Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity
Extreme controversy surrounds any discussion of the Catholic Church’s role in genocide and crimes against humanity. Several issues need to be highlighted in seeking to unravel this controversy. First is the allegation that the Church was directly responsible for the drive toward colonialism in issuing papal bulls that commanded states such as Portugal to spread Catholicism. One might argue that these declarations led European nation-states to believe that it was their right to acquire territories abroad. The fact that crimes against humanity were committed during colonial conquest is uncontested. A second criticism often leveled against the Church is that it has failed in its moral duty to condemn or guide leaders and populations in curbing genocidal tendencies. Such an argument claims that the Church, by virtue of its proclaimed aim of spiritual guidance, ought to have played a more significant role in the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide. The third and fiercest criticism of the Church, however, is that it has furthered genocidal tendencies. This remains the harshest criticism and goes beyond moral arguments to an examination of evidence suggesting that elements of the Church have colluded with forces perpetrating crimes against humanity and genocide.
The Papal Bulls
Many processes concurrent with colonization can be attributed to the Church and traced to a series of edicts issued by the Pope. These edicts, referred to as “bulls,” were commands or grants the Church gave to its followers. One of the more well-known bulls was delivered by Pope Alexander III to the King of Portugal on May 21, 1179. In this edict the Pope declared:
All the regions which you will have rescued from the hands of the Saracens, and where other neighboring Christian princes could not acquire any legal rights, are conceded by us to your Excellency (Consilia, 1547, p. 137).
As Bartolus points out in his treatise, although the papal bulls did not directly bestow territories on princes, they “legalized, recognized [and] sanctioned ex post facto territorial integrity which already existed in fact, or they gave assent, and thereby legal sanction ex ante to an intended occupancy, to a condition anticipated in the future” (p. 137).
Thus, it might be argued with some force of authority that an examination of the role of the Catholic Church within the context of genocide and crimes against humanity ought to take into account the Church’s impact during the period of colonization, when European powers competed against each other for the pursuit of Christianity, civilization, and commerce. Again, the responsibility attributed to the Church may be characterized as direct and indirect: direct responsibility for the actions of people it directly commanded to pursue such ends, as in the case of the papal bulls, and indirect responsibility for its failure to condemn the immoral actions of others, including Church members, and its attempts to justify its own doctrine. Within this rubric the missionary work legitimized by the Catholic Church also needs to be assessed.
The Church and the Jews
The most significant issue in discussing the Church within the context of genocide concerns its role prior to and during the Holocaust. Once again, an analysis of the Church’s role differentiates between acts of commission and acts of omission in the condemnation of activities directed toward the minority Jewish population. In many respects the tenuous relationship that existed between the Catholic Church and Jewish minorities who lived in various parts of Europe in the 1930s dated back to much earlier times. Many suggest it was the Church that in previous centuries had instigated, or at any rate fanned the flames of, the anti-Semitism which was to take such a high toll on the Jewish population in later years.
In terms of acts of commission, an argument may be made that anti-Semitism, to an extent, is linked to the teachings of the Catholic Church, one being the assignment of blame for the death of Jesus to the Jews. The ghettoization of the Jewish community all across Europe in the 1930s and 1940s can in some part be ascribed to the fervor with which Jewish lifestyles and beliefs were condemned by the Church. This is captured in the sentiments expressed by the Third Lateran Council (a gathering of 302 bishops under the aegis of the Pope to restore ecclesiastical discipline) in 1179—the same year that Pope Alexander III delivered his famous edict to the King of Portugal. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 went a step further in passing anti-Jewish decrees that included, among a host of other measures, the requirement for Jews to wear special badges clearly identifying them in the general population. The Church also encouraged monarchs to expel Jews from their states—a notable example being King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s decision to expel Jews from Spain in 1492. In places such as Venice, the Church prevailed on city authorities to segregate Jews and prevent them from living among Christians. Although Venice did not undertake such measures to segregate its Jewish population until 1516, Jews at a much earlier period in the city’s history regularly faced the wrath of Catholic clergy who actively advocated their removal and exclusion, especially during the Easter season.
Thus in terms of the Holocaust, the Church among other parties bears some moral responsibility for stoking anti-Semitism throughout European history, or at the very least, for failing to condemn such dangerous levels of antagonism on moral and spiritual grounds.
Much has been written about the Church and its role during the Holocaust. Great emphasis has been placed on the work of Pope Pius XII: described by many as a leading advocate of Jewish rights, and by others as having done too little during the Holocaust. A brief examination of this pontiff’s views and actions casts significant light on the role of the Church during World War II.
