The execrable behavior of the Catholic Church during World War II

September 2, 2020 • 11:30 am

I won’t dwell on this for long, but though I’d call to your attention this new article in The Atlantic about the behavior of the Catholic Church during World War II. It concentrates, though, on the story of how two Jewish children whose parents died in Auschwitz were forcibly baptized by the Church, which, under canon law, then refused to return the children to their Jewish relatives. Click on the screenshot to read.

The story of the complicity of the Vatican and Pope Pius XII (“Hitler’s Pope”) with the Nazi regime is well known; I believe Hitchens referred to it often. If you don’t know about it, there’s a 1999 article in The Atlantic that gives the sordid details, and many other places to read about it on the Internet (here’s another).  The Church did very little to help the Jews during the war, and deliberately refrained from denouncing the Hitler regime and the Holocaust, even when Jews were being ferried to the camps from right outside the Vatican.

The article above, though, is more about a specific incident: a pair of Jewish boys who were in effect kidnapped by the church after their parents were taken to Auschwitz, baptized as Catholics, and then kept and hidden by the Church despite the boys’ relatives demanding, after the war, that they be returned to their relatives.

In short, Anni and Fritz Finaly, Austrian Jews, fled to Vichy France during the war, hoping to leave Europe but not making it out. Knowing that their family would likely be rounded up by the Gestapo, the Finalys put their two boys, Robert and Gérald, in the hands of a friend, who promised to look out for them. In 1944 the parents were taken to Auschwitz and disappeared. The friend then put the two boys, aged 3 and 4, in a convent in Grenoble, asking the nuns to hide them. Instead, the nuns put them in a municipal nursery school under the guardianship of the school’s director, Antoinette Brun.

The trouble then began. Brun had the children baptized as Catholics in 1948, meaning that, under canon law, the children were considered Catholics and could not be given back to their Jewish relatives. By then the relatives were doing everything they could to get the boys back, and the Church did everything it could to prevent that. The local authorities cooperated with the Church, though turning the boys over was simply the right thing to do.

The article goes on at length about the Church’s machinations, in cooperation with priests and nuns, to hide the boys. The only possible reason is that ridiculous church law arguing that Jewish kids baptized as Catholics, even though they didn’t assent to baptism, couldn’t be returned to the family.  After all, you can’t let good baptized Catholics back into the hands of Christ-killers. (This policy, says the article, is still in force—see Canon 868: “An infant of Catholic parents or even of non-Catholic parents is baptized licitly in danger of death even against the will of the parents.”)

The Pope and his minions fought for years against the boys’ relatives, finally giving up in 1953 when the boys were surrendered to their aunt and flew to Tel Aviv.

What shocked me about all this was the Catholic law, as well as the ruthlessness with which the Church fought against common decency just to keep two Jewish boys out of the hands of their relatives so they could be counted as prizes for the Church. It’s inhumane; but of course when has the Church been humane towards children?

And the canon law allowing that is still in force, though it couldn’t be used today without a huge outcry. This, of course, is only one small part of the anti-Semitism of the Vatican, which didn’t absolve Jews of killing Jesus until 1965. (You’d think that they’d go easier on the Jews since the death of Jesus was a vital part of God’s plan!)


56 thoughts on “The execrable behavior of the Catholic Church during World War II

  1. It’s a long article, but I found it informative. Anti-semitism, like support for eugenics, is something we’ve chosen to pretend wasn’t as prevalent in 1940 as it actually was.

    1. This is similar to an infamous writing of the recently discussed particle physicist Steven Weinberg who said something close to:
      ‘Good people will do good things and bad people bad things. But for good people to do bad things, that takes religion.’

      Symmetrically, the 4th possibility seems to have been illustrated to be almost non-existent time and again by Mass Murderer donald.

