In our recent Busted Halo article, “Building a Culture of Lie,” Dawn Eden and I argued against lying for a just cause—in this case, to advance the pro-life movement– and objected to the claim that the Church did so during World War II: “Others would argue that the Church would sanction, or did sanction, lying to Nazis who sought to find and kill Jews,” we wrote. “But this claim too has no foundation in the Catechism’s teachings, neither is it true of the actions of the Church during World War II—which did save hundreds of thousands of lives, but not through faking baptismal certificates, as has been claimed.”
This sentence sent a number of Catholic bloggers into a frenzy, who believed—mistakenly—that we were thereby claiming such forgeries never occurred during the Second World War, by any Catholic resistance fighter, at all. Hence they linked to websites, or cited books like Sir Martin’s Gilbert’s The Righteous (which I actually reviewed back in 2003, and whose author I know, and extensively interviewed) showing that such forgeries did occur. But this was not something we meant to deny.
When we wrote that “the Church” did not sanction lying—about baptism or anything else–during World War II, we were talking about the official Magisterium of the Church—at that time, led by Pius XII—not pronouncing upon every individual act of every Catholic during the War, who may or may not have acted in accordance with official Catholic teaching.
Having studied the Holocaust for years, and reviewed books like The Righteous, I am of course aware that some Catholics—in desperate situations– did lie, and/or falsify documents during the War (the famous Father Benoit comes to mind)—doubtless for honorable reasons (and we can debate the morality of what they did, in light of the Catechism, separately); but that is not the same as saying that they received explicit authorization for these acts from the Holy See.
In those cases involving baptismal certificates that have been reported, it is important to verify what actually happened in each case. (Many authentic baptisms actually did take place before the certificates were given, and so no forgery or dishonesty was involved. When falsification and abuse did come to the surface, Catholic leaders warned against the practice,* even as they continued to save Jews and fiercely resist Nazism in many other ways).
The discussion on whether Pius XII approved lying during World War II (in my judgment, he emphatically did NOT) has frequently zeroed in on the rescue efforts of Archbishop Angelo Roncalli (the future Pope John XIII), who served as apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece from 1935-1944. It is a well-known fact that Roncalli intervened for persecuted Jews (for example, he facilitated the passage of a ship from Romania to Palestine, which carried almost 800 Jews; and he wrote a famous letter to the King of Bulgaria on their behalf)— always, he said, on the instructions of Pius XII. But not all the ways Roncalli is said to have saved Jews have proven true. Specifically, the claim that Roncalli issued false baptismal certificates is “dubious” and “unconfirmed,” as I stated in my Public Discourse piece.
In our Busted Halo piece, Dawn and I linked to a biography of John XXIII by the late Peter Hebblethwaite to make the point that the story about “the Church” (=Pius XII/the Magisterium, not individual Catholics acting on their own) supposedly authorizing lies, via the falsification of baptismal certificates, was unfounded. A number of people complained that the source we used –Hebblethwaite—was suspect, because he was a critic of certain Church teachings. The criticism never made any sense: it was an ad hominem, non sequitur attack. Hebblethwaite is actually very supportive of Roncalli’s rescue efforts, but simply points out that claims about him issuing false baptismal certificates are unfounded. Furthermore, how would Hebblewthwaite’s opinion on this specific matter help his liberal agenda? Why would Roncalli and baptismal certificates have anything to do with what one thinks, for example, about Humane Vitae or women priests?
All that aside, I am well aware of Hebblethwaite’s “progressive” views, having gotten into a dispute with him in the pages of National Review years ago. But to be fair, Hebblethwaite’s biographies of Paul VI and John XXIII have won praise across the spectrum. However, one does not need to cite Hebblethwaite to debunk the Roncalli-false baptismal certificates claim. There is an abundance of other evidence, quite apart from Hebblethwaite, which more than establishes the point.
I have summarized it below, in case anyone needs further documentation on this much-misreported episode.
