The Pope and the Bombing of Rome: There’s More to the Story

By: Dr. Rafael Medoff

Pope Benedict XVI this week praised the Holocaust-era pontiff, Pope Pius XII, for personally comforting victims of the Allies’ bombing of Rome in 1943. But a closer look at Pius’s response to the raid on Rome reveals that he went beyond consoling the wounded and actually used the incident to criticize the Allies while ignoring the Nazis’ culpability.

Speaking last week at the San Lorenzo basilica, which was damaged in the 1943 bombing, Pope Benedict remarked, “The generous gesture on that occasion by my venerable predecessor [Pius XII], who immediately ran to help and comfort the stricken population in the smoldering rubble, cannot be erased from historical memories.”

As the capital of an Axis country, Rome naturally attracted the interest of Allied military planners. The most series Allied strike on the city took place on July 19, 1943, when a fleet of U.S. planes attacked airfields, railroad facilities, and freight yards in and around Rome. The pilots did their best to avoid harming civilians or church buildings –they even dropped leaflets over the city the previous day, warning of the impending attack– more than one thousand people were killed and the San Lorenzo basilica suffered damage. Leaving the Vatican for the first time in three years, Pope Pius visited the site to comfort the victims and distribute alms to the crowds that gathered upon his arrival.

“Probably the Pope was sitting in the Vatican thanking God that Rome had at least been bombed,” Monsignor Eugene Burke of New Jersey told the New York Times. “He would realize that while innocents surely would suffer as a result that it is necessary in order to rid the world of fascism. It was a military job and a well done one.”

The pope, however, did not see it quite that way, and visiting the basilica was not his only response to the bombing.

In the days following the bombing, Pius sent two letters decrying the attack, one to Cardinal Marchetti-Salvaggiani, the Vicar General of Rome; and the other to President Franklin Roosevelt. He wrote of “the gaping ruins of that ancient and priceless papal Basilica” and “the harrowing scene of death leaping from the skies and stalking pitilessly through unsuspecting homes striking down women and children.”

Although the letters did not explicitly condemn the Allies, the pope’s emphasis on the damage caused by the bombing was clearly meant to rebuke earlier Allied assurances that it was possible to hit military targets in Rome without harming religious sites. Moreover, the pope’s letters refrained from assigning any blame to the Axis for starting the war, or for refusing to declare Rome an “open city” that would be off-limits to the clashing armies.

The pope’s position raised more than a few eyebrows in the United States. Time magazine, for example, expressed concern that Pius’s letters, while complaining about the damage caused by the Allies, “said nothing of the military objectives [that were] successfully bombed.”

The New Republic was even blunter in its criticism: “The Pope has insisted that he is neutral in this war; but this is an equivocal position that is bound to do more and more harm to his prestige as the defeat of the Axis grows more imminent …[M]ost people who read this letter, and especially in Italy, must have felt that the Pope’s weight of condemnation was heavier on the Allies than on the Axis.”

Perhaps the most telling commentary comes from Father Vincent McCormick, an American clergyman serving in the Vatican, who helped draft the pope’s responses to the bombing. In his diary, Father McCormick bemoaned the imbalance in the final text of the letters: “But why did not the Vat[ican] let the world know more clearly, honestly, that the chief offenders are those who have delivered Rome over to the enemy by using it as a military center! There seems to be no courage for saying anything that might offend and show up Ger[many] and It[aly] in a bad light.”

If Father McCormick was familiar with Pius’s response to the Holocaust, perhaps he would have detected a pattern. With regard to the Jews, too, Pius was afraid to “say anything that might offend Germany,” and thus he refrained from speaking out against the Nazi persecution of Europe’s Jews. He refused to join the Allies’ December 1942 declaration condemning the mass murder. He did not even publicly condemn the Nazis’ deportation of the Jews of Rome, which took place practically under his window.

It is unclear whether Pope Benedict’s praise of Pius XII this week was connected with the Vatican’s plans to declare Pius a saint, plans which have stirred considerable Jewish criticism. But whatever the reason for his remarks, it is important to keep the historical record straight. If Pius’s visit to the 1943 bombing victims “cannot be erased from historical memories,” as Benedict put it, than Pius’s troubling response to the Allies’ bombings likewise cannot be erased.

December 2008