I don’t know if this is still true, but when I was at  the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, visitors were invited to write in a large book their opinions of President Harry S Truman’s decision to deploy the atom bomb against Japan in 1945. My opinion is that it’s easy to make Harry Truman’s decisions if you’re not Harry Truman. The same thing can be said for all such figures, including Pope Pius XII.

A great deal has been written about what the pope did or did not do with respect to the Jewish people who were being systematically exterminated by the Nazis during World War II. The latest contribution, if it can be called that, is Gordon Thomas’s book, The Pope’s Jews, which is designed to show that Pope Pius was clear in his condemnation of the Nazi regime and that he was directly involved in a variety of schemes to either help Jewish people escape from Italy or hide them in church properties, including the Vatican itself, during the German invasion.

The best that can be said for this book is that it is superfluous and that it is so badly executed as to be an embarrassment to the publisher and an insult to the reader.



Most if not all of what the author reports here has been published before. It has been well recorded that Pius, a former papal nuncio to Bavaria, was confronted with the murderous Nazis, on the one hand, who had a track record for wreaking indiscriminate vengeance whenever they met opposition or resistance, and the godless Soviets, on the other hand, who were eager to extend their dominance over as much of Europe as possible. The pope was also the head of a neutral state, and the safety of untold human beings depended on the guarantees that accompanied that neutrality.

There also has been a great deal written about the various bishops, priests, and nuns who either helped Jewish people get out of harm’s way or hid them in church properties, including the Vatican itself. Among those complicit in this was Sister Pascalina Lenhert, who was both housekeeper and confidant to Pius XII. Many sources have reported that the pope himself was not only aware of these activities but was directly involved in some of them.

Thomas writes about all this, and he also writes in some detail about the Jewish people living in the Jewish ghetto in Rome (most of whom died in a Nazi concentration camp), the Jewish resistance movement in Rome, and those working — and, in many cases, hiding — in a Jewish hospital on an island in the Tiber.



Thomas includes a lot of information about the work of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who had charge of a network of church operatives who hid Jewish people in multiple safe houses.

Most of this, as I say, comes from secondary sources, and that’s what the bibliography in this book consists of. In the several instances in which the writer does refer to primary sources, he provides no footnotes and no reference to those documents in the bibliography.

Moreover, this book is so carelessly written and edited that the quality of such scholarship as there was must be questioned. The author has a maddening fascination with the past perfect tense of the verb and uses it liberally, especially when it’s not appropriate. That plus awkward or downright improper sentence structure makes reading the text a chore.

And then there are the factual errors. St. Paul was crucified (we don’t know how he died, but the tradition is that he was beheaded); St. Paul had a vision of the risen Jesus in Rome (that happened on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus); Pius XII canonized St. Catherine of Siena (that was Pius II in 1461); Pius XII silenced the anti-Semitic radio priest Charles Coughlin (the Vatican didn’t approve of Coughlin, but didn’t take any action against him; he was forced off the air via regulation by the National Association of Broadcasters after he opposed U.S. involvement in what became World War II).



In his apparent zeal to cast the Catholic Church as a friend of the Jewish people, Thomas  writes that Pope Pius IV in the 16th century relaxed a variety of restrictions on Jewish life that had been imposed by his predecessor, Paul IV, but the author does not point out that the restrictions were restored by Pius V.

Immediately after a reference to Pius IV, who assumed the papacy in 1562, Thomas writes this: “The Nicene Creed, the core of the church for centuries, would teach that Pontius Pilate was ultimately responsible for Christ’s death sentence, and that it was the gentiles (sic) who had mocked, scourged, and crucified Jesus.” The Nicene Creed dates from the fourth century, not the 16th, and it doesn’t say anything at all about Gentiles as such: it mentions only Pilate. The Apostle’s Creed, which dates from much earlier than the one adopted by the Council of Nicaea, says exactly the same thing about Pilate. Considering the crimes committed against the Jews over the past 20 centuries, those creeds can hardly be used to make the Church look benign. It was the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s that specifically repudiated the idea that the Jewish people had some corporate responsibility for the death of Jesus; that council also forbid the Church to teach that the Jewish people had somehow been rejected by God (see the council’s document Nostra aetate).

In the decades since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has made a serious effort to improve its relationship with the Jewish people and to condemn any form of anti-Semitism. The present pope, who is about to abdicate, has been very active in that area. Although it does seem that Pius XII gets a bad rap from people who didn’t have to deal with the complex situation he faced, there’s no denying the trouble history between the Church and the Jews. It’s good to think that it might all be behind us.





As I was driving to Passaic last night, I was listening to songs by Kate Smith that had been recorded from her radio broadcasts. It occurred to me that she might have been surprised if she had been told that people – well, one person at least – would be listening to those songs 60 years later while cruising along an interstate highway.

I also thought yesterday morning, when the women on The View were talking about evolution, that Charles Darwin might have been surprised – and maybe a little dismayed – to know that 150 years after the publication of “The Origin of Species” people would still be arguing about his ideas. 

But we are still arguing. The latest flurry of discourse – the one that got the tongues wagging on The View – was a study from the University of Minnesota that showed the degree to which high school biology teachers influence whether students accept the idea of evolution or question it based on its perceived conflict with the idea of creationism.




A story on the web site sciencenews.com included this passage: “For example, 72 to 78 percent of students exposed to evolution only agreed that it is scientifically valid while 57 to 59 percent of students who were exposed to creationism agreed that it can be validated.”

In other words, the survey suggests that high school teachers who introduce the religious idea of creationism into a science class may influence a considerable number of students to deny what is constantly being reinforced by studies of the effects environmental factors have on life forms from one generation to the next and over longer spaces of time.

I believe that high school students should be exposed to the full range of ideas that have been held and still are held by large parts of the population – including the idea that existence itself and particular things that have existence are brought into being by a deity, however that may be expressed in various religious and philosophical disciplines. I don’t believe the biology class is the place to teach that. It belongs in the humanities curriculum. To exclude from a student’s education at least the main themes on the subject of creation that are held by Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and others is to send him off to college or into the working world with an incomplete understanding of how most of the people on the planet think.




The discussion on The View didn’t have any intellectual depth, and it seemed to imply that a person must choose between belief in evolution and belief in the idea of a First Cause. That’s partly because the women were using the term “creationism” as though it stood for every shade of thought about a divine or supernatural origin of existence. Students who aren’t taught otherwise but who are exposed to such a simplistic public discourse on the subject might draw that erroneous conclusion. 

Pope Pius XII, hardly a progressive, wrote in his 1950 encyclical letter “Humani Generis”:

“The Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experiences in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.”

More recently, in 1996, Pope John Paul II – taking note of what Pius had written – added this:

“Today, almost half a century after publication of the encyclical, new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis.  It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge.  The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.”

Many Catholics, I’m afraid, are unaware of this point of view and I know that many of them are creationists as such, rejecting evolution out of hand. They and parents like them, more than the biology teachers, may ultimately be responsible for this outdated argument to go on for at least another generation.