1. The claim that Archbishop Roncalli issued false baptismal certificates to save Jews was popularized by Ira Hirschman in his book, Caution to the Winds, published back in 1962. Hirschmann, an American wartime official and famous opponent of the Nazis (whose 1989 obituary you can read in the New York Times here) was certainly a good man, as was Dr. Joseph Lichten, who cited Hirschmann in his generally excellent and helpful monograph, A Question of Judgment (1963), which admirably defends Pius XII. But even good men occasionally make innocent mistakes, and this particular claim– with regard to Roncalli and baptismal certificates– has not been confirmed by subsequent research, including the release of relevant Vatican archives, published after Hirschman’s and Lichten’s respective books.2. In his 2007 book, Diplomat Heroes of the Holocaust, Mordechai Paldiel, who served as director of the Righteous Among the Nations Department at Yad Vashem, sympathetically recounts Hirschmann’s testimony, but then comments: “According to unconfirmed reports, Roncalli followed this up by sending many baptismal certificates to the nuncio in Budapest.” (p. 213, emphasis added). The key word here is “unconfirmed.” Paldiel is extremely favorable to Roncalli, as indeed he should be—since it has been documented that Roncalli intervened for Jews by many other means– but he acknowledges that the specific claim about baptismal certificates is unconfirmed. (And even in Hisrchmann’s account, he does not have Roncalli advocating the falsification of baptismal certificates, but rather, asking whether Jews would be willing to undergo baptism—which, if they chose to do so of their own free will, would legitimize any baptismal certificates). Much more importantly, however, is that in volume 10 of the Holy See’s authoritative, 12-volume Actes and Documents of the Holy See During World War (published from 1965-1981, and now available online here), there is documentation regarding Hirschmann and Roncalli’s interaction. If you access the Vatican’s website I just hyper-inked to, carrying the Actes, you can find it on pp. 389-393 of volume 10; and note especially footnote 6 (in French), on pp. 390-391: the Jesuit editors of Actes state that Hirschmann, during a meeting with Roncalli “has the Apostolic Delegate Msgr. Roncalli speak about baptismal certificates,” but that it was clear from Roncalli’s own account of the matter that not baptismal certificates but immigration certificates had been the issue (“il s’agissait plutot des ‘certificates d’immigration”). Here is my entire translation of footnote 6, from the French:“In his book, Caution to the Wind (New York), 1962, pp. 179-185)., Mr. Hirschmann, referring to this same communication of August 18 , has the apostolic delegate Msgr. Roncalli speak about the ‘baptismal certificates.’ As one sees from the text, it is rather ‘certificates of immigration,’ those from the Jewish Agency of Palestine, of which Chaim Barlas is the representative in Istanbul, distributing them. During the period above all in Budapest, it became a kind of Jewish Habeas corpus, as it was said then. On August 16, Roncalli sent these certificates to nuncio Rotta (See Archives of the delegation, number 4626), writing, ‘Since the packages of ‘Certificates of Immigration’ we sent you in the month of May have contributed to saving the life of Jews for whom they were destined, I accept them from the ‘Jewish Agency for Palestine’ also these three packages of certificates, which I am now sending to Your Excellency, begging you to give them to the person to whom they are addressed, that is, Mr. Miklos (sic) Krausz [Moshe Kraus, secretary in Budapest for the Jewish Agency]. The misunderstanding on Hirshmann was reported by Arthur D. Morse in While Six Million Died, cit., pp. 365-366.”
So, this “misunderstanding,” appears to be the source of the story about Roncalli and false baptismal certificates: he was not issuing forged baptismal certificates, but immigration ones. As I wrote in my Public Discourse piece: “People often confuse alleged baptismal certificates with entrance visas, immigration certificates and Vatican ‘Letters of Protection’—all above-board documents.”
3. These facts are now reflected in modern scholarship on the matter: we just saw what Paldiel acknowledged; now here are two more examples:
–In his biography of Roncalli (Pope John XXIII), Christian Feldman says that Roncalli “provided countless persecuted persons with the often ineffective but sometimes useful immigration certificates issued by the Jewish Agency for Palestine. This gave rise to the legend that Roncalli handed out false baptismal certificates to save the lives of Jews.” (Pope John XXII: A Spiritual Biography, Crossroad Publishing  p. 62)
— In a major article entitled, “Righteous Pope?” by Haim Shapiro, published in the Jersualem Post, and available online by clicking here (scroll down to the second story, underneath the one about famed rescuer Raul Wallenberg), we read the following lines:
“A more elusive subject is the unsubstantiated report that Roncalli also sent thousands of baptismal certificates to Hungary, to be used to obtain preferential treatment for Jews although they had not in fact converted. Such an action would have been contrary to Church policy, but thus far, there is no concrete proof that he actually did send such certificates.”
“Monsignor Pietro Sambi, the papal nuncio to Israel [note: he has since become the nuncio to the United States], says that Roncalli did facilitate the transport of many Jews through Turkey to Palestine. Sambi is also aware of the report about baptismal certificates, but he too cannot confirm that Roncalli actually sent such documents.” (Emphasis added)
Comment: The acknowledgement of lack of proof for the Roncalli-false baptismal certificate claim by Monsignor Sambi (whom I have had the privilege to meet) is all the more impressive, since Sambi–in the very next line- says that if Roncalli did so, it would, “have been the right thing to do,” given the gravity of the situation.
Whether or not one agrees with the good-hearted Monsignor Sambi about that (and if direct lying was involved, some Christians would object– looking for other means to rescue)—the point here is that there is no proof that Roncalli’s justly acclaimed rescue efforts included issuing false baptismal certificates.
Roncalli did testify that Pius XII urged him to “save human lives,” and thus protect persecuted Jews—which Roncalli did, often magnificently—but he never said Pius XII told him to lie, or do anything that violated Catholic teaching—particularly one that involved the sacrament of baptism.
As I pointed out in my Public Discourse piece, Pius XII constantly appealed and intervened on behalf of the persecuted, especially Jews, but always in truth and charity. He vigorously opposed “situation ethics,” no matter what the circumstances, and said so in a major address after the War. Instead of desperately trying to “catch” Pius XII in a lie (in hopes of justifying lies today) –a fruitless search, according to the Jesuits in Rome I’ve spoken with, who’ve studied his cause for decades– we should be celebrating his devotion to truth and moral justice– at a time when it was common to sacrifice both.
* One of the countries were emergency baptisms and baptismal certificates were handed out—sometimes legitimately (according to Catholic teaching) sometimes not, was Hungary; so it is very significant to note what the Church’s leaders there said about this, even as the Hungarian Church saved countless Jews during the Nazi occupation: “By 24 July , concern over the rush to conversion and violent disturbances brought about by Hungarian Nazis led Cardinal Seredi to issue a statement to the press insisting on proper dogmatic instruction of would-be converts and on strict adherence to the prescribed rites of baptism.” (Journal of Ecclesiastical History, January, 1989, P. 89) None of which impeded his witness against the Third Reich: Cardinal Seredi, like Pius XII, was an outstanding opponent of the Nazis, and committed friend of the Jewish community, as is mentioned here.