Pope Francis’s attempts to direct the Catholic Church into a more progressive path brings his influence into question. As a spiritual leader of millions, to what extent can he change both the church and the world? His believers live in different places around the globe, speak many languages, belong to various cultures, yet they all look up to him as the ultimate moral authority. Can a leader without an army, so to speak, be as influential as political leaders? And what happens if national sentiments stand in contrast with religious faith?
Early in 1963 The Deputy, a play written by the German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, was staged in Berlin. It was the first time concentration camps were presented onstage, which at the time provoked fierce protests. But this wasn’t the only objection to the play; its theme could not be tolerated by many: it blamed Pius XII, the Pope during World War Two, for not taking public action against the unfolding of the Holocaust. According to Catholic dogma, the Pope is the deputy of Christ on earth, and his lack of action is interpreted in this work in religious terms.
The play is most unusual. It combines two genres we see as conflicting: a historical play and a religious work of art. Hochhuth presents concrete historical arguments within a religious framework. Doctor Mengele is a modern manifestation of the devil, and Auschwitz is his way of provoking God. As Satan tries to annihilate life, the divine creation, the author articulates his historical insights—and his reservations about Pius XII.
The Nazis intentionally avoided an open rift with the Roman Catholic Church, argues Hochhuth in the historical notes added to the play. In spite of their obvious ideological objection to Judeo-Christian tradition, some Nazi leaders had ambivalent feelings towards Catholicism. Hitler’s mother, we are reminded, was a devout Catholic and attended church regularly with her children. Also, many German soldiers were Catholic. A public attack on the Pope and the Church might generate a sense of alienation, perhaps whilst in battle—a most undesirable result that may weaken Germany. Thus, the Nazi leadership wished to blur its alienation from the Church, at least until the end of the war.
This made the Pope extremely influential, argues Hochhuth. Had he voiced a clear and unequivocal condemnation of ‘the final solution,’ the Nazis may have reconsidered the plan to exterminate European Jewry. But Pius XII refrained from condemnation. In the play, his reasons are both practical and theoretical. From a practical perspective, the Nazi regime is the only impediment to the spread of the anti-religious ideology: communism. Also, the Church must keep its neutrality since its believers are on both sides. And possibly more Jews could be saved if an open conflict with Nazi leadership is averted.
The play also ascribes to Pope Pius XII profound theoretical arguments: protecting the Roman Catholic Church is his ultimate mission, worthy of any sacrifice. And there is a theological discussion on predestination and free will. “Was not ever Cain, who killed his brother, the instrument of God?” argues Pius XII. Hitler may be part of an obscure divine plan beyond our understanding.
But what about the Jews? Hochhuth claims that this was the response of the historical Pius XII: “As the flowers in the countryside wait beneath the winter’s mantle of snow for the warm breeze of spring, so the Jews must wait, praying and trusting that the hour of heavenly salvation will come.”
Many Catholics were deeply offended by the play. When staged in Europe and the United States, both Jewish and Christian protestors interrupted the show. Yet The Deputy is not at all anti-Christian. There are two saint-like characters that sacrifice their lives in the struggle with Nazism: a Catholic priest and a Protestant officer in the German army. The Catholic saint cannot endure the Pope’s moral stand. He thus shares the destiny of the Jewish victims and joins them in Auschwitz. To break his spirit Mengele makes him remove bodies from the crematorium. This drives him to desert his way of passive resistance to Nazism and try to murder Mengele, who then kills him. The Protestant saint is a man of action. He impedes Nazi plans to speed up the extermination of the Jews. He is a Christian, he says, because he is “a spy of God”—a man engaged in action aimed at saving lives, changing the route of history.
At this specific point in history, the Pope could have transcended his role as the head of the Catholic world and spoken against universal crimes, but Pius XII chose to defend Catholicism rather than fulfill the moral obligation of being a deputy to God. Unlike some junior priests who saved Jewish lives, he kept quiet, doing nothing to stop the Holocaust.
Many questioned his motivations.