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Saint Stepinac?

It's considered rude to say mean things about the ailing, but with the Pope in the news, I thought I would bring up the case of Alojzije Stepinac, Archbishop of Zagreb during the second world war and, according to the current pontiff, not just an all-around good guy, but actually a saint which, one supposes, is supposed to be a pretty high standard for goodness. For much of Stepinac's tenure, Croatia was ruled by the Ustase, a quisling organization whose brutality against Orthodox Christians and Jews got so out of hand at times that the government of Nazi Germany felt compelled to try and restrain their conduct at times. Since the main social cleavage between Croats and other inhabitants of what was, at the time, Yugoslavia is religious (Serbo-Croatian speaking Catholics are Croatians, Serbo-Croatian speaking Orthodox Christians are Serbs, and Serbo-Croation speaking Muslims are just Bosnian Muslims) the Roman Catholic hierarchy of Croatia wound up deeply involved in the whole thing.

For example:

Ustaše held the Eastern Orthodoxy as their greatest foe. In fact, they never once recognized the existence of a Serb people on the territories of Croatia or Bosnia — they only recognized "Croats of the Eastern faith". Catholic priests among the Ustaše were carrying out forced conversions of Serbs to Catholicism throughout Croatia.

Some priests, mostly Franciscans, particularly in, but not limited to, Herzegovina and Bosnia, took part in the atrocities themselves. Miroslav Filipović, a Franciscan friar, was the most prominent of them. He used the Petrićevac monastery as a base for the Ustaše, and on February 6, 1942, led the Ustaše in a brutal massacre of 2730 Serbs of the nearby villages, including 500 children. The same Filipović later became Chief Guard of Jasenovac concentration camp where he was nicknamed "Fra Sotona".

You can read more about Father Filipovic here if you're so inclined ("At his later trial for war crimes, he admitted to a personal daily kill tally of at least one hundred people, including children.") After the war, Ante Pavelic, the head of the Ustase state, made his way to Italy where he lived under the protection of the Catholic Church in San Girolamo monastery. San Girolamo was the base of operations for Father Krunoslav Draganovic who "With protection of college head Monsignor Juraj Magjerec and Pope Pius XII, turned San Girolamo into waystation and hiding place for fugitive Ustase," and ran an operation known as the "Ratline" which was charged with spiriting Ustase war criminals, including many priests, away to safety in South America. Needless to say, given the Catholic Church as a whole's generally soft-on-fascism attitudes, and the specifically deep involvement of Croatia's rank-and-file clergy in the dirty business of dictatorship and massacre, Archbishop Stepinac was involved as well:
Despite advising clergy to steer clear of politics, on April 12, 1941 paid a visit of his own accord to Slavko Kvaternik, and on April 16 to poglavnik Ante Pavelic to give NDH and Ustase regime his personal endorsement. Also broadcast his support for the NDH in a radio address to the Croatian people, all of which occured before the Royal Yugoslav Army capitulated. Informed by letter by Bishop Alojzije Misic of Mostar of the ghastly massacres undertaken by the Ustase against local Serbs and Jews, but merely passed on the letter to Pavelic. Vigorously defended the Ustase to Pope Pius XII and the Vatican secretary of state during visits in 1942 and 1943. Catholic newspapers during the war kept to official guidelines and published appalling attacks on Jews and Serbs and effluviant praise of the poglavnik and the Ustase. As head of the Croatian Catholic Church was in charge of the mass conversion of Serbs to Catholicism and the adoption of Serb children orphaned by the Ustase massacres by Croatian, Catholic families, and certainly equated Orthodoxy with heresy.
Now to be fair, Archbishop Stepinac tried to help out Jews on occassion:
According to solidly based data he saved several hundred Jews during the WW2: either by direct action, or by secret rescripts to the clergymen, including mixed marriages, conversion to Catholicism, as did some Righteous in other European countries (in Greece for instance).
That was kind of him. Indeed, like a majority of Catholic clergy during the period, Archbishop Stepinac stood resolutely against the specifically racialist element of Nazi politics. Jews who had converted to Catholicism should not, according to this view, be killed. A forced conversion now and again, however, was another matter. And Stepinac doesn't seem to have been unduly troubled by the (locally) larger practice of massacring Orthodox Christians (or subjecting them to forced conversions). Certainly the larger geopolitical implications of taking the Nazi side in the war seem, to him, to have been a small matter compared to the vital necessity of crushing Serbian power. According to one account of the balance:
Defenders allege he protected some Jews from falling into the hands of the Ustase and Gestapo, that he spoke privately of his displeasure to Pavelic and other Ustase leaders, refraining from speaking publicly for fear that the church would lose its influence altogether. Critics argue that after German and Italian attempts to rein in the Ustase failed, the Church was the only organ which could arrest the state terror of Pavelic, Budak, and Co, who considered themselves devout Catholics. Spoke out vehemently against Communism before Communists had even taken power, fully exhonerating the clergy of complicity in war crimes and atrocities in the NDH.
Now I think a reaonable dispute can be had as to whether Stepinac was a moral monster like Pavelic or merely a weak, self-interested man. Clearly, if he wanted to maintain his power and privileges as Archbishop, he couldn't really afford to take a strong stand against the Ustashe. And if he went a bit further than was strictly necessary in terms of collaborating with them, well, nationalism and a desire to be close to centers of power are very common human failings. One can't know for sure, and the evidence as to whether Stepinac approved in his heart of Ustashe crimes, or merely felt that allying with Nazism was the only pragmatic thing to do in light of the threat posed by Communism and Orthodox Christianity (after all, we don't think Winston Churchill approved of Stalinism merely for having allied with Stalin).

