As an international institution, the Catholic Church had to negotiate every political context, protecting the rights of Catholics in all belligerent countries through the mechanism of concordats; rendering assistance to a much wider range of humanity; and balancing its diplomatic cum spiritual objectives with the role of moral prophecy. Perhaps no one could have performed the multiple roles of pope to universal satisfaction in such circumstances, and the legacy of Pius XII, who faced these challenges, is still disputed, as was that of Benedict XV during and after the First World War.
Nazi racial exterminism has become so dominant in the historiography of the last two decades that it has eclipsed every other aspect of the war, including attempts to prevent, contain or mitigate it. That downgrades most of the activities that were of paramount concern to all Europe’s Churches in the two years before the ‘Final Solution’ started under cover of a war that had raged since September 1939. One of the chief activities of the papacy was to prevent war at all, an activity that sometimes had the support of Mussolini, as well as the European democracies and the US. This papal diplomatic activity is relatively straightforward to understand, while in its sheer unassuming scale the relief and rescue work is difficult to get a purchase on despite the abundance of documentation….
The pope, informed of the invasion of Poland, retreated to his chapel to pray. The war immediately raised urgent humanitarian problems…. He established the Pontifical Relief Commission, whose remit was to provide war refugees with food, clothing and shelter. To take one example, the US Catholic dioceses collected US$750,000 which the bishop of Detroit sent to the pope for distribution among Poles in Poland and scattered throughout Europe. He also revived the Vatican Information Bureau, its aim being to reunite people separated by warfare, including prisoners of war – about whom the families everywhere were desperately anxious. The Bureau received a thousand items of correspondence per day, requiring a staff of six hundred to process it and conduct the ensuing inquiries. Its card index contains the names of over two million prisoners of war whom it helped locate and support. Like the parallel work of the International Red Cross, such labour involved a certain suspension of open moral judgement if it was to be at all effective. Vatican Radio also broadcast nearly thirty thousand messages a month in the search for missing persons.
Vatican documents are quietly eloquent on the papacy’s variegated interventions on behalf of so many victims of the Second World War, whether the despatch of food to Greeks starving because the Italians had made off with all the available food and the British were blocking ships bringing grain; exchanges of sick or wounded British prisoners in Italian captivity in North Africa; or, when the war had reached the Pacific theatre, having nuncio Morella in Tokyo organise medical supplies from Hong Kong for British prisoners of the Japanese. The Greek famine, in which one hundred thousand people starved to death, is instructive. The Germans handed over control of Greece to the Italians in the summer of 1941. Bulgaria had occupied some of the main grain-producing areas, while the Italians had commandeered much of the food stored. The 1941 harvest was poor. The British blockaded Greece, stopping grain shipments from Australia and preventing the arrival of 320,000 tons of grain that the Greeks had bought. Into this extremely complicated set of circumstances, where enemy nations were passing the buck on to their opponents while Greeks died, came monsignor Roncalli, the apostolic delegate to Greece and Turkey who was based in Istanbul. He visited senior German commanders, celebrating a mass for wounded German troops and visiting British POWs, so as to win the confidence of his interlocutors. Simultaneously he urged the Holy See to intervene with the US and British to bring about a temporary lift of the blockade. This persuaded the Germans to allow food to go to Greece via neutral Turkey; they also promised that any future food shipments would go exclusively to the civilian population. The British finally allowed a one-off shipment of eight thousand tons of wheat and flour. Meanwhile, in Athens, Roncalli organised soup kitchens that served twelve thousand meals a day, with supplies purchased by the Holy See in Hungary. Because of these measures fewer people died. It was complicated, undramatic work, in which each side blamed the other for the plight of the Greeks, and it resulted in an agreement between the belligerent powers to put in place mechanisms to ensure that the famine was not repeated.
It seems to me that today’s UN and NGOs, whether secular or religious, are caught in the same moral bind as the Vatican and the Red Cross during World War Two, sanctioning moral ambiguity and complicity in return for whatever good they think they can salvage from absolutely horrific local circumstances over which they have little or no control. After a while, absolutely everything becomes subject to terms of trade.