Pope Pius XII
Many view Pope Pius XII (born Eugenio Pacelli) as a tireless defender of Jewish independence in the face of the Nazi onslaught. He created the Pontifical Aid Commission whose mandate was the provision of relief to the victims of World War II on both sides. He is also believed to have opened the Holy See to Jewish refugees during the Nazi occupation of Rome in September 1943. Some estimate that Pius XII helped save as many as 1.5 million refugees, including Jews, by granting them Vatican citizenship. Many maintain that it was Pius XII who was responsible for organizing the network of priests who spirited Jews to safe havens at the height of the Nazi attack on this group. In addition, Jewish relief agencies who made large donations to the Catholic Church at the end of the war have formally acknowledged the pontiff’s humanitarian role. There has also been official recognition of Pius XII’s work: The Israeli government issued the “Righteous Gentile” award to him and, upon his death, Golda Meir (then Israeli ambassador) delivered a moving eulogy to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly.
Nevertheless, Pope Pius XII has also been criticized for failing to prevent genocide during World War II. Many contend that as the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church during this tumultuous period, he had a moral obligation to adopt strong public positions and explicitly condemn the events unfolding in Europe. Critics argue that such public statements would have unhinged support for the Nazis among Germany’s large and influential Catholic population; in this sense the pontiff might have undermined the Nazi campaign for the genocide of the Jews. Two defenses are often proffered to explain the lack of a public statement by the Vatican during the Holocaust. The first suggests that the pontiff was unaware of the scale of the tragedy occurring; he believed the incidents of violence against Jews to be sporadic, rather than part of a deliberate state policy aimed at the organized annihilation of an ethnic and religious group. Historical information gathered in the later part of the twentieth century suggests that Pius XII was not only aware of the details of several horrific events, he was directly petitioned by several individuals and groups that implored him to intervene and make a public statement condemning the atrocities.
Notable among the direct pleas made to Pope Pius XII were those of Rabbi Isaac Herzog (chief rabbi of Palestine) in 1940, Theodor Innitzer (cardinal of Vienna) in 1941, Harold Tittman (assistant chief of the U.S. delegation to the Vatican) in 1941, Andrej Septyckyj (metropolitan of Ukraine) in 1942, Myron Taylor (U.S. representative to the Vatican) in 1942, and Wladislaw Raczkiewicz (president of the Polish government in exile) in 1943. On each occasion the request was either ignored or rebuffed, and on some occasions even the facts presented were disputed as lacking in evidence. In his 1942 Christmas Eve radio broadcast the pontiff acknowledged the “hundreds of thousands who through no fault of their own, and solely because of their nation or race, have been condemned to death or progressive extinction,” but made no direct reference to the plight of Europe’s Jews.
A second defense attributes Pope Pius XII’s failure to openly condemn the genocide to the Catholic Church’s perceived position of neutrality. Proponents of this argument suggest that any statement by the Church on the atrocities committed against the Jews might have compromised it, in the eyes of the international diplomatic community as well as its own followers, because the work of the Church was above that of governments. However, clear evidence of the Church’s condemnation of other atrocities, notably those perpetrated by the former Soviet Union, exists, thereby suggesting that the Church did occasionally find it appropriate to make such statements.
Admissions of Culpability
The question of relations between Jews and the Catholic Church was the focus of much discussion in the closing years of the twentieth century. In seeking a reconciliation, the International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission (ICJHC) was appointed in 2000, respectively, by the Holy See’s commission for religious relations with the Jews and the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC). Its members (three Jewish and three Catholic scholars) undertook the study of Vatican archives, with a view toward understanding the true nature of the Church’s relations with Jews and ways in which a reconciliation might be reached.
The commission’s report entitled “The Vatican and the Holocaust” was intended to be an authoritative examination of that issue vis-à-vis general relations between the two religions, as well as an in-depth study of the Church’s alleged complicity in the events of the genocide perpetrated during World War II.
One of the key findings of the panel’s research was that Pope Pius XII was indeed fully aware of the extent and scale of Nazi atrocities during World War II. It is within this context that the Vatican’s failure to respond to the situation and assume a significant public role is particularly troubling. The report also raises doubts about whether or not the Church did all it could to facilitate Jewish emigration to Palestine and South America.
The same scholars, in addition, examined the Church’s claim of neutrality as a justification for its lack of condemnation. Drawing on evidence recently declassified by the U.S. National Archives, they suggested that within the context of other atrocities, notably those perpetrated by the Red Army against the German population, the Church adopted a strident tone of opposition, roundly condemning these events. This revealed that within the context of the Holocaust, the Church had selectively applied the notion of neutrality.
The same commission also requested access to Vatican archives to ascertain culpability for its role in the Holocaust. The request was denied, with the Vatican only willing to release documents prior to 1923, and as a result, the work of the ICJHC came to an end.
