SIO15: Did the Catholic Church Support Hitler? with Tim O’Neill

Joining me for a third time is Tim O’Neill of the blog History for Atheists! Tim is back to take us through some really fascinating possible misconceptions about whether or not the Pope and the Catholic church were supportive of Hitler and the Nazis. Tim also discusses whether or not Hitler himself was religious. Lots of claims have been made by atheists and others about these questions and Tim is here to clear up misconceptions and give his view of what the evidence tells us!

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14 Replies to “SIO15: Did the Catholic Church Support Hitler? with Tim O’Neill”

  1. Hearing about the pope’s recorded personal distaste for the nazis didn’t feel especially relevant. The repeated assertion that “they’re not pals” sounded reminiscent of Kellyanne Conway defending Trump from accusations of economic enmeshment with Russia. I take the point that this was meant to disabuse people with a cartoonish image of scheming illuminati type figures, but it definitely set off my spidey-sense.

    The idea that the church would accept an agreement with the nazi party as an act of self-preservation seems reasonable, but it also strikes me as tremendously hypocritical for an organization that claims insight into timeless moral truths and co-opts the prestige of their saints and martyrs.

    I was disappointed that your conversation didn’t address the church’s policies and actions during the holocaust further. I assumed substantial criticism would tend to focus on this aspect, rather than the pope’s personal politics.

    Similarly to the Rwandan genocide, it seems like the church did issue an apology (in 1998) about their perceived failure to act more directly and overtly to oppose the nazis. If you ever revisit the topic, it could be worthwhile to address that statement.

    Maybe it’s just my personal tastes, but it felt like the most compelling and interesting ideas were presented in the last ten minutes of the episode. It sounds like the patreon content might be more up my alley.

    1. “Hearing about the pope’s recorded personal distaste for the nazis didn’t feel especially relevant. The repeated assertion that “they’re not pals” sounded reminiscent of Kellyanne Conway defending Trump from accusations of economic enmeshment with Russia.”

      Seriously? They were not “expressions of his personal distaste”. They were reflections of the attitude of the Church overall. I thought I gave enough evidence to make that perfectly clear. I can give you much, much more if you like.

      “The idea that the church would accept an agreement with the nazi party as an act of self-preservation seems reasonable, but it also strikes me as tremendously hypocritical for an organization that claims insight into timeless moral truths and co-opts the prestige of their saints and martyrs.”

      Then you should talk to a Catholic about that. I simply gave the historical context of why the Church felt it had to make that deal as the best of a set of very bad choices. Since I’m an atheist, I see the Church as a purely human institution that does what human institutions do in difficult political circumstances.

      “I was disappointed that your conversation didn’t address the church’s policies and actions during the holocaust further. ”

      It did. We just couldn’t fit it into an hour so it had to end up in the bonus content.

      “it seems like the church did issue an apology (in 1998) about their perceived failure to act more directly and overtly to oppose the nazis.”

      You seem to be referring to “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah”, which was not about any “failure to act more directly and overtly to oppose the Nazis” but was, as the title suggests, a retrospective reflection on the Holocaust. It’s key sentence is this:
      “The fact that the Shoah took place in Europe, that is, in countries of long-standing Christian civilization, raises the question of the relation between the Nazi persecution and the attitudes down the centuries of Christians towards the Jews.”
      The rest of the statement is a meditation on this theme and highlights the condemnation of and resistance to Nazism by the Church in this period. But it then goes on:
      “Nevertheless, as Pope John Paul II has recognized, alongside such courageous men and women, the spiritual resistance and concrete action of other Christians was not that which might have been expected from Christ’s followers. We cannot know how many Christians in countries occupied or ruled by the Nazi powers or their allies were horrified at the disappearance of their Jewish neighbours and yet were not strong enough to raise their voices in protest. For Christians, this heavy burden of conscience of their brothers and sisters during the Second World War must be a call to penitence.”
      This an acknowledgement that the response of Catholics was not uniform that that some did not speak out and others were complicit. But the characterisation of this document as “an apology for not resisting the Nazis” is a distortion of what it is saying and a lazy reading of both it and the relevant historical background. Yet that was how it was reported at the time, since journalists tend not to be scholars and are often pretty lazy when it comes to complex issues.

      1. Since you asked, yes, seriously. I’ll take the blame for failing to infer, from your use of “they are not pals,” an implicit “the church (as an organization) was not pals with the nazi government (as an organization).” You later referred to figures using church resources and authority to both help and hinder the nazi government, which I (again, personal taste) assume to be more relevant than professed ideology.

        I apologize if the part about the church seeming hypocritical came off as a criticism of you as a historian. I meant it more as a philosophical question, or a cultural critique (I guess).

