When Sister Margherita Marchione died recently, at the age of 99, the New York Times, to its credit, published a lengthy and sympathetic obituary. Less to its credit was the clumsy anti-Catholic mistake in the obituary. A mistake the newspaper then, surprisingly, corrected.
Best known for her works defending Pope Pius XII, Sr Margherita was also a gifted teacher, lecturer, literary scholar and dedicated member of her order, the Religious Teachers Filippini, which she’d entered in 1935. Her autobiography, The Fighting Nun, is a wonderful read. The American nun wrote eight books in defense of the pope, after retiring as professor of Italian language and literature at Fairleigh Dickinson University. When she died, her life and achievements were celebrated not only by the Vatican and Catholic media, but major secular outlets as well.
The Clumsy Anti-Catholic Mistakes
After noting Sr Marchione’s acclaimed academic career and prodigious research on behalf of Pius XII, the Timesnoted that “Yad Vashem, the memorial in Israel to victims of the Holocaust, which also recognizes those who saved Jews from genocide, has been highly critical of Pius XII.”
The writer reports that “In its museum, beneath a photograph of him, a statement reads: ‘Although reports about the assassination of Jews reached the Vatican, the pope did not protest either by speaking out or in writing. In December of 1942, he did not participate in the condemnation by members of the Allies regarding the killing of Jews. Even when the Jews were being deported from Rome to Auschwitz, the pope did not intervene’.”
In fact, this statement was replaced by Yad Vashem in 2012, based on better research, and in a way far more favorable to Pius XII. The revised statement highlights Pius XII’s 1942 Christmas address, which condemned mass murder based upon one’s nationality or race; notes how the pontiff appealed to Nazi-occupied countries on behalf of persecuted Jews; and acknowledges research indicating that Pius XII’s wartime strategy “enabled a considerable number of secret rescue activities to take place.” (The old quote still appears on Wikipedia.)
The Times itself wrote about these welcome changes in its story, “Israel’s Holocaust Museum Softens its Criticism of Pope Pius XII,” published on — July 1, 2012. Do its reporters consult the newspaper’s own archives, or the notoriously unreliable Wikipedia?
The Times Corrects Itself
I immediately wrote a letter to the Times, complimenting them for devoting generous attention to Sr Marchione’s achievements, but pointing out this serious error, and requesting a correction. A day later, on June 2nd, the Times did publish a corrective.
The newspaper’s obituary, the editors admitted, “included an outdated reference to a display about Pius in a museum operated by Yad Vashem, the memorial in Israel to victims of the Holocaust. A panel beneath a photograph of him says that he ‘did not publicly protest’ the deportation of Jews from Rome. It no longer says that ‘he did not intervene’ to try to stop the deportation; that language was revised in 2012.”
Yes, the language was revised, but the Times didn’t explain why. Pius XII did intervene to rescue many Jews during the Nazi raid on Rome’s Jewish community. He certainly wasn’t going to publicize that fact, as the eminent historian Owen Chadwick observed, lest that trigger the Nazis to invade the papal sanctuaries in Rome and seize all the Jews then being protected by the pope and countless religious.
But the Times did not end its correction there. A short time after this statement appeared on its “corrections” page, a fresh obituary appeared, with a key new paragraph, with important hyperlinks, commenting: “Yad Vashem, the memorial in Israel to victims of the Holocaust, which also recognizes those who saved Jews from genocide, has been critical of Pius XII. In its museum, beneath a photograph of him, an initial statement said he ‘did not intervene’ in the deportation of Jews from Rome. The language was softened in 2012, based on new research, to say he ‘did not publicly protest’ their deportation. Last year, the museum urged caution in drawing any conclusions until the pope’s archives could be thoroughly examined.”
I’ve written many letters objecting to highly inaccurate stories about the wartime Pontiff. Rarely has this ever resulted in a major correction or revision. But in this case, the Times acted swiftly and conscientiously.
There is a lesson here for Catholics: Because of the anti-Catholic bias one often encounters in the mainstream press, it’s easy to become cynical and not even attempt to counter poorly informed articles about the Church. Yet there are still many writers and editors who really do care about the truth and, when presented with evidence, accept it.
That was what gave Sister such hope in her efforts to vindicate Pius XII. It is why she was convinced, as so many others are, that it is only a matter of time, as new archives are already indicating, before the full truth of Pius XII is established and he is beatified and canonized for his heroic virtues.
Photo credits: Volumes in Pius XII archives (Photo by Alberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images); Pius XII typing (Photo by Fred Ramage/Keystone/Getty Images). Pius at the Beatification ceremony of Albernico Croscitelli at Saint Peter in Rome in1951. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images).