  2. The story didn’t end at WWII’s end. There were a number of Cardinals and officials in the Vatican that were either German or Nazi sympathizers. They made sure that many war criminals got papers to escape to South America where they were immune from prosecution.
    Almost the entire history of the RCC is soaked with blood. Given the church endorsed pogroms and massacres against the Jews for 1500 years
    qualifies the church as a war criminal.

  3. I think the Canon cited by the author of the Atlantic article is the wrong one. The one cited is about when a baptism is “licit”, and actually shows the baptism of the boys was “illicit”, since it occurred after the war, and the boys were no longer in danger of death. There must be another Canon that says illicit baptisms are valid, and furthermore that a validly baptized child cannot be placed with non-Catholic relatives.


    1. GCM, see my comment below at #11 and check out the Wiki on “Postremo Mense”, which contains all manner of goofy equivocations that vitiate the idea of licit vs. illicit baptism. And note that, whether the baptism is licit or illicit, the children are not to be returned to their parents.

      BTW has the problem of the comment box vis-à- vis commenting on other commenters been resolved? No longer at the bottom of the post but now back where it belongs, at the end of the specific comment? Sure hope this isn’t an anomaly.

      1. The bull of 1747 does indeed prohibit returning a baptized child. My only point was that it was not the Canon cited that was the source of the prohibition.

        And, I think the reply positioning now works. 🙂

        Although WP still won’t let me make comments except as Jerry. 🙁


    1. I think Sullivan is against looking at the past and proclaiming organizations today are to blame for the errors they committed historically.

      Nevertheless, if Sullivan thought about what it means to be associated with an organization which proclaims to have moral authority, then there is a precedent for him to condemn the Catholic Church, not just decades ago, but today as well.

      This is different than if John Muir said something racist. John Muir never professed to be the final word of god. Catholic Church is should eternally be blamed for what they did during WWII, until they decide proclaim they have no moral authority over any human being.

  4. The actions during World War II of the Catholic Church in general, and of Pius XII in particular, are repugnant to any notion of common human decency.

    But let me offer a few words in support of John XXIII (f/k/a Angelo Roncalli) who as Pope commenced the Vatican II conference. As papal nuncio during the Holocaust he took actions that saved the lives of thousands of Jews and other refugees, resulting in his being nominated to Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the the Nations.”

    He is, along with a handful of others from the 20th century — people such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemöller, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, Jr., William Sloane Coffin, and Desmond Tutu — that rara avis: a clergyman I consider a personal hero.

  5. Like the first two commenters I was reminded of the case of Edgardo Mortara. Daniel Kurtzer wrote a book about the matter, “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara.”

    In re the Canon Law statute 868, the concept of “licit baptism” is highly elastic – see §2, which states that “An infant of Catholic parents or even of non-Catholic parents is baptized licitly in danger of death even against the will of the parents.”

    If one hearkens back to a recent post about baptism, “licit” baptism can be performed even by a non-Catholic — all you gotta do is make sure to say the magic words correctly.

    See also the Wiki on Pope Benedict XIV’s encyclical, Postremo Mense, which set this abominable practice of Jewish baptism in stone, though it was hardly a new practice

    Then he wrote the decree, “Probe te meminisse,” which sets out punishments for Jewish converts who abandoned Catholicism.

    Here is a list of “Papal Bulls on Jewish Question”

    There is much to criticize re the SPLC but I find this list of contemporary antisemitic traditionalist RC groups informative and valuable:

  6. “(You’d think that they’d go easier on the Jews since the death of Jesus was a vital part of God’s plan!)”

    Isn’t that the truth? Too bad the RCC or the Southern Baptist Convention weren’t around to assume that burden.

    1. Strictly, speaking rather than “absolving” the Jews in 1965 (which presupposes that they DID kill Christ) the Vatican declared that the Jews as a whole should never have been blamed for the fellow’s death in the first place.

  7. For all the horror in the world, there are only two organisations that consistently shock me by their activities: the Nazis and Catholic Church.

    There are good people who are also Catholics, which is not true of the Nazis, but it is simply beyond me how any self respecting person can still be a member of that institution.