        Thank you for the information on the church’s statement (“We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah”). I see the distinctions you propose between what seems to be written and what was reported.

        I do think the first section you quoted (the key sentence) raises an interesting question though, about whether christianity’s historical attitudes and exploitative representations of jews (and other non-christians) contributed to the ascension of the nazi party.

        1. “I’ll take the blame for failing to infer, from your use of “they are not pals,” an implicit “the church (as an organization) was not pals with the nazi government (as an organization).””

          The reference to them not being pals was addressing the explicit claim by Hitchens that Pacelli/Pius was “pro-Nazi”. If you didn’t manage to also pick up that a Papal Nuncio and official voice of the Church in Germany making over 40 public speeches condemning the Nazis was not simply some guy expressing his “personal distaste”, then I have to seriously question whether you are genuinely trying to understand this material or are just looking for ways to reject it.

          “You later referred to figures using church resources and authority to both help and hinder the nazi government, which I (again, personal taste) assume to be more relevant than professed ideology.”

          Then you completely misunderstood again. I made reference to Pacelli acting in his official capacity as Papal Nuncio and, later as Pius XI’s right hand man and Vatican Secretary of State. That means he was acting as one of the main voices of the Church’s official ideology, second only to the Pope himself at that stage. I then referred, by contrast, to one of the very few individuals within the Church hierarchy who was in any way pro-Nazi – Alois Hudal. I made it perfectly clear that he acted on his own, without the knowledge of the Pope , and that he was ostracised precisely because his overly pro-German public statements became too obviously pro-Nazi.

          Perhaps I should have emphasised that Hudal was the exception to the rule and that he was ostracised precisely because he was going against the policy of the Church, but I didn’t do so because I thought that was pretty obvious from what I did say.

          In a longer program I would have been able to give hundreds of quotes and examples that show very clearly that the Church position was vehemently against the Nazi ideology, but I thought what I had given made that crystal clear, so I’m amazed at your strange interpretation of the evidence as some kind of “personal view” of Pacelli’s. It wasn’t. In fact, when asked about some of the more outspoken statements by Pacelli, Pope Pius XI dismissed the question by saying simply “Pacelli speaks with my voice”.

          It feels like you’re suffering from some cognitive dissonance and are looking for ways to cling to some ideas that my evidence debunks.

          1. I’m not thrilled with the accusations about my mental processes and motivations.

            You seem pretty comfortable dismissing people who don’t accept your conclusions at face value and pathologizing those who don’t share your interpretation of evidence. I’m not going to speculate as to your mental state or what motivation might be responsible for this, because I think that would be a dickish thing to do.

            Thank you for taking the time to engage. I won’t waste any more of it.

          2. I’m simply expressing my quite genuine amazement at your very strange interpretations. How anyone could decide that over 40 public speeches by a Papal Nunico condemning the Nazis were somehow just expressions of his personal private opinions is genuinely beyond my comprehension. I simply can’t understand how you managed to do that if you’re looking at this in genuine good faith. You can get offended by that if you like or call it “dickish”, but all I can do is tell you I can’t comprehend how anyone could arrive at that bizarre conclusion unless they are actively trying to find reasons to reject what I’m saying. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone on that.

            Your comment about me expecting you to accept my “conclusions at face value” also makes no sense to me. If I was simply presenting *conclusions* and saying, “so, you just have to trust me on this”, you’d have a point. But I went to the not inconsiderable effort of spending days combing through my books on this subject to compile detailed notes so I could give a clear, coherent and fair summary of the *evidence* that backs those conclusions and was then at some pains to ensure I presented that summary so anyone could see those conclusions were solidly-founded and entirely reasonable. That is precisely the opposite of asking you to accept unsupported conclusions “at face value”.

            Both these strange reactions genuinely do make me question how open-minded you are on this topic. And I’m not being “dickish” in questioning your emotional motivations here, I’m just being frank.

  2. It was my understanding that the Nazi policies regarding the Jewish people harmonized with the Catholic Church’s position, relating to the promotion of the concept of blood libel and similar myths about Jews, although nowhere near to the same degree however. A simple analogy would be the priming of Americans to Trump’s Muslim Ban by the decades-long depiction of Middle Easterners as villainous in the media. Well, not a great analogy but I think it delivers the thrust of my concept. What are your thoughts on this?