At any rate, these ordinary sorts of defenses of Catholic conduct during World War Two have always struck me as extraordinarily weak. It's common, of course, for people to do less than they might in order to prevent the suffering of others. It's common to go along, get along with the powerful and collaborate with them. But this was, you will recall, the largest war ever fought. Millions and millions of people found it within themselves to put their lives on the line fighting against Nazism. Cardinal Stepinac, like many of his colleagues in the Croatian Church, were not willing to do that (though Stepinac later demonstrating a willingness to put his life on the line to fight Communism). Nor did they stay neutral. Insofar as they took sides, they chose to side with the pro-Nazi forces, and when the war was done acted to prevent them from seeing justice. It seems to me that it's debatable whether or not you ought to consider the man a war criminal. Whether you should consider him a saint is not, I think, a matter about which reasonable people can disagree. But the saint-happy Pope acting in, frankly, the best traditions of the institution he heads, thinks the man is a saint.

March 31, 2005 | Permalink


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Good points mostly, it is a disgrace that Stepinac would be considered for sainthood. You're simplifying things quite a bit when you talk about the divisions between Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims. It's not as simple as religion. Actually there are even Catholic Serbs. And if a Croat converts to Islam or Orthodoxy, or Scientology, she is still a Croat. Kinship counts for as much as religion, just to make it even more confusing for outsiders. And broadly speaking there are some differences between "Croatian" and "Serbian", mostly in vocabulary and a few in syntax, although nothing serious enough to impede mutual intelligibility. Culturally Croats have almost always been a part of Western Europe, mostly under Viennese or Italina rule. Serbs were cut off from Europe for centuries when they lived under Ottoman rule. This created real differences in attitude and customs that go far beyond religion.

Posted by: Vanya | Mar 31, 2005 6:23:58 PM

This is probably a good place to note that the former Venerable Bede, historian of the Anglo Saxon church, has also been sainted and should now be called Saint Bede the Venerable.

Posted by: John Emerson | Mar 31, 2005 6:38:31 PM

Whether it's now or (I personally hope) much later, this is a subject that's going to be a major part of the assessment of John Paul II, as the watershed figure of Catholicism in the 20th century. His limited but still groundbreaking admission and renunciation of Catholic complicity with anti-Semitism is part of his legacy. But so, too, is his effort to promote canonization of Pius XII and Stepanic.

All of the reading I've personally done on the Church and the Holocaust has left me with an ambivalent if mainly negative impression of the Vatican's behavior towards Hitler, but an absolutely shocked and horrified feeling about its behavior, during and after the fact, towards the Ustase regime's crimes against Christians and against Jews. If there has been any real official justification offered for the top-to-bottom support of the hierarchy for these crimes, and for the succor offered the perpetrators (other than ex post facto suggestions they were anti-communist refugees), I haven't heard about it. Thanks, Matt, for posting about this.

Posted by: newdonkey | Mar 31, 2005 6:54:27 PM

Yes, but there is something revolting about a comfortable, sheltered, privileged liberal who doesn't have an unconventional thought in him, and who has never taken a position that was unpopular with his peers, his teachers or his employers, criticizing people who in the midst of the most difficult circumstances in history may not have conducted themselves quite in accordance with what the students at Dalton wish they had done.

