Among the most heated debates of the last 40 years has been the debate over Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust. What did he do when the greatest evil of his day engulfed Christian Europe? Was he "Hitler's Pope," as the name of a widely read book about him charged? Was he too reticent in speaking out against Nazism and the Nazi extermination of Europe's Jews? Was he perhaps even a Nazi sympathizer? Or was he in fact a great friend of Europe's Jews who did whatever he could to save tens of thousands of Jews, especially in Italy, opening up the doors of Church institutions to hide Jews?
It is not my aim here to offer an answer to that debate. But the attacks on Pope Benedict XVI may help shed new light on some of the motives for the attacks on Pius XII. It is true that we have always known that most, if not all, of Pius's critics were/are on the political/religious Left. But this no more discredited their critiques of Pius than the fact that the vast majority of Pius's defenders were on the political/religious Right discredited their defense.
But recently the critics have lost credibility. If the same people who attack Pope Pius XII for his silence regarding the greatest evil of his time are largely the same people who attack Pope Benedict XVI for confronting the greatest evil of his time, maybe it isn't a pope's confronting evil that concerns Pius's critics, but simply defaming the Church.
After all, has not Benedict done precisely what Pius's critics argue that Pius, and presumably any pope, should have done -- be a courageous moral voice and condemn the greatest evil and greatest manifestation of anti-Semitism of his time?
Take The New York Times editorial page, for example. It is written by people who condemn Pius for his alleged silence and now condemn Benedict for not being quiet. According to the Times, Benedict will only create more anti-Western Muslim violence. But that was exactly the excuse defenders of Pius XII so often offered for why Pius XII did not speak out more forcefully -- that he was afraid it would only engender more Nazi violence. Yet Pius's critics have (correctly) dismissed that excuse out of hand.
Another example is Karen Armstrong, the widely read ex-nun scholar of religion. She has written of Pius XII that his "apparent failure to condemn the Nazis has become a notorious scandal." Moral and logical consistency suggest that she would welcome a pope who did confront today's greatest evil. But she has joined those condemning Pope Benedict. She wrote (putting these arguments in the mouths of affronted Muslims with whom she sympathizes): "the Catholic Church is ill-placed to condemn violent jihad when it has itself . . . under Pope Pius XII, tacitly condoned the Nazi Holocaust."