    1. I agree.

      But, actually I know how it happens because I’ve known a lot of Catholics. For many it is a combination of ignorance and tradition. And also some degree of disbelief when they do come across examples of horrid RCC behavior. Not their church, alllarge organizations have some bad actors, . . .

      Me, I don’t get how any of them can even sit through a mere RCC wedding ceremony and still be Catholic by the end of it. Are they even listening to what the Father is saying?

  8. Interesting story that fits all too well. Besides murdering and torturing through centuries, mass-scale stealing babies from single mothers, collaborating and endorsing every authoritarian, fascist ruler and tyrant who was willing to support the Church, we have yet another example.

    The Catholic Church is the greatest villain in all of history. I’d stress this is NOT due to much discussed, gory examples or more iconic episodes like the crusades. On the contrary, it’s due to its most ordinary and common behaviour (with examples that still come out today, despite its waning influence).

    It’s given that the Catholics Church, down to the smallest level in every town, was an organisation of systematic, gross, personal abuse. It installed a nightmarish phobocracy of psychological terror over centuries, lived off society around them, and then found creative ways to monetise their terror apparatus even more, e.g. the infamous selling of indulgences (which is most heinous in the details). Clergy held power over ordinary pious people until well into this century and abuse, personal and sexual, was apparently the norm.

    The Church should be tried for its uncountable crimes against humanity, seized and dissolved; the Vatican should be turned into a museum.

  9. The sad thing is, from inside the bizarre assumptions of religion, these actions can seem to have a kind of logic, and even to be moral and – dare I say it? – heroic. For, after all, in baptizing the children, they believed they were saving their Immortal Souls, at least for the moment; to allow them to escape from the One True Church (TM) would put their Immortal Souls once again in jeopardy of Eternal Damnation (c). What’s a little condemnation for the evil done in causing familial separation and misery in this life compared to helping the kids avoid that, right?

    At least they didn’t baptize them and then dash their brains out on the rocks.

  10. Brian Moore’s “The Statement” is a page-turner of a novel about the post-war Catholic Church network in France that shielded Nazi collaborators, based on the actual case of Paul Touvier. Touvier, pursued by the police, was passed from one Catholic retreat to another for 40 years, when the elderly collabo was finally nabbed at a priory in Nice in 1989. Norman Jewison made the novel into a pretty good film.

  11. Of course we expect nothing better from the RCC. But such outrages can only happen with the complicity of secular power. In the late 1940s France, though officially a lay republic since the 1870s, was still culturally Catholic to the extent that local officials who should, and could, have used the power of the state to end the madness were instead enabling it. I’m pretty sure the French state would not allow anything like this to happen today, whatever canon law says, thank goodness — though of course in many countries the outcome might be a lot more uncertain.

  12. A good book to read on this topic is “God’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican”. I follows the money and also the events before, during, and after, WWII. One memorable account is of a priest in Austria or somewhere close, I think he was a bishop, worked to help the NAZIS round up Jews for extermination.

    1. Some, but not the old order Mennonites, probably no Mennonites. Not the Unitarians, but they can hardly be considered Protestants.

  13. This is me going a bit off-topic again, but it reminds me slightly of some behaviour of evil right-wing dictatorship supporters in the south part of South America when under military dictatorships a few decades ago. I think this was Argentina, but maybe Chile under Pinochet. They would adopt the children of democracy supporting opponents after taking the parents up in an airplane and pushing them out to their deaths in the ocean below.

  14. About whether Pope Pius XII (Pacelli) could have done more to condemn the Nazi atrocities. To me, this is a difficult question. I doubt that he could have done much. How many divisions did he have? I believe when he did speak out, the Nazis made it worse. I am not condoning, just trying to put myself in his place. Which is difficult, disliking the RCC as I do.