Road to Reconciliation
The attempt at reconciliation between the Catholic Church and Jewish communities has also taken other forms. In 1965 the Vatican issued a papal decree entitled Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate). Proclaimed by Pope Paul VI on October 28, 1965, this declaration acknowledged the division that had existed between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community throughout history:
True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.
Furthermore, in rejecting every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony it shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.
Besides, as the Church has always held, Christ underwent His passion and death freely, because of the sins of men and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation.
An effort was also made to mend relations between the Church and Jewish communities in 1974 when a Committee for Religious Relations with the Jews was established to formulate guidelines on religious relations with the Jews by December 1 of that same year. The declaration addressed the need for dialogue and an acknowledgment of the commonalities that exist between both communities in terms of liturgy, teaching, and education. It concluded by stressing the need for joint social action.
Similar attempts to examine relations between Jews and the Church were also conducted in 1982, 1996, and 1999, but rather than exploring the Church’s culpability in genocide, they merely remain content to emphasize the importance of good relations in the future. Implicit in this is a focus on “ecumenical questions” that have formed the basis of the Church’s view of Jews throughout history.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century the Catholic Church once more came to the fore within the context of genocide, that which took place in Rwanda. In determining the culpability of various parties in the Rwandan genocide, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) has drawn attention to various horrific episodes meriting close examination. Allegations have been made suggesting that several members of the Catholic clergy incited hatred against the Tutsi and moderate Hutu. This claim is significant in that as many as 62 percent of the Rwandan population is Catholic, and the country’s former president, the late Juvenal Habyarimana, himself enjoyed the patronage and support of the Catholic Church. The role of the Church in this particular genocide has not been fully determined.
The main allegation concerning the Church is that it switched its allegiance from the Tutsi elite to the creation of a Hutu-led revolution, thereby assisting in Habyarimana’s subsequent rise to power in a majority Hutu state. In terms of the actual genocide, critics once again hold the Church directly responsible for inciting hatred, sheltering perpetrators, and failing to protect those who sought refuge within its walls. There are also those who believe that, as the spiritual leader of the majority population in Rwanda, the Church is morally responsible for failing to take all available measures to end the killing.
The discussion on remedies for atrocities has also reached international courtrooms, with the Church through its clergy being directly implicated. Belgium, in keeping with its stance on universal jurisdiction in cases concerning grave breaches of human rights, has sought to prosecute priests and nuns alleged to have played a significant role in the events leading up to the genocide. It handed down sentences of fifteen and twelve years to two nuns who were convicted for their involvement in the slaughter of approximately five thousand civilians who had sought refuge in their monastery at Sovu in Rwanda. Witnesses testified that the two nuns had directed the death squads to the civilians’ place of refuge; some even stated that the nuns had assisted in the pouring of petroleum in a bid to burn down the monastery with civilians still inside.
When addressing the issue of the Catholic Church’s responsibility for the perpetration of genocide and crimes against humanity, there are several subissues that need to be taken into account. Although one might insist that the Church has a particular moral responsibility to condemn genocide and crimes against humanity, and take all measures necessary to prevent and terminate such acts, this moral responsibility is not necessarily easily fulfilled. In addition, it might be argued that the Church did seek to protect thousands of Jews during the Holocaust: a fact recognized in different settings. Insisting that the Church adopt a particular strategy of public condemnation in the face of atrocities, rather than working behind the scenes for individual victims and families, would be unfair.
Defending other claims of direct action by the Church in the instigation and promotion of discrimination that later led to genocide is much less tenable. Thus, the policies of the Lateran Council and the sentiment expressed in the papal bulls need to be acknowledged for what they were: the legitimization of one particular religion over others. In this quest the rights of non-Catholics were ignored and considered to be of less value to the grand plan of proselytization. It can be further argued that the real responsibility of the Catholic Church in genocide and crimes against humanity may be traced to this aspect of its history, whether within the context of the Crusades, the quest for colonization, the incitement of discrimination, or the failure to condemn violations against non-Catholic communities.
Although some attempts at rapprochement and acceptance of culpability have been made within the context of the Church’s role in modern-day episodes of genocide and grave breaches of human rights, the issue of violations perpetrated through colonialism remains neglected. This is especially true when evaluating the Church’s missionary work, which sought to “civilize” communities far removed from European civilization. In this bid the Church has altered the fabric of many societies irrevocably, and while some might argue that this is a trend with positive aspects, from a human rights point of view this remains problematic because it gives greater credence to one particular religious belief over others; something at the very heart of much discrimination and upheaval in human history. Indeed, if the values of equality that are so fundamental to the human rights movement are to be more than mere lip service, then it is imperative that the Church’s actionsbe examined critically.
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