Pope Francis and the Vatican’s Burdened Past

Moral deflection shapes the ground across which Pope Francis strode during his Middle East pilgrimage.

Pope Francis is the pope of refugees — never more so than during his Middle East pilgrimage over the past weekend. He began by meeting with Syrian refugees in Jordan, to which perhaps a million have fled from the brutal civil war in Syria. In Palestine, Francis met with refugees from the Deheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem. In Israel, by laying a wreath at the tomb of Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism, the pope recalled that the Hebrew state, despite its ancient roots, had come into being as a direct consequence of European pogroms and death camps — a people’s brute determination not to be annihilated.

Israelis and Palestinians both use a variant of the word “catastrophe” to name the separate traumas that sparked their conflict, but those traumas can be understood as a double-barreled catastrophe of refugees — a despised class of people with whom, from the start of his papacy, Francis has closely identified. After all, his first trip outside of Rome last year was to Lampedusa, the Mediterranean island to which desperate migrants from Africa have made their way by the tens of thousands.

The most monumental refugee crisis in history was ignited almost exactly 70 years ago, with the liberation of Rome on June 3, 1944. With that first Allied victory over the German war machine, a wave of Nazi victims began to show itself and swell. Italy’s roads were the first to flood with desperate fugitives, but in subsequent years many millions of the displaced, homeless, and deracinated would swamp Europe when the wave crested and broke. The U.N. refugee relief agency, administering camps across the continent, would at one point be responsible for more than six million people.

There was a dark side to the post-war story, as Vatican-sponsored entities were put at the service of a malign brand of refugee — scores of Nazi war criminals who, with the support of high-placed Catholic Church figures, were enabled to escape.

Then, too, a pope was at the center of the crisis. Pius XII’s much-disputed wartime record in the face of the Holocaust is one factor, but there are others. For example, the Papal Nuncio in Istanbul, Angelo Roncalli (later Pope John XXIII), alone supplied hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Nazi-hunted Jews with forged credentials needed to escape and immigrate to Palestine. As the war ended, Pius XII oversaw a complex of Catholic relief agencies, which turned parishes and Catholic schools all across Europe into refuges for those needing food and shelter. But there was a dark side to the post-war story as well, as Vatican-sponsored entities, especially in Rome, were put at the service of a malign brand of refugee — scores of Nazi war criminals who, with the support of high-placed Catholic Church figures, were enabled to escape — a band that included Franz Stangl, commandant of Treblinka, Klaus Barbie, Gestapo chief of Lyons, and Adolf Eichmann. As it happens, the ultimate place of refuge for such sinister characters would be Argentina.

Warburg in Rome
James Carroll’s latest novel, Warburg in Rome, comes out July 1, 2014.

I have written a novel that tells this story, both the good and the evil. Warburg in Rome, opening on that June day of liberation in 1944, features David Warburg, a director of the War Refugee Board, a last-ditch U.S. sponsored attempt at intervention on behalf of desperate Jews that proved to be, as Warburg himself finds, too little, too late. The War Refugee Board’s one real success was the enabling of Raoul Wallenberg’s heroic rescue of thousands of Jews in Hungary, and that story is told here. Wallenberg depended on the Papal Nuncio of Budapest, and on Roncalli — clear instances of Catholic virtue.

In Rome, Warburg’s silent partner in the attempted rescue of Jews is Monsignor Kevin Deane, an American priest responsible for Vatican relief efforts. As the war ends, they confront together a massive wall of indifference to the plight, in particular, of what Jews survived during the Nazi onslaught. The continent that stood by during the round up and murder of the six million had, in effect, no place for those who’d managed to survive. What does repatriation mean for a people for whom neither Europe nor America will raise the barriers? In the aftermath of Hitler’s defeat, with on-the-run Nazi criminals turning Rome into an escape hatch, Warburg and Deane find themselves at odds with powerful figures in the Church, in the American government, and in the Jewish rescue movement. And they are at odds, perhaps, with each other.

What happened in Rome at the end of World War II represents a climactic moral defeat in a world historic succession of moral defeats. The triumph of virtue in the vanquishing of Hitler came at a cost to virtue. My work aims to bring such complexities to life, in all of their poignancy, tragedy, and shame. It is a saga too little known, one with which neither the religion nor culture nor politics of the West have fully reckoned — not in Washington, not in Jerusalem, not in Berlin, not in London, and not in Vatican City.

Christendom is the unnamed third party to the Middle East conflict, yet Christians smugly wonder why Jews and Arabs cannot make the peace.

The Israelis and the Palestinians are today locked in a corner the walls of which — anti-Semitism and racist colonialism — neither of them erected. Christendom did that with a sacrosanct contempt for Jews inside Europe and a God-sanctioned denigration of native peoples wherever else European empire staked its claim. Christendom, that is, is the unnamed third party to the Middle East conflict, yet Christians smugly wonder why Jews and Arabs cannot make the peace.

That habit of moral deflection shapes the entire ground across which Pope Francis so boldly strode this week. For his own part, Francis can directly confront the Vatican’s particular legacy here by closing down the misbegotten process toward canonization of the wartime pope, Pius XII, who may have been no more “silent” in the face of the Holocaust than other world leaders, but who was surely no saint. To help conclude the broadly unfinished reckoning with this burdened past, the pope from Argentina has already promised to open, finally, the Vatican’s own archives for the period of World War II. Pope Francis knows that laying bare the complete story is essential. Warburg in Rome shows why.


Image courtesy of Aleteia Image Department.

James Carroll
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  • Martin Hughes

    Your new novel looks interesting and I plan to buy it when it is published in the UK. (Your article here prompted me to look up a few things on the internet, where I was dismayed to see how much unbalanced propaganda, sometimes manic ravings, one finds.). I agree that the Pope of the time was no saint, also that ‘silence’ was something of a norm. It’s true that people ‘cannot be blamed’ for ‘not knowing’ (but how slippery these terms are!) the full story as it was to receive canonical form in Hilberg’s writings (which as far as I can see have stood the test of time as to the scale of, if not as to the reasons for, the disaster). Mind you, I suspect that the Vatican has never fully accepted this story – the previous Pope annoyed his Israeli hosts, as I recall, by saying ‘millions’ instead of ‘6 million’. On the other hand, Roncalli’s rise was presumably due in great part to the reputation he had acquired as a rescuer. His work seems to have been as much concerned, for logical reasons perhaps, with pressing the British Mandate authorities to admit refugees to Palestine as with getting them out of Hitler’s clutches – as the Church was helping Nazi fugitives with one hand it was moving closer to a Zionist position on the other, a process which may (do you think?) have culminated in the recent Papal ceremony in honour of Herzl. The present Pope, who to my mind is over-praised, seems quite determined to press ahead with what you call the misbegotten canonisation process.

  • JoeBillScott™

    In my opinion, the essence of the the problem that Caroline Glick was lamenting (in the link that I posted previously) was the apparent inability of the Catholic church, to this day now with Francis’ visit to Israel, to set aside the supercessionist (sp?) ideology at the root of Christian antisemitism (as elucidated in Constantine’s Sword).

    My wife and I watched the movie last night and felt at once or simultaneously utterly appalled and validated.

    Thank you James.