    1. This is a good question and another one that, given the limited time we had to discuss a very complex set of historical issues, we simply weren’t able to tackle. It’s often claimed that the Catholic Church’s attitude to the Jewish people down the centuries was always wholly and virulently anti-Semitic. But this is not the case. There certainly was, until it was totally repudiated at the Second Vatican Council in 1965, a teaching that, somehow, all Jews bore historical responsibility for the death of Jesus. This was based on Matthew 27:24–25, which has “the Jews” at Jesus’ trial shouting “‘His blood is on us and on our children!'” when Pilate says he is innocent of Jesus’ death and that it’s on the heads of the Jewish crowd who was calling for his execution. This was repudiated in the declaration *Nostra aetate* in 1965, which stated:

      “what happened [at the trial and execution of Jesus] cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today”

      This declaration came after the the Holocaust and certainly was partially in reaction to it. But it was also the end result of a long process of rejection of the simplistic idea of Jewish “deicide” (nothing the Vatican does happens quickly). Back in 1916 Pope Benedict XV released a declaration in response to anti-Jewish pogroms in Poland at the request of the American Jewish Committee. It noted that “the Supreme Pontiff …. as Head of the Catholic Church …. considers all men as brothers and urges them to love one another” and goes on “this law must be observed and respected in the case of the children of Israel , as well of all others”. This statement was recognised and widely reported as a major condemnation of anti-Semitism, with the New York Times reporting it under the headline “Papal Bull Urges Equality for Jews” (April 17, 1917). The statement had been drafted by by Benedict’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Gaspari, and his Under-Secretary of State, Cardinal Eugenio Pacielli – the future Pope Pius XII.

      This statement was just one in a long line of Papal statements down the centuries that stressed the status of Jews as brothers and urged their protection. As early as the late sixth century Poeple Gregory I issued a decree *Sicut Judaeis* that declared that Jews “should have no infringement of their rights” and said “we forbid to vilify the Jews”. This was one of a series of such edicts, usually with the same name (*Sicut Judaeis*) re-issued by no less than 17 popes between 1120 and 1477, all ordering protection of the Jews, forbidding forced conversions, property confiscations or disruption of their festivals and condemning violence against them. Pope Calixtus II re-issued this bull in 1120 in response to massacres of Jews in the First Crusade, which he roundly condemned. Pope Clement VI issued a bull in 1348 refuting the common idea that the Jews were causing the Black Death, noting that Jews were dying as rapidly as everyone else and urging clergy to “take the Jews under their protection”.

      The so-called “Blood Libel” was the anti-Semitic folk belief that Jews engaged in the ritual slaughter of Christian children at Passover. This was repeatedly rejected and condemned by a succession of popes, starting in 1247 with Pope Innocent IV, which condemned the “blood libel” stories as fables and noted “whenever a corpse is found somewhere, it is to the Jews that the murder is wickedly imputed”. This refutation and the condemnation of the “Blood Libel” idea was repeated by Pope Gregory X in 1272, who ordered that “no Christian shall be allowed to make any allegation against Jews on such a pretext”. Unfortunately this myth persisted and the condemnations of it had to be repeated by Pope Martin V in 1422, Pope Paul III in 1540 and Benedict XIV in 1758. This virulent anti-Semitic myth persisted *despite* the repeated condemnation of it by the highest authority in the Catholic Church, not because of any “promotion” of it.

  3. Hi Tim & Thomas,

    I loved this episode. I am from Germany and I checked on Germany wikipedia and a few other online sources ( I am a historian) if what you said matched up with what was written there and overall it does seem to. I come from a Catholic family (but I am an atheist now) and when I was young, my parents and grandparents often mentioned how Kardinal Faulhaber was a brave upstanding man who spoke out against the Nazis . It always struck me as odd that they would speak about how several Catholics were outspoken against the Nazis in a believable way but from Atheists you usually hear that Catholics and Nazis were supportive of one another but I never really looked into it.
    I loved this episode in general because of the details of German history that you go into. One of the upsides of the election of Trump is that now everyone is really interested in German history (OK, that sounds cynical but I am genuinely happy about it because German history is really fascinating and so different from how the UK or France or the US emerged as a nation state). Thank you for this episode. I will definitely check out the “History for Atheists” blog

  4. Hello,

    Would either of you be willing to do an episode based around the relationship between the church and Facism more generally (e.g. Franco, Mussolini, Salazar).

    Or perhaps the role of religion in the 30 years war?

  5. The quote from Hitler that mentioned the warrior Jesus and his diataste for the Jews.
    Does anyone know if this is similar to what Martin Luther said on the same subjects?

    1. I’ve never read Luther’s book, entitled “On the Jews and their Lies”, and it’s not high on my “to read” list either. So I really can’t say if Hitler got this weird conception of Jesus (a Jew) as an anti-Semitic fighter from Luther, sorry. The Nazis certainly were fans of Luther’s book though, not surprisingly.

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