The recent vote by the House of Representatives to defund Planned Parenthood was a major victory for the pro-life movement, even as the Senate and White House remain hostile territory for the unborn. Although momentum to defund had already been building, the now-famous “sting” videos from Live Action—which purport to show Planed Parenthood employees aiding an actor posing as a sex trafficker—fueled support for the House measure. The debate that has ensued about the morality (as distinct from effectiveness) of the undercover videos, which many believe involve direct lying, has produced serious reflection within the pro-life community. Christopher Tollefsen, Christopher Kaczor and Robert George have already made important contributions, as have Hadley Arkes and Gerard Bradley. Dawn Eden and I have also weighed in.

A historical error has emerged in this debate that should be put to rest now, once and for all. Many have argued against a moral absolute against lying by citing Pope Pius XII’s personal role in rescuing Jews, which allegedly involved lying, as an example of a moral authority lying for a greater good. This supposedly supports their claim that we are permitted to lie today—whatever the natural law may say—if the reasons are grave enough. Many believe fighting today’s abortion Holocaust is that grave.

But a careful review of Pius XII’s record during the War reveals such claims to be mistaken. Pius XII did rescue countless Jews and resist Nazism—in often harrowing situations—but never once authorized a lie, or adopted an end-justifies-the-means mentality to do so.

If we care about good philosophy and good theology—as we should—we should also care about good history, particularly when it is invoked to justify controversial behavior today. It is particularly ironic that Pius XII—who for so long has been misrepresented by critics of the papacy—is now being misrepresented by some of his ardent defenders. We do the wartime pope no favor, much less advance the cause for truth, when we invoke him to justify lying.

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In vigorously opposing Nazism, and encouraging Catholics to act against it, Pius XII adopted a multi-pronged strategy based on truth, wisdom, courage, and charity. Given the gravity of the situation, he could have easily resorted to unjust methods, including outright lies, to wage this fight. That he did not do so—but still managed to save an extraordinary number of lives—is a testament to the power of truth, and the need to uphold it, even in “extreme” situations.

A brief review of Pius XII’s wartime record bears this out.

Public Statements

The first thing Pius XII did to help rescue Jews was to rally public opinion against the Nazis. At the beginning of his pontificate, in the Fall of 1939—barely six months into his reign—Pius XII put the finishing touches on Summi Pontificatus, his first encyclical, on the unity of human society. The Nazis had recently invaded Poland, and the fires of war were raging. People needed a voice to address the ensuing catastrophe, and to call the world back to sanity. They got it. “Pope Flays Dictatorships,” blared the Chicago Tribune. Time magazine called Summi extraordinary,” and specifically noted how Pius went beyond the usual papal reserve, making his sympathy for the Allies clear: “Devout Catholic that he is, he knew which side he was for, and, unlike his predecessors during [World] War I, said so.” An above-the-fold, front-page headline in the New York Times (October 28, 1939) declared, “Pope Condemns Dictators, Treaty Violators, Racism; Urges Restoring of Poland,” followed by a story which read: “It is Germany that stands condemned above any country or any movement in this encyclical—the Germany of Hitler and National Socialism.”

A major theme of Summi Pontificatus is the Church’s devotion to truth, and the need to proclaim it. “We owe no greater debt to Our office and to our time,” announced Pius, “than to testify to the truth with Apostolic firmness.” The pope quoted the words of Christ: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world; that I should give testimony to the truth. Every one that is of the truth, hearest My voice” (John 18:37).

As war continued, and Hitler increased his madness, Pius used truth as a major weapon to combat Nazism. He authorized the Jesuits at Vatican Radio to expose Nazi atrocities (which they did, often quite explicitly), personally confronted Germany’s Foreign Minister on the Reich’s crimes against Jews, condemned racial mass murder in his Christmas addresses and allocutions to the College of Cardinals (provoking the Nazis to denounce him as a “mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals”), and constantly warned the belligerents about the accepted rules of warfare, which were under the judgment of God:

Above all, remember that upon the manner in which you deal with those whom the fortunes of War place in your hand may depend the blessing or curse of God upon your own Fatherland. (Easter address, 1941)

The impact of these public statements was profound. Pietro Cardinal Palazzini, honored by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile, wrote: “Amidst the clash of arms, a voice could be heard—the voice of Pius XII.” The Irish priest-rescuer, Msgr. John Patrick Carroll-Abbing, testified:

The diplomatic corps and I would frequently listen to the Pope’s addresses over Vatican radio, imploring us to protect the innocent, to feed the hungry, to shelter the endangered, to fight and resist the evils all around us. We shivered when we listened to him. His voice was always calm and precise and it vitalized Catholic rescuers everywhere.  (Inside the Vatican, August-September, 2001)

Father Michel Riquet, an ex-inmate of Dachau, spoke for many rescuers when he declared:

Throughout those years of horror, when we listened to Radio Vatican and to the Pope’s messages, we felt in communion with the Pope, in helping persecuted Jews and in fighting against Nazi violence.

