Richard Dawkins and P Z Myers versus Pope Pius XII

Following recent comments by two of the World’s most outspoken atheists, manicstreetpreacher thinks a reassessment of the silent Pope is in order.

I have a morbid fascination with the figure of Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII.  I confess that the only full-length biography I have read is John Cornwell’s controversial Hitler’s Pope, which has been so heavily criticised that even the author no longer stands by all of its claims.

I am currently researching and writing an epic post about the role of the Church and religion in the rise of fascism (so epic, that it might have to be an entire book!), and I really need to read a more sympathetic account of Pacelli.  I have read Sacred Causes by Christian historian Michael Burleigh which references a few Pius defenders such as Mississippi law professor Ronald Rychlak and Rabbi David Dalin.

The best defence anyone has been able to advance is that Pacelli’s scope for action was severely limited.  Hindsight is the cheapest form of wisdom.  Perhaps Pius XII would have inspired a mass uprising against the forces of darkness that had overwhelmed Europe by publically opposing Hitler.  By the same token, his actions could have backfired with the consequences for Europe’s population better left imagined than described.

Here is Richard Dawkins referring to Pius XII as “Pope… Nazi” at the 2010 Global Atheist Convention held in Melbourne, Australia earlier this month while commenting on the Vatican’s procedure of canonising saints.

The press widely construed Dawkins as referring to the current holder of St Peter’s keys, Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI.  While growing up in Germany, Ratzinger was drafted into the Hitler Youth along with practically all other German boys when he was too young to understand the full implications of what he was being ordered to do.  Even the most virulent opponent of the Vatican would be punching below the belt to take this as evidence that Ratzinger supported Nazism.  Although the next photo is hardly something you want left on your Facebook profile.

In fact, Dawkins was referencing Pius XII, the man who while the Vatican’s Secretary of State concluded concordats with practically every fascist regime in Europe, including the 1929 Lateran Pact with Benito Mussolini of Italy and the 1933 Reichskonkordat with Adolf Hitler’s German Wehrmacht Republic.  These treaties, which incidentally were the first agreements signed respectively by both dictators upon taking power, guaranteed the Church’s total withdrawal from politics, embodied by the dissolution of the German Catholic Centre Party, a source of effective opposition to National Socialism, in return for control of state education and other ameliorations.

As if that wasn’t enough, Pius XII notoriously remained silence in public about the Holocaust, despite constant and reliable intelligence of the atrocities committed against the Jews.  This was only one in a whole litany of sins for which atonement was begged by the former pontiff, John Paul II, during a papacy largely defined by repeated requests for forgiveness.

Perhaps sceptics are being too hard on Pacelli.  Perhaps they are using him as a pawn in their private war against the parties of God.  Perhaps his back really was up against a wall.  Perhaps public condemnation of Hitler would have been foolhardy and lead only to Nazi aggression being redirected towards Catholics.  Perhaps he achieved more by remaining silent in public and while waging a “secret war” against the Führer.  The figures I’ve read for the number of Jews that the Vatican saved during the War range from half a million to 800,000.  I am quite prepared to accept the higher figure.

But while the Pope’s rural retreat of Castel Gandolfo and indeed the Vatican itself was used to hide Jews escaping the German occupation of Rome in 1943, the same “safe houses” were used to harbour escaping Nazi war criminals, not least of who was Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the “Final Solution”.  After the war Eichmann, along with many other Nazi war criminals, was spirited away to South America on an illegally acquired Red Cross humanitarian passport via a “Ratline”, before finally being kidnapped by Mossad agents in Argentina, standing trial in Israel and executed for crimes against humanity in 1962.

It is not proven that Pacelli had personal knowledge of the Ratlines, their chief architect being Austrian Bishop Alois Hudal, author of the Hitler-fawning tract, The Foundations of National Socialism But since Pacelli clearly turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the death camps during the war, it is not unreasonable to draw negative inferences.

The Vatican could always exonerate Pacelli once and for all by releasing the wartime documents from their archives which would prove the Pontiff’s defence, surely?  So far, they have declined to do this, making the utterly lame excuse that the copious documents have not yet been properly catalogued.

