Catholic US News

The astonishing secret history of the Pope who fought Hitler

Washington D.C., Feb 5, 2016 / 03:06 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Pope Pius XII’s secret support for the attempted overthrow of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler is the subject of a new book that draws on wartime documents and interviews with the American intelligence agent who wrote them.

“This book is the truth – as best I could establish it in a number of years of research – about the Pope’s secret operations in World War II,” historian Mark Riebling told CNA Feb. 2.

“Its main premise is that Pius opted to resist Hitler with covert action instead of overt protest. As a result, he became involved in three separate plots by German dissidents to remove Hitler.”  

“I thought this idea – that the Church engaged in secret operations during the bloodiest years in history, in the most controversial part of its recent history – was not just a footnote; it was something worth pursuing,” he said.

Riebling tells this story in his book “Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler,” published by Basic Books in September 2015. A Spanish-language version will be published by publisher Stella Maris in February 2016.

In the late 1990s, debate over whether Pius XII did enough to counter the Nazis reached a high point with the publication of the deeply controversial book, “Hitler’s Pope,” by British journalist John Cornwell. The book was highly critical of Pius XII, charging that he was culpably silent – if not an accomplice – in the rise of Nazism.

“If you read the fiercest critics of the Nazi-era Church, the major ones all concede that Pius XII hated Hitler and worked secretly to overthrow him,” Riebling said. “Yet they say this in their books in just a clause, a sentence, or a paragraph. To me, this episode merited more curiosity.”

“If ‘Hitler’s Pope’ wanted to help rid the world of Hitler, what’s the story?”

Riebling said there were several sources of inspiration for the book. During his Catholic upbringing, he learned the long history of the Church: in its first centuries, Christianity was an underground organization. In post-Reformation England, the Jesuits were involved in clandestine work.

This history prompted him to ask how a historian would document it and find evidence.
He also drew inspiration from the story of James Jesus Angleton, a famous U.S. intelligence officer who during World War II ran an operation to penetrate the Vatican for the Office of Strategic Services, the Central Intelligence Agency’s predecessor.

During research on his previous book, “Wedge: The Secret War between the FBI and CIA,” Riebling discovered wartime documents from Angleton’s Rome section of the Office of Strategic Services.

“There were at least ten documents implicating Pius XII and his closest advisers in not just one, but actually three plots to remove Hitler – stretching from 1939 to 1944. These were typed up by someone using a very distinct nickname.”

That nickname, “Rock,” belonged to Ray Rocca. Rocca served as Angleton’s deputy in Rome and for most of his later career. His career included responsibility for the Central Intelligence Agency’s records concerning the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

“So, here’s a guy who had been in the Vatican; who had been charged with penetrating the Vatican; and who knew a thing or two about assassination probes. I thought: here’s an interesting guy to get to know,” Riebling said. Rocca did not violate his oath of secrecy, but his interviews with Riebling are among the book’s sources.

According to Riebling, his book does not charge that the Pope “tried to kill Hitler.” Rather, the Pope’s actions were more subtle.

“Pius becomes a key cog in conspiracies to remove a ruler who is a kind of Antichrist, because good people ask for his help, and he searches his conscience, and he agrees to become an intermediary for the plotters – their foreign agent, as it were – and thereby he becomes an accessory to their plots.”

The historian described these actions as “some of the most astonishing events in the history of the papacy.”

Pius XII had connections with three plots against Hitler. The first, from October 1939 to May 1940, involved German military conspirators. From late 1941 to spring of 1943 a series of plots involving the German Jesuits ended when a bomb planted on Hitler’s plane failed to explode.

The third plot again involved German Jesuits and also German military colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. Although the colonel successfully planted a bomb near the Nazi dictator, it failed to kill Hitler. The priests had to flee after the failed attempt. Those unable to escape were executed.

During his research, Riebling discovered that Pius XII secretly recorded the conversations held in his office. Transcripts of the Pope’s talks with German cardinals in March 1939 show that he was deeply concerned that German Catholics would choose Hitler instead of the Church.