The German Occupation of Rome and Castel Gandolfo

The most dangerous period for the Vatican and its surrounding populace, especially Jews, occurred during the German occupation of Rome (September 1943-June 1944). On October 15-16, 1943, the Nazis raided Rome’s Jewish community, with the intent of deporting all 8,000 of them. Alerted to the crime, Pius XII protested to the German ambassador—“in the name of humanity, and Christian charity”—and also to General Rainer Stahel, the Commanding German Officer, on whom the Holy See had some influence. The latter protest worked: Stahel convinced his superiors in Berlin to call off the raid on military grounds. As a result, the vast majority of Rome’s Jewish population—some 7,000 people—avoided the round-up, though danger remained: the Nazis could still strike at any moment.

In his book But for the Grace of God, Msgr. Carroll-Abbing, who was on the scene at a convent, records what happened next: “Almost immediately word came from the Vatican that, because of the emergency, nuns would be allowed to give hospitality in their convents to Jewish men as well as their families. Soon after, a document arrived from Cardinal Maglione, Secretary of State of Pius XII, to be affixed to the front door, stating that the convent was under the protection of the Holy See and could not be entered without its consent. The Vatican had been able to have it countersigned by General Stahel”—the same officer they had successfully employed to call off the original raid. Similar placards were hung on many other papal-controlled buildings, which grateful Jews flooded into.

Michael Tagliacozzo, the leading authority on Rome’s wartime Jewish community, and himself a survivor of the Nazi raid, said of Pius: “He did very much to help and save thousands of us.”

In doing so Pius never lied, but what about those instances where good nuns or priests, sheltering Jews, were directly confronted by Nazi or local fascists, demanding to know the whereabouts of Jews? What could they do if the Gestapo knocked on their doors? Did not Pius XII approve of lying in those circumstances?

Because Pius had gotten Stahel to recognize Vatican institutions as extra-territorial, many of these knock-on-the-door “what if” scenarios never, thankfully, happened—the hiding places proved largely successful. But it is undeniable that some religious were nonetheless threatened by Nazi and collaborating Italian fascists, who took it upon themselves to look for Jews, demanding answers from suspected sympathizers—so again, did not the Pope sanction lying then?

The only responsible answer—according to the best available evidence—is that Pius XII never pronounced upon the issue. Pius laid down Christian principles; he did not get into the specifics of rescue activity, leaving that to the discretion of the rescuers, trusting in God. In the many first-hand testimonies from those who worked with Pius to save Jews, as well as recovered diaries from rescuers, we find the Pope exhorting the faithful to help and protect persecuted Jews, and issuing directives to that effect, but nowhere do we find Pius XII granting permission to knowingly lie, or resist the Church’s enemies by any means necessary.

What can be said is that, when the Italian Fascist police actually did violate a Catholic institution—the Basilica of St. Paul, in February 1944—seizing dozens of refuges, including Jews, who had taken sanctuary there, the Vatican fiercely protested, and issued a ringing condemnation. Vatican Radio referred to the “hospitality granted to the arrested persons,” and declared: “It is not a paradox, nor is it absurd that the church is for everybody and for nobody. Charity is above human constitutions. On this point the priest can never yield. It is the demarcation line between good and evil. Men of honest views will permit us to continue with it.” (“Vatican Repeats Pledge of Haven,” New York Times, Feb. 9, 1944; emphasis added)

If people want to argue that priests and nuns had a right and duty to lie during the German Occupation, in the hope of saving lives, they can do so (though they should expect counter-arguments, e.g., that one could remain silent, or speak in an indirect, but non-revealing way that was not lying; and that lying itself would hardly guarantee safety: it could backfire, if discovered, and actually lead the Nazis to expand their targets with reprisals). What they should not do is go beyond the evidence and claim that Pius XII gave Catholics an official “right to lie” in special circumstances. He offered passionate support for those suffering, through moral means, but did not violate Catholic teaching, or recommend others do wrong.

Underscoring that fact is one of Pius XII’s most personal efforts: during the German occupation, he opened up his own summer residence at Castel Gandolfo—a huge estate—to anyone who needed protection: over 10,000 people were cared for there, receiving life-saving aid from the Pope’s assistants. In the summer of 1944, just weeks after Rome’s liberation, the Palestine Post published a remarkable story about the gratitude of those who had received Pius XII’s protection. Reporting from Vatican City, the paper’s correspondent wrote:

Several thousand refugees, largely Jews, during the weekend left the Papal Palace at Castel Gandolfo—the Pope’s summer residence near Marino—after enjoying safety there during the recent terror. Besides Jews, persons of all political creeds who had been endangered were given sanctuary at the Palace. Before leaving, the refugees conveyed their gratitude to the Pope through his majordomo.

No lies or controversies here: just pure human emotion, and sincere thanks, for Pius XII’s charitable endeavors.

False Baptismal Certificates?

