Lying is never permitted, but using mental reservation is morally allowed to preserve life or prevent injury. Mental reservation is the technique used to withhold truthful information to someone who has no right to have it.
A stranger calls, and a child answers the phone. Rather than training the kid to lie when the caller asks, “Is your mommy home?” and say “yes,” when in fact she is out of the house, it is better to teach mental reservation. The better response to the question would be, “She’s not in the room right now” or “She’s busy right now. Can you call her later?” Both are accurate and not lies.
When Aunt Clara asks you about her new hairdo or her bizarre dress, you do not have to lie and say, “It is beautiful. I love it!” when in reality you think it is ugly. You can and should say “Wow, that is some hairdo!” or “What a dress!” in which case you are not lying, but Aunt Clara’s feelings are not hurt either.
Despite the bad press, Pope Pius XII (1939–1958) did work to save and protect many Jews throughout Europe during the war but did so clandestinely, since rumors abounded then (only recently corroborated by discovered documentation) that Hitler was prepared to capture the pope and put his own puppet pontiff in his place. Pope Pius ordered the monasteries, convents, and churches of Italy to issue pretend baptismal certificates to give to Jews who were hiding from the Nazis. Since these documents were not intended to deceive pastors to falsely celebrate sacraments with those who were not actually Catholic (which would have been sinful lying), they were in fact a form of mental reservation on paper. These were not real baptismal certificates that were forged, but unofficial and fictitious papers meant to look like baptismal certificates in order to protect Jews from Nazi capture and eventual extermination at a death camp.
Many religious houses took in escaping Jews in Italy and other parts of Europe with the knowledge, permission, and direction of Pope Pius XII. While many attack him for not making public denunciations in the middle of the war, he used his prudential judgment to stay neutral so as to be of some help. Had he made overt objections, then he might have been captured, arrested, and executed, as were many Protestant leaders who defied Hitler in public. Pius’s fear was not for his own death or even imprisonment, but that a phony pope would be installed by the Nazis and more harm would have come upon the Church.
Though today he gets bad press, and even then some complained about his supposed silence, in reality, he was able to help more Jews by his apparent neutrality. This enabled the Vatican to hide and smuggle many Jews to safety whom otherwise would have died in the Holocaust. Had Pius made very overt attacks on the Third Reich, that in itself would not have saved more lives, nor would it have deterred Hitler and his goons; it would have had no effect on non-Catholic countries like the United States or Great Britain to react differently to Nazi Germany.
The Catholic countries of Europe were predominantly occupied by the Germans or were under fascist control. Those who claim that Pope Pius could have stopped or even slowed down the deportation and eventual extermination of millions of Jews do not realize the political realities of the Vatican during WWII. All religious leaders of any religion were effectively impotent to do anything since even the mightiest military and economic powers, like Britain and North America, had a long fight to win and end the war. So, Pius’ reluctance to be ousted from office is not to be seen as a cowardly response. Canon Law allowed him to resign at any moment in which he would cease to be pope and would cease to be in danger or jeopardy. He chose to stay in office and work secretly behind the scenes even at the risk of appearing complacent.
The Chief Rabbi in Rome, Israel Zolli (1881–1956) knew of Pius’s efforts and was so grateful that he himself converted to Catholicism and took the baptismal name of Eugenio, the baptismal name of Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli). Ronald J. Rychlak, The author of Hitler, the War and the Pope, states, “On the same day that Germany invaded Poland, Pius telegraphed the papal nuncio in Warsaw with instructions to organize Polish Jews for a passage to Palestine. One of the crucial terms of the concordat with Germany was that German officials were to regard baptized Jews as Christians.
Accordingly, Pius ordered his nuncio in Turkey (Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII) to prepare thousands of baptismal certificates for refugee Jews arriving in Istanbul in the hope that such papers would gain them passage into the country. (When he was later thanked for his extensive lifesaving work, Roncalli said, ‘In all these painful matters I have referred to the Holy See and simply carried out the pope’s orders: first and foremost to save Jewish lives.'”) According to Rychlak, Pius also instructed Catholics, especially clergy, to shelter Jews, provide falsified travel documents, distribute food and clothing, comfort the injured, and communicate vital information to the Allies.
Ironically, when he died in 1958, notable Jews like Albert Einstein and Prime Minister Golda Meir praised Pope Pius XII as a “righteous Gentile” for his clandestine efforts to help the Jewish people during World War II. Reports vary that from 300,000 to possibly 800,000 Jews were saved from the heinous evil of the Holocaust precisely because of the secret operations performed by the Catholic Church at the direction, not just permission, of Pius XII.
His reputation was tarnished not by historical evidence, but by a fictional play written in 1963, The Deputy, which portrayed a pope reigning at the time of WWII, as a Nazi collaborator. East German and Soviet intelligence agencies used the play for their own propaganda war against the Vatican and the Catholic Church.