Scholars dispute wartime pope's record
By Nicole Winfield
VATICAN CITY Neat piles of paper stacked on the floor of the Rev. Peter Gumpel's office testify to the 20 years he has spent researching the case for raising one of Roman Catholicism's most contested figures of the last century Pope Pius XII to sainthood.
But Gumpel's argument for a new St. Pius is unthinkable to many outside the Vatican.
Some historians accuse the wartime pope of being a secret anti-Semite, who failed to speak out against the Holocaust. And the debate has taken a decidedly personal turn in Gumpel's case.
Arguments against Pius have been fueled by the publication of several recent books that have claimed the pope cared more about securing a concordat with Nazi Germany than saving Jewish lives. The critics include John Cornwell, author of "Hitler's Pope," and more recently Daniel Goldhagen, who wrote "A Moral Reckoning."
Countering them are some of Gumpel's own collaborators, who have written pro-Pius tomes.
With the opening of the Vatican's pre-war archives to scholars in February, they have promoted new evidence they say proves Pius helped the Jews.
Amid this scholastic storm sits Gumpel, a slight man who works in the Jesuits' Rome headquarters, footsteps from St. Peter's Square.
"The church has always had difficulties with certain groups of people," Gumpel says when asked what he thinks is at the root of the anti-Pius campaign. "And I am not surprised that this has come to the fore."
Gumpel says he does not ascribe the criticism to ill will or bad faith on the part of the authors.
"I ascribe it rather more to ignorance and perhaps even some obsessive ideas," he says.
And so Gumpel has attacked Pius' critics for years, and has been attacked in return.
As recently as this month, Michael Phayer, a professor of history emeritus at Marquette University, wrote in Commonweal magazine that aspects of Gumpel's defense of Pius were absurd.
In a 2001 exchange, Gumpel went so far as to accuse Jewish historians on a Catholic-Jewish panel studying Pius' wartime record of "clearly incorrect behavior." He also charged that they had helped mount a "slanderous campaign" against the church.
He issued the remarks when the study group which had been appointed by the Vatican and a Jewish group disbanded after issuing only a preliminary report critical of Pius. While acknowledging that the Vatican had never promised them access to closed archives, the scholars said they couldn't proceed without more documents.
Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League shot back at Gumpel, saying his comments were "totally unfounded," and harmed both Catholic and Jewish scholarship.
Michael Marrus, a Holocaust scholar and one of the Jewish panelists, says the acrimony that ensued was evidence of how the debate over Pius has taken on "unfortunate" aspects.
"This is not a matter of detached historical understanding," says Marrus, dean of graduate studies at the University of Toronto, noting that some Catholic critics of Pius have other theological beefs with the church as well. "There are many agendas at work here."
While acknowledging the right of the church to its internal saint-making processes, Marrus isn't alone in saying that beatifying Pius now wouldn't be "particularly helpful."
But in recent interviews over two days, Gumpel laid out his case for why Pius not only deserves to be spared such criticism, but should be made a saint.
For Gumpel, the record is clear: Pius couldn't issue scathing indictments of Jewish deportations because he thought public outcry would only enrage the Nazis and result in more deaths.
"I do not see what he could have done more," Gumpel says, adding that if he had found ample evidence that Pius had spoken out, he might have refused to sign off on the investigation for his saintly cause.
"Because that, from the point of view of government, would have been totally irresponsible," he said.
He gets visibly angry when he brings up the accusation that he himself is anti-Semitic.
"This is one of the foulest things, even worse than some (who) have wanted to accuse me of being a Nazi," he says.
In fact, Gumpel's anti-Nazi credentials "are beyond question," says Ronald Rychlak, an American law professor who has consulted Gumpel for two books largely favorable to Pius.
Gumpel was born in Hanover, Germany, in 1923 to a wealthy, aristocratic family that opposed Hitler's rise and was punished for it. He says his grandfather was killed by the Nazis and his mother imprisoned.
As a student, Gumpel himself was sent to live in France and then the Netherlands during the war, for fear that the family's only male heir might be targeted next.
He says he was at Mass in a Dutch church on July 26, 1942, when the country's Catholic bishops read a pastoral letter denouncing the deportation of Jews.
"My reaction was twofold," he says. "On the one hand, I thought this is a very courageous and very noble kind of thing to do, for Catholic bishops to come to the help of the Jews.
"But my second reaction was, 'Gentlemen, I'm afraid things will not stop here.' Because I knew more about the Nazis."
Soon after, Nazis took vengeance against Catholic bishops for having spoken out, and rounded up for deportation Jews who had been converted to Catholicism. Among them was the famed convert Edith Stein, who amid some criticism from Jewish groups, was later declared a saint. Gumpel dismisses similar criticism that beatifying Pius might set back Catholic-Jewish relations.
"I don't think that we should ... stop an internal process of the Roman Catholic Church on the strength of arguments which we happen to know to be worthless," he says.
Yet Gumpel knows that beatification is still a ways off panels of historians, theologians, cardinals and bishops have to review his report, and only then will the Vatican officially begin looking into a miracle attributed to Pius' intercession that is needed for him to be beatified.
Gumpel says the Vatican has received "a number of cases" of reported miracles that will be presented to Pope John Paul II.
Pius' staunchest supporter concedes that the current pope while so far in favor of the cause may also feel the moment is not right to beatify Pius and endure the criticism that would surely follow.
"Of course I would like to see the beatification, but I wonder very much whether I will live that long," Gumpel says. "I leave this to our Lord."