“Fake News”, about which we hear so much at the moment, is as old as human communication itself. It’s fuelled by Original Sin, and its birth and growth is hardly a surprise to the Church. For if anyone has felt the sting of fake news – with all its menacing consequences – it has been practising Catholics.
As Rodney Stark amply documents in his work, Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History, few institutions have been the victim of “fake news” more often than the Roman Catholic Church.
Just one of many examples is the scurrilous campaign to defame Pope Pius XII. At the end of the Second World War, Pius was praised for his moral leadership, strong opposition to Nazism, and interventions which saved many persecuted Jews.
Not long after the fall of the Third Reich, however, a new world struggle emerged, between Christianity and Communism. “In this case, legends grew,” wrote historian Owen Chadwick in The Tablet, and “propaganda fostered them – propaganda in the first instance by Stalin’s men in the Cold War, when the Vatican appeared to be part of the American anti-Communist alliance and Stalin wished to shatter the Pope’s reputation … Stalin had a political need to make this Pope contemptible.”
The Soviet propaganda against Pius was expanded by playwright Rolf Hochhuth, author of the 1963 play, The Deputy, which bitterly caricatured Pius as silent and indifferent during the Holocaust. Hochhuth energized an anti-papal campaign which reached a crescendo with the publication of John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope (1999).
Though the allegations against Pius XII were ably answered by eminent historians like Chadwick and Sir Martin Gilbert—as well as first-hand witnesses who worked with Pius to combat Nazism and the Holocaust – the campaign against him had a damaging effect. As Chadwick lamented: “It is still believed by many people that Pope Pius XII was a friend of the Nazis, or that he said nothing at all against racial mass murder during the War.”
Those people apparently included a BBC reporter who, during Pope Francis’s visit to Auschwitz in July, told viewers: “Silence was the response of the Catholic Church when Nazi Germany demonised Jewish people and then attempted to eradicate Jews from Europe.”
But now something remarkable has happened. After strong protests from concerned Catholics, led by Lord Alton and Fr Leo Chamberlain, the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) has found that the report “did not give due weight to public statements by successive Popes or the efforts made on the instructions of Pius XII to rescue Jews from Nazi persecution, and perpetuated a view which is at odds with the balance of evidence.”
While this correction might seem like brief and passing news, for those of us who’ve fought to clear the good name of Pius XII, it constitutes a major victory.
After years of protesting outrageously slanted reports and documentaries on Pius XII’s alleged complicity in the Holocaust – and having our heavily-documented rebuttals ignored – here, at last, was progress.
When I read the BBC’s correction, I could not but help think of the impressive scholarship of men like Chadwick and Gilbert, who did so much to exonerate Pius XII, and whom I had the privilege of consulting before their respective deaths. Both of them, I am sure, would have welcomed the BBC’s about-face, especially Gilbert, whose book, The Righteous, is a comprehensive study of Christians, including Pius XII, who rescued Jews during World War II – often at great risk to themselves.
In 2003, the year Gilbert’s book was published, he granted me an extensive interview in which he methodically demolished the charges against Pius XII, emphasizing two things:
- Not only was the Catholic Church not “silent,” during the Holocaust, Vatican Radio, authorized and sustained by Pius XII, was among the first major voices to publicly condemn Nazi atrocities against Jews and Catholics in Poland, shortly after World War II began. Hence, said Gilbert, “To assert Pius XII was ‘silent’ about Nazi mass murder is a serious error of historical fact.” Sir Martin also told me that the Pope’s Christmas message of 1942, which condemned the extermination of people based upon their “race or descent” was extremely important, because it “put the Pope squarely and publicly against the Holocaust.” Indeed, the Nazis were so infuriated by it that they denounced Pius XII as a “mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals.”
- Asked if he agreed with the Vatican’s 1998 declaration on the Holocaust (“We Remember”) that “hundreds of thousands” of Jews were rescued under Pius XII, Gilbert, who spent decades meticulously researching the Holocaust in archives around the world, told me that that statement was not a self-serving exaggeration, but historically accurate: “Yes, that is certainly correct. Hundreds of thousands of Jews, saved by the entire Catholic Church, under the leadership, and with the support of Pope Pius XII – would, to my mind, be absolutely correct.”
Gilbert has helped to inspire a generation of writers who have defended Pius XII with hard facts and serious research. The anthology The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII, to which I contributed an 80,000-word annotated bibliography, collects some of the most important evidence. That anthology, in turn, has been favourably cited by many historians, notably Michael Burleigh (Sacred Causes) and Mark Riebling (Church of Spies), whose acclaimed books have only strengthened the case for Pius XII.
Today, no reputable historian takes the charges of Hochhuth or Cornwell seriously, for the evidence in Pius XII’s favour is simply too great. That a renowned news organization like the BBC now recognizes that fact marks a real turning point in the “Pius War,” and proves that the battle to rescue his reputation from fake history is finally being won.