Posted by: y81 | Mar 31, 2005 6:58:54 PM

I would guess that y81 is a conservative; yet he or she is richly exhibiting the False Moral Equivalency habit that conservatives often accuse the Left of indulging in.

The behavior we are talking about, y81, is not conformity or solidarity or conduct not quite in accordance with liberal standards, but deliberate, wholesale, murder of hundreds of thousands of people because of who they were. It illustrated the sad, general principle that wartime, or what you call "the most difficult circumstances in history," often unleashes genocidal passions and those who would practice them in peacetime if given a chance, even if these criminal tendencies have nothing legitimate to do with national security or national survival. That is why in wartime every society needs wise and brave leaders, and in the case of Croatia, this leadership--political and religious--dismally failed.

As for ludicrous idea that Matt Yglesias is never "unconventional," or the vastly darker suggestion that he'd get out there and kill people if his peer group endorsed it--that's a classic example of adding insult to ignorance.

Posted by: newdonkey | Mar 31, 2005 7:16:54 PM

I agree with y81 that the Ustase's point of view needs to be heard first before we condemn. Also, the idnictment should be brought, if it is, by someone who has worked in a steel mill.

Screw you Matt. You never worked in no steel mill, you pussy.

Posted by: Al | Mar 31, 2005 7:20:30 PM

I think the biggest problem with Matt's post is that he neglects to take into account the most obvious redeeming feature of the context Stepinac and his peers were operating in i.e. that no one else did even as pathetically litte an amount as the Catholic Church did if you go by total number of Jews saved. The means by which they were saved are free to be criticized if you wish (I personally think conversion certificates, whether forced, fake or real, was a pretty smart scheme if one was interested in saving Jews but not putting even more lives one was responsible for in danger) but until someone can show how the Catholic Church's behavior was worse or even substantially equal to other multinational organizations (how many jews after all did the World Zionist Congress for all its proclamations save? i have no idea but i would be interested in real figures and not shift the blame rhetoric), this whole line of argument is retarded. And please no one quote the book Constantine's Sword considering its author was forced to admit his error (a bit late but still got to give him props for admitting he was wrong)...

Now as to whether Stepinac is saint-worthy on the other hand I cant really comment on given that we have no real record here of his entire life and doings, nor how the criteria of miracles,etc. was met. However, i dont find it that crazy to think that he isnt worthy, especially considering how many times the st lists have had to be purged (witness the fate of st christopher) in the past...

Posted by: vik | Mar 31, 2005 7:50:24 PM

y81, my own background is doubtless somewhat less sheltered and privileged than Matthew's, but I quite see the force of your argument. I find myself living among Germans, and know a fair few of them old enough to have attained the age of reason under an earlier and unattractive regime. It's easy for me to condemn those of them who were not active resisters (a small but deeply honourable minority). But of course, I have not experienced what the Mitläufer did in the midst of the most difficult circumstances in history, and who is to say that I would have conducted myself, as they did not, entirely in accordance with the preferences of a Dalton old boy? Similarly, who can say that, in Stepinac's position, I would not have behaved as badly as he did? Who are we to condemn?

But then I recall that Matthew is pointing out that the pope wishes to see Stepinac raised to the altar as a saint. If I understand Roman Catholic termini technici correctly, a 'saint' is one specially recognised as having lived a life of heroic virtue, an example to all the faithful. Even giving Stepinac every possible benefit of the doubt, if you believe his not-quite-up-to-Dalton-standards conduct constitutes 'heroic virtue', you had better just go and fuck yourself.

Meanwhile, those readers of this website who are not slavering ultramontanists and/or troglodyte Croatian nationalists may wish to read the Yugoslavian reporting of Hubert Butler, a deeply humane man whose response to the most difficult circumstances in history (surprisingly, perhaps, in light of his comfortable sheltered privileged upbringing) was to wade into the thick of things and rescue Jews. He spent quite a bit of time in the land of the south Slavs and was constrained, I am afraid, to take a rather dim view of Stepinac. I don't know whether any of his contemporaneous reporting is online, but one can find his later (mid-1950s) essay, 'The Sub-Prefect Should Have Held His Tongue', here. Butler's (and my) countrymen crucified him, of course, for having the shocking bad taste to mention that Stepinac had not acquitted himself well by any human standard. I daresay y81 would have felt quite at home in the crowd.

