Commonweal has an excerpt, “Nazi Racism and the Church,” from a forthcoming book by John Connelly that will appear next month: From Enemy to brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933-1965.
Briefly, Msgr. Oesterreicher was far more of a critic of the Vatican and of Pius XII’s dealings with the Nazis before and during the war than he was after the war when he defended Pius XII against of accusations of being pro-Nazi (e.g., Hochhuth’s The Deputy).
A reader of these letters encounters a very different Oesterreicher from the man who appeared on U.S. nightly news in 1963. Instead of defending the Vatican, the Oesterreicher of the prewar years is freely critical, calling Pius XII “timid” and accusing him of currying favor with fascism. The letters reveal Thieme and Oesterreicher attempting repeatedly to get the bishops of Europe—above all, the bishop of Rome—to come out unmistakably against Nazism and anti-Semitism. What they encountered was a Vatican in many ways similar to Hochhuth’s later portrayal of it. In 1937 Oesterreicher decided to publish Catholic arguments against anti-Semitism in a brochure bearing the signatures of as many prominent Catholics as he could find. The resulting “Memorandum on the Jewish People,” written anonymously by Thieme and the exiled political writer Waldemar Gurian (another Jewish-born convert to Catholicism), appeared simultaneously in Vienna, Paris, and New York, and used a range of arguments from Scripture and church history to oppose all discrimination against Jews. Despite intense canvassing, Oesterreicher found not a single bishop willing to support the effort.
Pius XII had a diplomatic mindset which was inadequate to deal with the evils of Nazism. Oesterreicher wanted Pius to release German Catholic soldiers from their oath to Hitler; that would have resulted in the martyrdom of tens of thousands of Catholic priests and laity, and possibly even civil war in Germany –but it might have prevented the universal catastrophe of World War II and the Holocaust. Pius could not even imagine such a course of action, and made indirect public criticisms of Nazi actions, which in diplomatic terms was very daring.
A few Catholic clergy were pro-Nazi (like Bishop Hudal), most were vaguely anti-Semitic, and were exhorted by some “progressive” Catholics to adopt to the new, modern world of eugenics and scientific racism. The real opposition to Nazism, the prophetic voices that were to bear fruit in Vatican II’s statement on the Jews, was heard in the voices of converts like Oesterreicher and Maritain and Dietrich von Hildebrand – those who had chosen Catholicism and who took it seriously.
Although anti-Semitism has not been purged from the Catholic Church, it is on the decline – although one cardinal blamed the media’s interest in clerical sexual abuse on the Jews who wanted to punish the Church for supporting the Palestinians. However, on the whole, Catholic anti-Semitism is in decline, because of the actions of a small group, many of them converts.
Perhaps something similar will happen with attitudes to sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Clearly abuse had been tolerated for a long time. “The Vatican” is not monolithic in its attitudes, any more that “Washington” is. Some still refuse to take the matter of abuse seriously; others like Benedict have come to a partial realization of how evil it is; a few, like Msgr. Scicluna (a promoter of justice [investigator] for the CDF), want to hold bishops accountable for their failures.
The small group of laity, such as Jason Berry, Richard Sipe, Terry McKiernan, and a few others, representing a spectrum of Catholicism, may be the catalyst for a change of heart in the way sexual abuse in regarded and handled in the entire Catholic Church. In such a massive institution, the change will take decades to filter throughout the world, and the change will only be partial, but it seems to be a real change, and that can be credited to those who insisted on speaking out.