Friday, May 26, 2006

A Discussion on the Moral Culpability of Pius XII

>From a colleague:

>In regards to our discussion on whether John Paul II should apologize
for the inaction of Pius XII, my argument that no action is an action,
and that there are moral responsibilities which go along with
inaction, DOES have great philosophical support - see Utilitarians.
However, as my wife points out, Catholic theology since the middle
ages, much like Jewish, is much more concerned with sins of

[A] Thinking about it, I suppose my comments were drawn from a
consideration of English (i.e. Anglo-American) Common Law, where, as
far as I understand it, an adult bystander who did nothing to help a
child endangered by an oncoming car has no legal culpability (as
opposed to an adult who put a child in the way of an onrushing car).

On the other hand, moral culpability is often wider than legal

[B] Taking the same example, it seems to me that a person who did not
move to aid such an endangered child in a circumstance where there was
no danger to the adult has clearly failed as a human being in some
profound way. Such a comment however depends on my prior belief that
there is an essential authentic humanity by which people ought to be

[C] But what about the example where the adult does not act to save
the child because so acting would seriously endanger the adult's
well-being or continued existence. Changing the example slightly,
would you, or I, for example, rush into a burning house to save a
child? In such a circumstance, it seems there is a need for prudential
judgement on the likelihood of success, but that when in such a
circumstance the adult does not act, there is no culpability, and when
the adult does act, one has an example not of a moral action we have a
right to expect, but of moral heroism.

[D] Why would people engage in such moral heroics? In practice, for a
variety of reasons. Honor, for example, has clearly motivated many
people to moral heroism in the past. The other great motive must be
love. While I would not rush into a burning house to save just
anyone, I would almost certainly do so to attempt, whatever the odds,
to save someone I loved so greatly that I could not live with out

There really are different views on Pius XII' action or inaction: John
Cornwall recently came out with his _Hitler's Pope_, but both Pope
Paul VI (who was a vociferous anti-Nazi and anti-Fascist) and in more
recent years the British Ambassador in Rome during the war argued that
Pius XII both spoke and acted against the Holocaust according to a
reasonable prudential judgement. But stipulating, for the sake of
argument, that Pius XII did not act, then how should his (stipulated)
inaction be evaluated? Clearly, he has no legal culpability ([A]
above) since he did not commission or participate in the Holocaust.
Nor, I think did circumstance [B] obtain -- the pope was clearly in a
good deal of danger (and I think that arguments that Catholic Europe
would arise to defend him was fantasy). I think the most that can be
said is that [C] obtained, and the pope if (as stipulated) did not
act, then he simply did not risk himself to save others. This may not
be admirable, but it is not morally culpable.

The problem, of course, is that for Catholic Christians, the moral
order of the universe is established by Love not Justice, and
sainthood demands an element of moral heroics that on occasion
overcome normal prudential considerations. A pope is not meant to be
a living saint -- (there clearly were Catholic people during the
Holocaust who did act with the requisite moral heroism -- the case
Maximilien Kolbe for example) -- but should surely be evaluated
according to a moral calculus based on love rather than prudence. In
this case, if Pius XII did not act, and did not do so because he could
not find in his heart love for the victims of the Holocaust, then
indeed he failed to measure up to the demands of heroic morality.

I don't see, however, that someone has to apologize, or be apologized
for, for not being a saint (i.e. in Catholic terms, a moral hero.) It
seems to me that, absent any claim that Pius XII commissioned the
Holocaust, demands for an apology are demands for an apology for not
being a saint.

Some additional points which complicate my comments.

1. There is indeed an effort to canonize Pius XII as a saint. These
should not go ahead, in my opinion, unless moral heroism can be shown.

2. Nothing I wrote has a bearing on whether the Church should
apologize for its history of anti-Semitism in general. It should, and

3. Although I entirely accept the crucial role of Christian
anti-Semitism in laying the basis for the inclusion of Jews in the
Nazi exterminationism, it cannot, as some recent commentary has
suggested, be seen as the only cause. Other groups, who had never
been the subject of specifically Christian prejudice (Gypsies/Roma,
Poles, Serbs, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc -- in all about 5 million
people) were also victimized by the Nazis. Even the extreme
exterminationism whereby Jews alone were hunted down throughout
Europe, had a real parallel it the hunting down and extermination of
Gypsies. Leaving aside the possibility of simple mass group pathology,
it seems to me that the motivations of the Nazis were also drawn from
(bad) racial science, and more importantly, from *ethnic nationalism,*
a political and cultural force whose power you know well, but which
was always antithetical to Christian (and specifically Catholic)
teaching. I think that part of the current exclusive emphasis on the
very real religious roots of the Holocaust arises from a refusal to
consider the willingness of nationalists of all stripes to dehumanize
and stigmatize other ethnic groups.

Finally, not that in discussing the issues above, I allowed that Pius
XII was indeed inactive during the Holocaust. Although a huge number
of news reports have been written as if this were a given, I think it
does indeed have to proved. Opening Vatican archives of the period
would indeed be a good start in resolving the question.

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