Posted by: Mrs Tilton | Mar 31, 2005 7:54:22 PM

The Catholic Church's behavior during WWII is unforgivable. The excuse that the foe was powerful and implacable and they needed to be somewhat accomodating doesn't wash for an organization that claims to fight the devil.

Nor does it explain, if compromise of deep moral principles is justifiable, why the Vatican lies about the efficacy of condoms and thus helps further the holocaust that is AIDS. Authority and power before morality, apparently.

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 31, 2005 8:09:40 PM

What NewDonkey said.

JPII will be viewed by history and non-Roman Catholics very differently than the conventional wisdom holds.

He may have played a major role in destabilizing the Warsaw Pact, but his attempts to undo parts of Vatican II will jade the prism. (and history like this might gain some traction too)

On a cynical note, JPII pulled off what the GOP wants to do with the Federal Courts. Over the past two and a half decades he has stacked the College of Cardinals with fundies. This ensures that it will be at least two generations before anybody but the most conservative Catholics will sitin a position of power within the RCC.

Posted by: def | Mar 31, 2005 9:13:04 PM

Very glad you finally wrote this.

Posted by: Ayelish | Mar 31, 2005 10:01:09 PM

Mrs. Tilton, wherever you are, God bless you for this line:

"Even giving Stepinac every possible benefit of the doubt, if you believe his not-quite-up-to-Dalton-standards conduct constitutes 'heroic virtue', you had better just go and fuck yourself."


Posted by: Joel | Mar 31, 2005 10:14:33 PM

I think members of the Catholic Church acted poorly when they were at risk during WW2. Others disagree.

But there is absolutely no excuse for the behavior when they were no longer threatened (e.g. Pius XII after Rome was taken by the Allies), or after the war (Rat Line, failure to excommunicate various Nazi leaders). In those instancess, the Catholic Church either did nothing or helped the fugitives.

That's where the case against sainthood should be made.

Posted by: Quiddity | Mar 31, 2005 10:33:23 PM

I am an Orthodox Christian (though not of Serbian roots). The attitude among the Orthodox toward such a canonization is ferociously negative. It would undo all the progress made in the detente between Easter and Western churches over the last 40 years.

Posted by: JonF | Mar 31, 2005 10:35:14 PM

Quiddity makes a key point. We can argue forever about Church behavior during the war - coercion, threat, covert action, etc, etc.

But it is the post-war behavior that settles the argument. No Nazis excommunicated, no Nazi priests defocked or otherwise disciplined, Hitler given a Church funeral, war criminals helped to escape.


Posted by: Bernard Yomtov | Mar 31, 2005 10:49:47 PM

I don't know a great deal about the history of Stepinac. I try to avoid these discussions about the Catholic Church and WWII because the literature is so vast and the emotions so high. But, Matt, what little I do know suggests you should be *very* careful about where you get your information.

Your quote about Miroslav Filipovic contains a pretty blatant error. Filipovic ("Brother Satan") was expelled by the Franciscans and defrocked before he went to Jasenovac. It makes little sense to criticize the "catholic hierarchy" (whatever that is) for their treatment of him. Was there something else they should have done to him?

Posted by: Dinky | Mar 31, 2005 11:26:26 PM

The horror of the Ustase's behavior in WWII is not controversial, so all that's in question is the degree of implication of the Catholic Church. Let's not make this into something mysterious.

Posted by: John Emerson | Mar 31, 2005 11:31:39 PM

John Emerson: "The horror of the Ustase's behavior in WWII is not controversial, so all that's in question is the degree of implication of the Catholic Church. Let's not make this into something mysterious."

I couldn't agree more. But Matt quotes a website that inaccurately suggests that "Brother Satan" acted with impunity in committing atrocities in the war. That's just not correct. How can one fairly judge "the degree of implication of the Catholic Church" based on inaccurate information about what would otherwise be a pretty horrible example of complicity? Or should I just *know* based on something in the ether?

Posted by: Dinky | Mar 31, 2005 11:38:43 PM

Just to reiterate, the issue on the table is sainthood. That's supposed to be a very high standard to meet. Apart from the Stepinac issue, the behavior of the Church after the war when there was no issue of duress is very hard to excuse.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Apr 1, 2005 12:09:57 AM

AI, are you saying that only working class Americans are entitled to opinions? I love that idea. If only we excluded the votes of those whose incomes put them into the upper-middle class or higher, 2004 would have been a comfortable win for us Dems!

