By Ira Sharkansky
JERUSALEM—Among the glories of a professor emeritus is a capacity to wander the stacks of a good library in search of something that looks interesting, without worrying how it will fit into this semester’s courses.
I found by chance FDR, the Vatican, and the Roman Catholic Church in America, 1933-1945, Edited by David B. Woolner and Richard G. Kurial (Palgrave: 2003). It is a collection of articles that emerged from a conference in 1998 that focused partly on the Vatican document, We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah. The authors of the papers appear to be all American Roman Catholics, some of them members of religious orders and/or affiliated with Catholic institutions of higher education.
The papers deal partly with Jewish issues, i.e., the Vatican’s activities with respect to the Nazi conquest of Europe, the Holocaust, and the anti-Semitic priest with a huge radio following, Charles E. Coughlin.
Those are worthy of discussion, but the primary message that I drew from the book, which it does not discuss directly, is the similar political status of American Catholics and Jews in the period before and after World War II.
What I’m talking about is the extent to which Catholics and Jews shared the status of outsiders in America. Similar to what is apparent in many histories of Jews in America during the period, this book demonstrates Catholic political insecurities in the presence of an Administration that was overtly concerned with the votes and the economic opportunities of the working class and lower middle class, in which Catholic and Jewish “newcomers” were prominent. Catholics and Jews had immigrated in large numbers from the mid-19th century to the onset of World War I. There were many more Catholics than Jews to attract Democratic politicians. However, both came as supplicants to the Protestants who were firmly in control of national politics, with the aristocratic Roosevelt the archetype of the class.
A prominent indication of Jews’ status as outsiders was Roosevelt’s concern not to portray the fight against the Nazis as something for the Jews. Important here were the largely unsuccessful struggles of Jewish leaders to get the State Department and the White House to relax immigration restrictions for the sake of Jews who sought to escape Nazi-controlled or Nazi-threatened areas of Europe, and the later refusal of the US armed forces or the White House to order air strikes against the death camps.
Catholic insecurities were not associated with anything close to life or death, but were none the less much different from what has been apparent subsequently. Then they appeared in the difficulties of Roosevelt to send a representative to the Vatican. An Ambassador was out of the question. He even had to obfuscate about a “temporary” personal appointment in order to slip through the vicious anti-Catholic campaign directed at the media and Congress by Protestant clergy.
Prominent Jews and Catholics were welcome at the White House. It would be a great distortion to agree with extremists who persist in describing the President as anti-Semitic or anti-Catholic. Yet both Jews and Catholics were considerably below the top of the President’s agenda. Their concerns less important than his efforts to influence Congress, as well as the State Department and military leaders (who did not simply “take orders” from the White House), and to keep together a political coalition of Northern Catholic and Jewish voters along with Southern Protestants who included more than a few anti-Catholics and anti-Semites.
There were more than a few anti-Semites among the Catholics. Most prominent was Father Charles E. Coughlin, and an Irish-American member of the Vatican Secretariat who–according to a chapter in this volume–did what he could to mask the anti-Semitic nature of Coughlin’s radio messages while transmitting to the Pope and his advisors messages from the White House and American Bishops who wanted the Vatican to act against the Detroit priest on account of his anti-Semitism as well as his opposition to the New Deal and the President’s foreign policy.
Several chapters deal with Pius XII’s attitudes, activities, and non-actions with respect to Nazis and Jews. Contributors reflect the change in Catholicism that came after the Holocaust. Prominent were John Paul II’s visit to Yad Vashem, and his description of Judaism as Christianity’s “older brother,”
Essays describe Pius XII’s primary concerns with the Catholics of Europe, and his preoccupation with keeping Germans and the Allies from bombing Rome and other sites important to the Church. He also expressed his impotence with respect to Nazi power and determination. Contributors report the reluctance of the Pope and some of his senior colleagues to make explicit the revulsion they felt about mass killing of Jews that was known to them early on due to reports from European church personnel. This reluctance was associated with a belief that explicit anti-Nazi statements would make things worse for Catholics without helping the Jews.
The authors of this volume do not avoid severe criticism of Pius XII’s actions and lack of actions. Prominent among them was his severe criticism of Allied bombings of European cities compared to his silence in response to the German bombing of British cities.
The authors do not deal explicitly with the still-unresolved and controversial question of Pius XII’s sainthood
. However, several chapters fit it with the numerous other writings and archival material on both sides of that man’s holiness and failings.
A great deal has changed in the United States since the 1940s. There are American Ambassadors to Vatican, and Israel. Varda and I have hiked and talked at length with a friend who is a former Ambassador of Israel to the Vatican, and the Honorable Mrs. Ambassador.
African-Americans now demand greater economic opportunities rather than having to pursue a battle against lynching and legal segregation. Hispanics, East Asians, and South Asians are prominent in parts of the United States–and factors in politics–where they were virtually unknown in the 1940s.
A Catholic has not made it to the White House since John F. Kennedy, and a Jew has not made it past a Vice Presidential nomination. However, the presence of both groups in the upper strata of government, business, and academia is so great as to be unremarkable. I can thank one of my friends, a Christian Arab who is Associate Dean of the Hebrew University Law School, for pointing out that the present Supreme Court of the United States includes six Catholics, three Jews, and no Protestants
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University. He may be contacted at email@example.com