The Holocaust and a Hierarchy of Heroism

Lost in the canonizations of John XXIII and John Paul II the Sunday before last was the beatification of Father Giuseppe Girotti, OP.  Beatification is the last step on the road that leads to canonization, so you could say that Fr. Girotti is "almost" a saint.

Girotti was an Italian Dominican priest and Scripture scholar.  In the 1930s, he studied at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, with a focus on the Prophets.  Whether it was because of his time in Israel, or because of his love for the Old Testament, or his inherent goodness and sense of justice, during World War II he was actively involved in organizing an "underground railroad" of safe houses and escape routes in northern Italy for Jews fleeing the Holocaust.  In 1944, he was caught by the Gestapo helping a wounded Jewish man, and was sent to the concentration camp at Dachau.  On April 1, 1945, Easter Sunday and just weeks before the U.S. Army liberated Dachau, he was killed by the Nazis when they injected gasoline into his veins.  Another inmate wrote "here slept Saint Guiseppe Girotti" on his bunk after his death.  The State of Israel, via Yad Vashem, declared him "Righteous Among the Nations" in 1995.

Girotti reminds me of another Catholic priest who was executed in Dachau, Blessed Titus Brandsma, O.Carm.  Father Brandsma was Dutch and a philosopher.  Almost immediately after the Nazis came to power in neighboring Germany, Brandsma condemned their anti-Semitism in public speeches and writings.  He was so well-known for his anti-Nazi views pre-war that he was the target of attacks from Nazi propaganda outlets and denounced as a Communist.  When the Nazis conquered the Netherlands, Brandsma continued his speaking and writing.  In addition, as the supervisor of Catholic media in Holland, he forbid any collaboration with the Nazi puppet government by the media outlets under his authority.  For that, he was arrested and eventually sent to Dachau.  Brandsma did not directly help Jews escape the Nazis (though, there is some evidence he was involved in a plan that never got off the ground to smuggle Jewish refuges to Brazil), but it is clear he advocated resistance to Nazis and vocally attacked the ideology underlying the Nazis.

Most Catholics have never heard of Brandsma.  I had not heard about Girotti until I read a story about his beatification.  That's really a shame.
These men, and other men and women like them, are clear examples of the Catholicism at its best.  Their faith called them to witness to justice for all people, regardless of their religious background.  This is particularly noteworthy given the anti-Semitism woven into the official doctrines of the Church at that time.  I think it is fair to say that Brandsma and Girotti were more Christian than the Church with regard to the Jewish people.  The Church should be holding up these folks as models of what Christian witness should look like.  Instead, they are mostly unknown.

It's even more unfortunate when you compare Brandsma and Girotti to the two people that have been fully canonized and held up as models as a result of their deaths at the hands of the Nazis--Sr. Teresa Benedicta
of the Cross, O.C.D., formerly Edith Stein, and Father Maximilian Kolbe, O.F.M.Conv.  As the name might suggest, Edith Stein was born Jewish and converted to Catholicism in her later years.  Sr. Teresa was a great philosopher and thinker, but her relationship to the Judaism of her younger years is complicated.  Moreover, she is officially touted as a martyr to the [Catholic] faith, when it seems pretty clear that she was killed at Auschwitz because she was of Jewish ancestry, not because of her Catholicism.  Jewish groups have objected that the promotion of Sr. Teresa is an attempt by Catholics to somehow "co-opt" the Holocaust.  Whether that's true or not, notwithstanding the many virtues of Sr. Teresa's life, holding her up as an example of Catholics in this period is problematic.

Maximilian Kolbe is even more problematic.  It is true that Kolbe was heroic in his resistance to the Nazis in
occupied Poland, and that, while at Auschwitz, he volunteered to be executed in place of other prisoners.  But, prior to the war, Kolbe's radio and print ministry trafficked in shockingly violent anti-Semitic rhetoric, and Kolbe himself quoted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion regarding the "Judeo-Masonic conspiracy" to undermine Christianity.  While the end of his life was certainly noble, it is not hard to see why Jewish observers might find it upsetting that Kolbe is held up as an example from the period, where arguably the writings of his organization contributed to and were a part of the milieu that allowed Nazism to thrive in the first place.

And then, of course, there is Pope Pius XII, who is in the canonization process.  You don't have to believe that Pius XII was "Hitler's Pope" to be troubled by his actions, or more significantly his non-actions, in response to the Holocaust.  I think there is no question that he could have done more to speak out against the Nazis, which means that he should have done more.  If you take seriously the idea that Pius XII was the Vicar of Christ, you cannot accept silence and tacit acceptance in the face of monstrous horror and inhumanity.  The reflexive defenses of Pius XII from establishment Catholicism seem just that--defensive.  I was poking around on the internet while I was considering the idea of planning a trip to the Holy Land, and I came across this "Holy Land Pilgrimage Guide" put out by the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops. It goes out of its way, appropos to not much, to point out "Pilgrims should know that  the Church disputes the way Pope Pius XII is depicted in the [Holocaust] Museum."  Really?  Is that necessary? Methinks the Lady doth Protest too Much.

I understand that canonization is about more than simply some subjective measure of how awesome the person was.  But at the end of the day, I fundamentally agree with this article by the former head of the Righteous Among the Nations program at Yad Vashem.  Why are we, as Catholics, spending so much time trying to defend the records of people like Pius XII and Maximilian Kolbe, when we have so many unimpeachable examples of bravery and Christian charity during the Holocaust?  Why hold up these problematic people, when we can all get behind Father Girotti?  He's a hero everyone can embrace.


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