Also, "For much of Stepinac's tenure, Croatia was ruled by the Ustase, a quisling organization whose brutality against Orthodox Christians and Jews got so out of hand at times that the government of Nazi Germany felt compelled to try and restrain their conduct at times." I literally cannot understand how you could exceed the standards of brutality of Nazi Germany. I literally cannot understand how you could be more brutal, at least in the case of the Jews. I don't know as much about Nazi policies toward the Eastern Orthodox (except those Eastern Orthodox who happened to be Slavs). What could be worse than basically killing everybody?

Posted by: Julian Elson | Apr 1, 2005 12:27:57 AM

In that context, it's worth noting that JPII has basically gone bonkers on canonization, and that offices that traditionally helped slow down the process (such as the Devil's Advocate) have been thrown out the window.

The thing that I think you're missing here, if I read the history right is that Stepinac is specifically being canonized as a Martyr for the Faith. I'm going by this link here,
which if I read it correctly means that he was imprisoned for about 14 years after the fall of the Ustase government. I've been poking through other sites which say that it's a controversial canonization, here is an example, but I don't know the site (one of the fun things about researching Catholicism and Nazis is the stuff you find out indicating the pope is Hitler's sucessor to the antichrist throne).

One interpretation to consider, especially in light of the stalling on Romero's canonization is that you've got a Pope who is intensely anti-communist, so his mindset is colored by that. Another issue, and this is just a general speculative point about canonization - a Saint's got to live a righteous life, yes, but that doesn't mean that every second was righteous; otherwise, St. Paul wouldn't qualify. Obviously there has to be some evidence of repentance, and I don't know enough about Stepinac to say anything about it (my only Stepinac knowledge before this was that it was a high school in my hometown).

I think another issue to address here, though, is the fact that priests do abuse their powers to support ethnic hatreds, often with support of their own bishops. We saw this in Rwanda.

Posted by: Mike Collins | Apr 1, 2005 12:31:46 AM

Matt Y: "Just to reiterate, the issue on the table is sainthood. That's supposed to be a very high standard to meet."

Supposed to be a high standard, sure. But, to echo what Mike Collins wrote, this pope has canonized more people more quickly than any other pope in history. Unfortunately, that means that some of the airing of dirty laundry that used to happen along the way may only happen on the eve of canonization, when the juggernaut has already taken off.

Also, the decision to canonize someone--like any other legislative or administrative decision--is usually a response in part to organized pressure groups. In other words, you shouldn't read sainthood as a merit badge for the exceptionally pure. It's also an acknowledgment of the persuasiveness and savvy of some group within the church.

Posted by: Dinky | Apr 1, 2005 1:32:16 AM

At one point during the war Ustashe head Ante Pavelic was interviewed by an Italian newspaper and proudly showed the reporter what looked like a tub of oysters: "It's a gift from my loyal Ustashe. Forty pounds of human eyeballs." Eventually Pavelic found his way (like quite a few other Nazis) to the shelter of Franco's Spain, where he lived happily and died at a ripe old age in 1959. Interesting (if not entirely surprising) to learn that Pius XII apparently provided him some assistance in getting there.

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw | Apr 1, 2005 1:40:44 AM

"I literally cannot understand how you could exceed the standards of brutality of Nazi Germany."

Neither do I, but apparently the Ustashe managed it.

Posted by: michael farris | Apr 1, 2005 1:51:41 AM

I was reading Orwell's essays on the train last night. Here's what he has to say on the subject:

When one thinks of all the people who support or have supported Fascism, one stands amazed at their diversity. What a crew! Think of a programme which at any rate for a while could bring Hitler, Petain, Montagu Norman, Pavelitch, William Randolph Hearst, Streicher, Buchman, Ezra Pound, Juan March, Cocteau, Thyssen, Father Coughlin, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Arnold Lunn, Antonescu, Spengler, Beverley Nichols, Lady Houston, and Marinetti all into the same boat! But the clue is really very simple. They are all people with something to lose, or people who long for a hierarchical society and dread the prospect of a world of free and equal human beings.
Behind all the ballyhoo that is talked about 'godless' Russia and the 'materialism' of the working class lies the simple intention of those with money or privileges to cling to them.

See - hierarchical society...

Posted by: abb1 | Apr 1, 2005 5:30:03 AM

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