Ratzinger’s recent drive to canonise Pius XII has been discouraged by the Church’s own theologians as likely to cause grave damage to relations between the Catholic Church and Jews and that he had become a de facto “symbol of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism”.

One very eloquent reviewer of Dalin’s book, The Myth of Hitler’s Pope, on Amazon US described the Church’s stance thus:

As long as Pope Pius XII allowed Hitler to remain a Catholic, the Pope supported his actions, period, and end of story.  There was no conspiracy, just failed responsibility, and lack of action.  David Dalin’s book, The Myth of Hitler’s Pope demonstrates very little except to try and defend the ridiculous.

That is about as reasonable and balanced an assessment as I have read from a sceptic.  The verdict of biologist and blogger P Z Myers was worded somewhat more strongly…

Oh, and Pope Pius XII really was a sniveling rat bastard who should have been held accountable for contributing to the evil perpetrated against the Jews.

The Pius Wars will not cease until the day Daniel Dennett’s dream of the Vatican being converted into the “International Museum of Roman Catholicism” becomes a reality.

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8 Responses to “Richard Dawkins and P Z Myers versus Pope Pius XII”

  1. Sean Says:


    I am currently reading Michael Burleigh’s Third Reich, a masterly work on the period. In it he has a chapter on the quasi-religious aspects of Nazism and its relationship with the established religions in Germany.

    Highly recommended.

    • manicstreetpreacher Says:

      Thanks for the recommendation, Sean. Alas, I fear my “to read” pile is high enough as it is without yet another addition.

      I was also somewhat put off Burleigh by Sacred Causes. It has its moments, but Burleigh’s writing style is completely pretentious and verbose. I found most of it a struggle.

      He also makes a rather woeful attempt to defend Pius XII in the terms I outlined in my main post without ever properly confronting the arguments of the Pope’s detractors such as Lewy, Goldhagen and Cornwell.


  2. Dimitri Cavalli Says:

    1) As I recall, Dawkins himself was accused of anti-Semitism after making some comments about how the Jewish lobby controls U.S. foreign policy.

    2) Jewish scholars and authors such as Sir Martin Gilbert, Serge Klarsfeld, Bernard Henri-Levy, Michael Tagliacozzo, and Rabbi David Dalin have all defended Pius XII.

    3) As for Cornwell, he actually amended his thesis years ago and now admits that the Vatican many Jews.

    4) Atheists such as Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, and Pol Pot murdered more people in the 20th century alone than religious people have in the last 7,000 years of human civilization, but Dawkins and Myers don’t like to talk about that.

    5) If there is no free will and everything is just a product of our genes and environment, as hard-core evolutionists such as Dawkins and Myers insist, then the moral judgments regarding Pius XII and also about the “harm” they insist religion causes are completely meaningless and even contradict their own views.

    • manicstreetpreacher Says:

      Thank you for your comment, Dimitri. Your points in order:

      1) Doesn’t surprise me. Criticism of the policies of Israel or the Jewish American lobby are often met with accusations of anti-Semitism from those who can’t face actually answering those criticisms. Alister McGrath made thinly veiled accusations of anti-Semitism against Dawkins around the time The God Delusion was published when he was creaming off Dawkins’ fame. But he never backed them up with quotes from the book. Disgusting.

      2) I acknowledge that Pius has his supporters among respectable historians and have even named Dalin in my main post.

      3) At the start of my post, I acknowledge Cornwell’s amendments to his thesis in Hitler’s Pope and link to the book’s Wikipedia page which contains statements by many of its critics. Cornwell acknowledges in the book itself that the Vatican saved many Jews. Along with many Nazi war criminals.

      4) You clearly do not read the people you criticise. Dawkins devotes a chapter section in his book to answering this very calumny; Hitchens an entire chapter. Yes, Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao were atheists in respect of Yahweh, Christ and Zeus. But their evil deeds did not stem from their simple disbelief in a personal creator god in the Abrahamic or indeed ancient Greek tradition or the truth of one of their Holy Books. They were motivated by political ideologies, which many have argued were non-theistic perversions of religion with worship of infallible leaders etc.

