Thursday, 23 October 2008

Was Pope Pius a moral coward or a saint?

The streets of Paris ask an insistent moral question, now more than half a century old but as pertinent as ever. On many street corners, small plaques commemorate those who faced up to Nazism: “Here died so-and-so, rĂ©sistant de guerre.”

When I lived in Paris, I often pondered the question posed by these small memorials: what would I have done? Would I have done anything? Some Frenchmen and women actively collaborated during the war; many quietly acquiesced to protect themselves and their families. Those who chose to resist fascism did so in different ways: some secretly and discreetly, some with guns and actions, others with words. Those who spoke up, and out, were perhaps the bravest of all: the saints, and the martyrs.

Exactly 50 years after the death of Pope Pius XII, supporters of the wartime pontiff are demanding his beatification, the last step on the road to sainthood, reigniting a long-running battle over whether he did enough, early enough, to condemn the persecution of Jews.

The Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Israel carries a deliberately provocative depiction of the Pope's wartime role, including him among the “unjust”. Hardline supporters of Pius have tried to ram through the process of sainthood with little regard for Jewish sensitivities. Pius has been condemned as “Hitler's Pope” by some critics and lauded by Pope Benedict XVI as a great leader.

For all the fury and posturing, the story is essentially about how one very powerful man responded to the most pressing moral question of the age. This is not some distant historical dispute among scholars. It is a defining issue that asks, just as insistently as those Paris plaques: what would you have done? Read more
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