“The cardinals asked Pius to appease Hitler, so that German Catholics won’t break away and form a state church, as happened in Tudor England,” Riebling said.

“Pius heeded the German episcopate’s advice. Instead of protesting openly, he would resist Hitler behind the scenes.”

Pius XII’s agents provided the Allies with useful intelligence about Hitler’s war plans on three occasions, including Hitler’s planned invasion of Russia. In all three cases, the Allies did not act on the information.

For their part, the Nazis regarded Pius XII with suspicion since his election in 1939.

“He worked hard to allay those suspicions, to minimize persecutions of German Catholics. But the Nazis never dropped their guard,” Riebling said.

At one point Hitler planned to invade the Vatican, kidnap the Pope and bring him to Germany. Leading Nazi Heinrich Himmler “wanted to have the Holy Father publicly executed to celebrate the opening of a new soccer stadium,” Riebling said.

“Pius became aware of these plans, through his secret papal agents; and, in my view, that influenced the Holy Father’s decision to become involved with the anti-Nazi resistance.”

For Riebling, the assassination plots against Hitler were an admission of weakness, “because it’s saying that we can’t solve the problem by some other means.”

“Knowing what I do about Pius XII, and having researched him for many years, I believe he wanted to be a saint. He wanted people in Germany to be saints,” he added.

“When he heard that a priest was arrested for praying for the Jews and sent off to a concentration camp, he said: ‘I wish everyone would do that.’”

“But he didn’t say it publicly,” the writer acknowledged. The Pope’s words were made in secret in a letter to a German bishop.

“So I think what really happened here is: Pius XII wanted to lead a Church of saints. But had to settle for a Church of spies.”

Catholic US News

Bizarre details emerge as ‘fake priest’ gets busted in LA

Los Angeles, Calif., Feb 4, 2016 / 04:39 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- For months, Erwin Mena donned vestments, called himself “Padre,” and convinced Southern California Catholics that he was a priest, police say.

He was good at it, too, reportedly. He attended seminary in El Salvador for a time years ago before dropping out, so he was able to convincingly officiate Masses, funerals, and even at least one wedding. He had a likeable personality and said all the right things.  

On Tuesday, he was arrested by Los Angeles police for allegedly impersonating a Roman Catholic priest and on suspicion of grand theft. Mena allegedly conned parishioners into buying thousands of dollars’ worth of fake tickets to see Pope Francis in the fall, and he would sell religious CDs and books only to line his own pockets with the profit. He has been charged with 22 felonies and 8 misdemeanors, according to a criminal complaint filed by the L.A. County district attorney’s office.

For 5 or 6 months beginning in January of last year, Mena, who would also go by Menacastro, showed up at St. Ignatius of Loyola parish in Highland Park, claiming to be a visiting priest covering for the pastor, who was on vacation, according to police reports.

When priests assist at parishes for any significant length of time (more than one Mass), they have to file the appropriate paperwork to prove their priestly credentials. LAPD Det. Gary Guevara told CNA that Mena’s paperwork would sporadically trickle in, enough to raise suspicions but not completely sound the alarm for the parish secretary.

“Some of it was coming in, he would say everything’s in San Bernardino, so it was trickling in,” Guevara said.

During his time in the archdiocese, Mena would also travel around from parish to parish, selling $25 videos and fundraising for a project he said he was working on – producing CDs about Pope Francis, the Los Angeles Times reports. He also reportedly asked for anywhere from $500-$1,000 from parishioners for a package deal trip to see Pope Francis during his U.S. visit. The cost supposedly included lodging at convents and airfare, and more than two dozen people signed up.

Michelle Rodriguez, who heard about the trip from a friend who would host Mena for dinner, originally thought it sounded like a great deal and gave him more than $900 in cash. But when she pressed Mena for details about the trip, he would dodge the specifics, assuring her that she just needed to be patient.

Now, she is among those who have filed criminal complaints against Mena.

“He used us, he stole from us, and that’s it,” Rodriguez told the Los Angeles Times.

When a priest approached Mena about his production project, he had an explanation – he claimed he was a Paulist priest.