    1. The Catholic Church clashed with the Nazis on quite a few issues, but these seem to have mostly involved church privileges, e.g. in the education of young people. E.g. von Galen’s famous sermons mention T4 once amidst many complaints about abuse suffered by monasteries and the like. That man was also concerned about pagan tendencies of the Nazis, while being a staunch German nationalist.

      Had the Nazis been more accommodating, the history of the Vatican might have ended up a lot more embarrassing. Had Hitler publicly attended church every two weeks or so, it may have been difficult to claim he was anti-Christ-like figure after the war. On the plus side, it does seem like being a Catholic made it harder to be a Nazi.

  15. The Catholic Church has been performing similar enforced conversions to Catholicism by individuals of other faiths throughout most of their existence.

    Mormons may still be converting dead Jews to their faith as part of their genealogical activities.

    I don’t know how extensive enforced conversions is or was of live or dead individuals without their choice. Quite contrary to the centurys-old practice of killing false believers, thereby condemning them to an eternity of torment.

      1. What’s funny is that the religious Jews were upset about it and demanded they stop. Funnier still, I think the Mormons agreed to stop.

        So, Mormons do a mumbo jumbo thing invoking the name to bring a person “into the fold”. This is just their fantasy. Nothing really happens, though the Mormons think something happens.

        They decide that dead people as well as living people can be brought into the fold this way.
        They are so proud of the mumbo jumbo, they want everyone to join, so they do the mumbo jumbo on anyone who’s name is in their genealogy. Jews too.
        But the Jews have their own mumbo jumbo which is also a fantasy and absolutely nothing really happens. But the Jews think their own mumbo jumbo is not a fantasy and that the Mormon’s mumbo jumbo is complete nonsense. However, the Jews are annoyed that the Mormons are invoking their mumbo jumbo with dead Jews – even though they don’t believe it does anything. Once the Jews register a complaint, the Mormons relent from doing absolutely nothing. The Jews are satisfied that the Mormons stopped doing absolutely nothing. The Jew and the Mormons go back to doing their own mumbo jumbo.

  16. Is there any depth to which the Catholic Church has not sunk in its 2000-odd year history?

    Here just some of its abominations that come to mind:
    – burning astronomers at the stake
    – torturing anyone with a new idea
    – cowing the populace into submission with threats of eternal damnation for the slightest disobedience
    – selling its god’s benevolence for money in the form of “indulgences”
    – treating women as the lowest form of life
    – slaughtering millions in its drive to be the only “true” religion
    – stamping out native beliefs and cultures in favour of its own dogmas
    – stealing entire generations of children by drugging unmarried mothers and coercing them into giving up their children for “a better life”.
    – protecting paedophile priests (surely the greatest ‘sin’ ever perpetrated)

    Nevertheless we give tax-free status then give them tax-payers’ money to run their schools where their paedophile priests and brothers keep the wheel of abuse turning.
    Surely the sooner this monstrous, misogynist, evil institution fades away, the better the whole world will be. Luckily, since it won’t admit women as priests, this is exactly what will happen as fewer and fewer men are silly enough to join up.

  17. And toward the end of WWII in Europe, and afterward, the Catholic Church was involved in the maintenance of “rat lines”–escape procedures for Nazis fleeing prosecution. Mark Felton, who has TONS of interesting WWII (and other) videos on Youtube, has several on this topic.

  18. I think it’s entirely fair to criticize the Catholic church. But a better question is, what is the Catholic Church doing to change in light of the criticism? And if they are not changing, why is that? I read an encyclical by a Pope on education early in the 20th century who made the point that parents have the sole right to educate their children as they please – regardless of their religion. No child could be baptized or forced to be Catholic against a parent’s wishes. This was, as far as I can remember, pre-WWII. The Catholic faith is ever evolving – along with everyone else.

    1. The Catholic faith is still odious, making homosexual acts a grave sin, terrorizing children, and still covering up its record of child rape. And, most important, there is no evidence for the events underlying its dogma. It is simply misery and authoritarianism in the face of facts.