      5) This is somewhat off topic for this post, but I suggest you take a look at Sam Harris TED lecture from a few days ago and see how and why theistic religion does not have a monopoly on matters of morality and indeed how science is capable of answering such questions.


  3. Dimitri Cavalli Says:

    Your reply just came to my attention.

    1) Here is an article about Dawkins’ comments regarding the Jewish lobby in the United States. See,7340,L-3457718,00.html

    Disagreement with or criticism of the Jewish (Israeli actually) lobby in the United States is not anti-Semitic. But the way Dawkins chose his words made him sound like one these anti-Semitic , New World Order conspiracy nuts. Even people who are agree with Dawkins’ atheism and admire his work were troubled by his comments.

    You probably agree that criticism of President Obama is not racist. But if anyone, left or right, used the N-word when criticizing him, that would be crossing a line and evidence of bigotry.

    2) Dawkins is a zoologist, and Myers is a biologist. Neither are historians. Sure they have to right to express an opinion on Pius XII, but when they do so, they are not speaking as academically-trained experts but as laymen.

    3) With regard to your point 4), I just think Hitchens and Dawkins stack the deck to make atheism benign while making religion evil.

    Haven’t people killed and persecuted each other over money, sex, drugs, food, politics, racial and ethnic differences, national borders, and rap music? In addition to religion (and atheism), shouldn’t we get rid of these things as well since they lead to persecution? It was British author G.K. Chesterton, a former agnostic and socialist who eventually converted to Catholicism who pointed out that the only sure way to abolish persecution was to abolish human beings. He meant that as long as we (with our flawed natures) exist, we will find reasons–any reasons–to do harm to others.

    • manicstreetpreacher Says:

      I’ve read that article on Dawkins’ comments about Jewish influence on American foreign policy and they have been taken out of context by his detractors. Dawkins makes similar comment in The God Delusion that atheists now outnumber Jews in American and perhaps they could have equal influence if they organized themselves properly. He’s not having a pop at the Jews at all.

      Your comments about Myers and Dawkins not being “qualified” to pass judgment on Pacelli is sheer Courtier’s Reply. Anyone can read a history book and form an opinion. The Church’s co-operation with fascism is a well-known historical fact. I am currently reading Guy Walter’s Hunting Evil which is how I found out about Alois Hudal’s organisation of the Ratlines.

      Non-businessmen still regulate businessmen. Doctors are regulated by those with no medical training. If we follow your reasoning to its natural conclusion, we would have to say that only convicted criminals are qualified to judge felons.

      Dawkins and Co. recognise that atheists are capable of doing evil things and did so during the twentieth century. However, similar disbelief in a personal creator god and rejection of the idea that one of our religions’ Holy Books was the subject of divine authorship will not in itself inspire a person to do evil things.

      Communism and fascism are political ideologies, every bit as derange as the worst religious dogmas. There is no evidence that atheists will subscribe to such beliefs purely due to their atheism. So yes, in a way, atheism is benign compared to religion.

      I agree with G K Chesterton that there is something in man’s heart that makes him do evil things. But no one would seriously make excuses for Nazism by saying that Nazism was less to blame for the Holocaust, but man’ heart of darkness.

      By the way, Chesterton also said that when men stop believing in God, they won’t believe in nothing, but in anything. Chesterton was a vocal supporter of Franco and Mussolini. Clearly, his devout belief in God didn’t stop him from believing in anything.


  4. Dimitri Cavalli Says:

    1) The debate was about Pius XII, not Bishop Hudal.

    2) The very author whom you cite has also defended the wartime pope,

    3) Keep trying.

    • manicstreetpreacher Says:

      Hello Dimitri

      A pleasure to read your replies every nine months! Your/my points in order then:

      1) The debate is about the whole of the Catholic Church’s stance towards Nazism, not just that of Pius XII. The actions of Hudal are entirely relevant to the debate, please and thank you.

      2) For the last time, I have acknowledged from my original post that Pacelli has his supporters as well as his critics among respected historians, and clearly Walters is one of them. However, I cited Walters in my point about Hudal, not Pacelli.

      3) I’ll take that as a “no comment” answer to my original point, because it certainly ain’t a refutation. Nobody ever has a reply to that inconvenient truth about Chesterton’s political persuasions.

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