It’s clear he had done his homework, Guevara said, because Paulists specifically focus on evangelization through media.

“Everything he said always made sense,” Guevara said, “So it was kind of like the perfect storm in that nobody wanted to pull the trigger, as far as confronting him.” He always had enough of an explanation to be plausible, and people generally liked him.  

“There were people who thought he was a great priest, that they really liked him, he looked like a priest, he walked like a priest, he could talk like a priest all the way to the very end,” Guevara added.

But Mena couldn’t fool what Guevara called the “professional Church ladies.” It was a feast day with particular Mass parts, and Mena just wasn’t getting it right, he said.

“It was a complicated Mass that some of the real professional church ladies have memorized, and literally the jig was all up,” Guevara said.

“He was screwing up and everybody was like, what’s going on here?”

Within hours, phone calls were being made, and the archdiocese was officially alerted of Mena’s suspicious activities. Soon after, the archdiocese reported him to the police.
“They were collecting information and they were very transparent about it,” Guevara said. “They contacted the police department really quickly and provided us with everything we needed, so it was a really good partnership with us and them.”

It seems that Mena may even be a repeat offender – Guevara said that according to Archdiocesan documents, there were issues with Mena as far back as the 1990s. His name has been on a list of unauthorized priests and deacons since 2008, when the record was started. The current investigation is only focusing on his recent alleged transgressions.

It’s important to note that Mena was arrested because he was allegedly masquerading as a Roman Catholic priest, Guevara said. A defrocked or retired priest could theoretically start up their own “storefront church” with a ministry certificate from the internet, but he said Mena’s offense is specifically that he pretended to be a Roman Catholic, sacrament-distributing priest.

The archdiocese has already reimbursed some of Mena’s alleged victims, and more could be reimbursed at the conclusion of the case. Because of the nature of the ongoing criminal investigation, the archdiocese could not provide much further comment, but asked that anyone with additional information come forward.

“We are grateful to the Los Angeles Police Department for working to ensure that Erwin Mena was brought to justice. Our prayers go out to all the victims of his scam. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles is committed to providing pastoral care and sacramental support to the victims and others impacted by this situation,” the Archdiocese said in a statement.

“If anyone in the Archdiocese has any questions regarding the validity of any priest’s credentials, or the credentials of any employee of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, please call the Archdiocese Catholic Center, at (213) 637-7000.”


Catholic US News

Beyond the classroom: How one Catholic school puts care for creation into action

Chicago, Ill., Feb 4, 2016 / 03:03 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The Chicago area didn’t get the piles of snow that much of the rest of the country did this week, to the disappointment of students and staff at Holy Family Academy.

“We’ve carved out a little cross-country trail for when we get snow, so the kids from first grade on up go cross-country skiing for gym,” Deb Atkins, director of school development, told CNA.

“So, we were cheering for snow, but it’s not happening,” she said. Just rain and cold temperatures.

Normally, the students at Holy Family Academy spend a lot of time outside. Located just outside of Chicago in Iverness, Ill., the school is situated on 20 acres of land that has recently been converted into an “outdoor classroom.”

With the help of the Lincoln, Neb.-based “Nature Explore”, a collaboration of the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation, Holy Family Academy became the first school in the Chicago area to have a certified outdoor classroom, which is incorporated into the daily life and learning of the students.

A retention area that used to flood all the time has been allowed to grow wild and return to its native prairie state. There’s a playground, athletic fields, a hill with a rope attached for climbing and rappelling, and a supply of sleds for snowy days.

Almost every class incorporates the outdoor space in some way, Atkins said.

“It really is hard to say where the outdoor classroom stops and the other learning starts,” she said.

Right now, some students are designing a squirrel-proof bird feeder, after the squirrels outsmarted what was a supposedly squirrel-proof bird feeder from the store.

There are several different types of gardens, including a rain garden – designed by third graders – with specifically selected native plants that filter out some of the pollutants that can seep into groundwater.

Atkins said she’s noticed how much more comfortable the students are out in nature since they’ve been using the outdoor classroom.