      The pope–infallible? Give me a break!
      Mary assumed bodily to heaven? That was made up by a big religious conclave.
      It is ridiculous.

      1. It’s dogma is also what inspired Catholics in Louisiana, when eugenics was all the rage, to protest against laws that would have made it legal to sterilize women there when pretty much every other state was putting it on their books. It’s dogma is why Junipero Serra tried to create a bill of rights for Native Americans so they wouldn’t be overly abused by the Spanish. Checkered history? Sure. But saying it’s “simply misery and authoritarianism in the face of facts” is both unfair and wrong.

        1. Somehow I knew you’d try to paint Catholicism in a good light. Sadly, you’re opposing a few incidents against things like the Inquisition, child rape, the Church’s refusal to help the Jews during World War II and so on.

          The world would be better off without Catholicism.

        2. LOL. The RCC has always encouraged, even forced, women to breed more Catholics. Why would eugenics theory get in the way?

          And Junipero Serra, the guy who was an Inquisitor, who accused native Americans of sorcery and witchcraft and asked for power to punish them, is a freedom (bill of rights?) fighter. Give me a break.

          1. Eugenics theory: the theory that if a woman is too emotional, in prison, or black she should be forced to not have children. Catholics were not ok with that when it was all the rage in the US.

            In response to Serra, I take the view that people should be judged according to their times. You may not agree, and I respect that. But I think it’s unfair to expect that the people we respect from our past had to be perfect in every way that suits our current time and culture. I judge Junipero Serra (and any historical figure) by how far they stood above the people of their time – not every people of every time.

          2. You have no idea what eugenics theory is, and now, to defend a delusional religion, you’re forced to say that Junipero Serra wasn’t all that bad.

            Care to give us some evidence that there is a god, and, if so, that Catholicism is the true faith as opposed to other faiths like Hinduism or Islam?

          3. “A lot of the progressives of the era, including Teddy Roosevelt, Louis Brandeis, the great progressive justice and even people associated with the fledgling ACLU, American Civil Liberties Union, they supported eugenics. So it was really a situation where there were almost no advocates for the women involved. The Catholic Church was one because they believed that – not only did they believe in reproduction, but they believed that people should be judged by their souls, not by these attributes that the eugenicists were so focused on. And in many states, when there was a eugenic sterilization bill before the legislature, the people who showed up to oppose it were Catholics, they were priests, they were nuns. And there were states like Louisiana with high Catholic populations where eugenic sterilization laws were voted down really because of the Catholic Church.”

          4. The Catholic Church, of course, opposes all abortion and wants to produce as many little Catholics as possible. Of course they would vote down bills that sterilized people, but certainly didn’t do it because they cared about women? Since when has the Church cared about women.

            Now before I asked you two questions, which I often ask the faithful who come here, and before you can post here again, you must give satisfactory answers to both of them. You ignored these questions previously.

            1. What is the evidence that convinces you that there is a God.
            2. Assuming you’re a Catholic, and I’m pretty sure you are one, what makes you think that your faith is the right one, as opposed to, say, Hinduism or Islam? Remember there are big consequences for Catholics if they leave the faith and join another one.

            I await your answer.

            It’s really amusing that you choose eugenics in Louisiana as the hill you want to die on defending the Church, when the Church itself facilitated and covered up so many child rape cases. And this wasn’t very long ago.

  19. No offense, but I’m getting kind of tired of having this conversation. I’m sure you are too. If you want to find evidence for Catholicism, Google it. Or maybe you can create a separate post for the purpose of that conversation. I’d probably participate.

    1. You didn’t have any conversation, as you’ve avoided discussion. You are clearly avoiding answering the questions, perhaps because you have no good answers. I’ve read all about Catholicism and I have seen no good evidence that it’s true. Way to avoid giving evidence.

      No offense, but you’re being shown the door for being delusional, obtuse, and a defender of one of the world’s most harmful faiths.

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