed conflict) and need not wait for decades of soul-searching and historical research.
(5) That Nazi leaders may have been charming or charismatic or good family men -- or succeeded in ending inflation, growing an economy with jobs, and giving the German people a sense of national identity and purpose -- are irrelevant to our assessment today of the morality of their actions, and should have been irrelevant to the German people’s assessment of the actions of their contemporaries in the 1930s and 1940s.
(6) Individual violators of human rights will be pursued even in their old age. And if businesses, such as insurance companies, traders in art, users of slave labor, are complicit, their successors in business will be sued.
(7) Omissions, not just acts, can be wrong. Silence by observers in the face of great wrong can itself be grievously wrong especially if the observer is in a position to effect change.
8) Neither popular opinion nor the law nor the medical establishment nor military orders can make right what is morally wrong. So, it matters not that German law (such as the Nuremburg laws of 1935) sanctioned anti-Semitism, or that there was popular support for the Nazi regime, or that respected doctors experimented on Jews and on persons with disabilities, or that the defendants in the Nuremburg war crimes trials pled the defense of military orders.
With these principles in mind, we can pose one question to our opponents in the “culture wars” and a couple to ourselves.
To our opponents -- to those who support killing the innocent through abortion, euthanasia, and embryonic stem cell destruction, we ask: Will you consider the objective rightness and wrongness of these issues -- without regard to popular support or “consumer” demand or legal or medical or governmental approval?
When Americans United for Life issued a report in July 2011 on Planned Parenthood, Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, responded by praising Planned Parenthood for its “honorable and noble” endeavors. She said, “Planned Parenthood saves lives of teenage girls and women every day.” We agree that it’s an issue about saving lives, but O’Neill ignored the lives killed by Planned Parenthood, the same lives sought to be saved by Americans United for Life.
To ourselves, we pose these questions: Are we too silent? Are we doing enough?
On the eve of the June 6, 1944, Normandy landing, General George S. Patton (1885-1945), delivered a speech to the troops. Much of the profanity of the speech was omitted from the version delivered by actor George C. Scott in the opening monologue in the film Patton (1970). Very nearly at the end of the speech, he says:
Now, there’s one thing that you men will be able to say when you get back home, and you may thank God for it. Thirty years from now when you’re sitting around your fireside with your grandson on your knee, and he asks you, “What did you do in the great World War II?” -- you won’t have to say, “Well, I shoveled s**t in Louisiana.”
Sixty years before Patton’s speech, almost to the day, the same answer was provided by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935), a wounded veteran of the Civil War. On Memorial Day, May 30, 1884, he addressed the John Sedgwick Post No. 4 of the Grand Army of the Republic in Keene, New Hampshire. He explained why it is important, even for those who were not veterans or had no memories of the Civil War, to celebrate Memorial Day. He said:
It celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith. It embodies in the most impressive form our belief that to act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly. . . As life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time, at the peril of being deemed not to have lived. (R. Posner, ed., The Essential Holmes, p. 82 (1992).)
What, then, have you done and what are you doing during the “culture wars”? Dr. and Mrs. J.C. Willke are answering that question for a lot of the people of their generation with their upcoming book on the history of the pro-life movement in the United States, including their role in founding the National Right to Life Committee.
What will your answer be when your grandchild asks, “What did you do during the war, Grandma and Grandpa?” If you do not share the passion and action of our time, it will be at the peril of being deemed by your grandchildren as not having lived, or worse, of having been complicit.
Spero columnist James M. Thunder is an attorney and freelance writer.