One of the things people point to, as an example of where Pius XII allegedly authorized lying, is the Church’s issuance of false baptismal certificates, and other forged documents, to Jews during the War. Some of these claims (particularly regarding Angelo Roncalli, the future John XXIII), are dubious or remain unconfirmed, and people often confuse alleged baptismal certificates with entrance visas, immigration certificates and Vatican “Letters of Protection” —all above-board documents. But where there is hard evidence regarding false baptismal certificates, we have to make a key distinction, between the official Magisterium of the Church, and the actions of individual Catholics, who may or may not be in conformity with it. (The Magisterium has always emphasized the need for conversions to be authentic, a fact repeated by Pius XII in his wartime encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi [1943]).

It is certainly true that Pius XII urged and encouraged Catholics (especially his diplomats) to save Jews; but there is no persuasive evidence that shows Pius XII ever personally authorized his representatives, or anyone else, to lie or forge baptismal certificates (I have discussed this at length with the Jesuits in charge of Pius XII’s cause in Rome, and they concur).

That said, there were prominent Catholic rescuers who—out of doubtless good motives and intentions—forged baptismal certificates, which may or may not have helped in a given instance; but these specific acts were not authorized by Pius XII, even though he certainly encouraged them to save Jews by other means.

The best example is Pius XII’s friendship and support for Father Pierre Marie-Benoit. An extraordinary Capuchin, who has rightly been honored by Yad Vashem, Benoit worked day and night rescuing Jews, first in France, and then in Rome , during the occupation. Among his activities were forging identity cards and baptismal certificates. The Vatican admired and shared Fr. Benoit’s concern for persecuted Jews, and in fact assisted him in many ways. But, as we know from the Holy See’s wartime archives, Actes et Documents (Volume 9, document 433), the Vatican “repeatedly warned” Fr. Benoit about the falsification of documents in Rome, for both moral and practical reasons: it was arousing the suspicion of the occupying authorities, who were on the verge of stepping in and shutting down his whole operation. Fortunately, the Vatican protected Father Benoit behind the scenes, while counseling him on the best strategy to rescue Jews. Some critics of Pius XII have actually tried to use his prudential strategies against Pius himself, driving a wedge between him and Benoit. Not only do Benoit’s various writings deny that allegation, but—as Ralph Stewart notes in his study of the occupation—after the War, Benoit “spoke in glowing terms of the Holy Father. In fact, on the occasion of the centenary of Eugenio Pacelli’s [Pius XII’s] birth, he sent a report which praised the various undertaking of the pope on behalf of Jews.”

Secret Maneuvers and Plots

Pius XII did not sanction lying during the War, but he did engage in a whole host of often-ingenious ways to morally resist evil, through covert operations. (In his book, Fundamental Moral Attitudes, Dietrich von Hildebrand, a great anti-Nazi Catholic himself, differentiates between lawful methods of deception, and direct lies, which “no situation in the world can justify.”) The Vatican, for example, used diplomatic codes and encrypted message to conceal sensitive information from the Nazis, had many fruitful contacts with the underground in Rome, and—most spectacularly—Pius XII gave his approval to a plot to remove Hitler from power. Many are unaware of the latter, and might ask why a Vicar of Christ would ever engage in such a plot. (Is that Christian?) The answer is not difficult at all. Pius XII, in a just-war situation, was trying to put an end to Hitler’s monumental crimes, and tyrannicide—the killing of a tyrant—has long been recognized within orthodox Catholic theology as a morally legitimate act, as a last resort.

Of course, Pius XII did not endorse all the tactics of the anti-Nazi resistance, and sometimes strongly opposed them, if they went against Catholic doctrine. But as we see in our own time, one can wage vigorous war against evil, through conscientious means—for example, supporting the fight against al Qaeda without endorsing torture.


Contemporary pro-lifers who justify lying, in order to fight the radical evil of abortion, are engaged in a new form of situation ethics; and since many of them have enlisted Pius XII in their cause, it would be well to study what this now-Venerable pontiff actually said about moral absolutes—even in perilous situations—and the “new morality:”

Against the ‘ethics of situation,’ We set up three considerations, or maxims. The first: We grant that God wants, first and always, a right intention. But this is not enough. He also wants the good work. A second principle is that it is not permitted to do evil that good may result (Rom. 3:8). Now this new ethic, perhaps, without being aware of it, acts according to the principles that the end justifies the means. A Christian cannot be unaware of the fact that he must sacrifice everything, even his life, in order to save his soul. Of this we are reminded by all the martyrs. Martyrs are very numerous, even in our own time…. Maria Goretti, and thousands of others, men and women, whom the Church venerates—did they, in the face of the ‘situation’ in which they found themselves, uselessly or even mistakenly incur a bloody death? No, certainly not, and in their blood they are the most explicit witnesses to the truth against the ‘new morality.’ (“Moral Law and the New Morality,” April 18, 1952)

Today, also, we need to look for witnesses to truth, even as we do battle with the forces of darkness.