“It is getting back to nature, appreciating nature,” she said.

“When we first started, we had the little girlies who, if they saw a spider they would scream. Now they come up to me with a grasshopper in hand and say ‘Look what we found!’”

The care and appreciation the kids are learning for creation carries over into everything they do, Atkins said. For example, every year the students participate in a “Know Hunger” campaign, where they research hunger in their area and try to come up with some practical solutions.

The students were especially appalled by the amount of food waste in fields, grocery stores, and even at home, Atkins said, so the school decided to donate extra lunch food to a nearby shelter for elderly people.

“We’re caring for God’s creation, but we’re caring for each other at the same time,” Atkins said.

This upcoming Lent, the students are also going to be participating in “Waste-free Wednesdays,” during which they will learn more about recycling and alternatives to wasting food.

“It’s one of those things where if you start them early, it really becomes a habit,” Atkins said.

The outdoor space has also been a great way thing for students physically – it promotes exercise and even better attention spans in the classroom, Atkins said.

“I have a son who has ADHD, and the worst thing to happen to that guy is that he had to stay in for recess, because he could control himself better if he had physical activity,” she said. “So we don’t have that kind of consequence, that you need to stay in from recess, because it wasn’t working.”

“It really promotes independence and exploring, and physical activity,” she said. “These kids are lifting logs and poles, running around, and we have a hill with a rope attached … it really does get the kids moving.”

Much of the materials for the outdoor space have been made possible through donations, either monetary or plant-like in nature, Atkins said. Three alums of the K-8 school even came back to donate their Eagle Scout projects as part of the outdoor space.

Even before the established outdoor classroom, Holy Family Academy would send its middle school students on overnight outdoor education trips, Atkins said, so the idea of outdoor education and care for creation has always been important to them.

They were even more thrilled when they found out Pope Francis was on board, with the publication of his environmental encyclical, Laudato si’.

“We’ve had an emphasis on this for a while,” Atkins said, “and we just love that the Pope is promoting it, because that’s what we want to do.”

Catholic US News

How one Catholic college teaches students to deal with threats to religious liberty

Washington D.C., Feb 4, 2016 / 12:04 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The future of religious freedom in the United States will one day be in the care of today’s college students, so one Catholic college is working to equip them for that struggle.

Wyoming Catholic College is trying to form a “community of people who care about what’s going on in the world,” Dr. Kevin Roberts, the college’s president, explained to CNA in an interview.

They do this through “informal circles of conversation” among faculty, staff, and students on specific current-day threats to religious freedom such as the HHS contraception mandate and anti-discrimination statues, he explained.

Roberts was speaking at a Jan. 21 Heritage Foundation panel on “Religious Liberty and the Future.” He addressed the topic from the vantage point of a college president who is forming students – future leaders – to deal with threats to religious freedom.

“We would much rather be focused on the formation of human persons,” he admitted. “It would delight us to no end not to have to worry about religious liberty beyond it being an academic topic.”

The reality, he acknowledged, is different. The college must not only must teach students about their civic heritage of religious freedom, but must “give them some advice, some practical tools for being involved in that fight.”

The school is a co-plaintiff with the Diocese of Cheyenne against the HHS mandate, in a case currently suspended before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. Students have been updated about this mandate case, Roberts told CNA.  

Another possible threat to religious freedom he listed is the expansion of Title IX protections.

Title IX “prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity.” While it is a good law, Roberts noted, the definition of sex discrimination could be radically expanded. If so, it could establish new prohibitions that conflict with the Catholic identity of schools receiving federal funding.

As a result, Wyoming Catholic College has cut ties with federally-funded student loans and grants. They had to “hustle” to make up the funding loss, he admitted, but maintained it was the best decision. Students are part of the decisions on student loans, he added.

“The point is, that as we inform them on those things, we update them on those things, they want to become more involved in what’s going on there,” he said of the students. Faculty can talk with them about this every day over lunch.

“That’s essential in Catholic higher education right now,” Roberts said, noting that there is “passivity, if not outright apathy” among many young people. “It’s really important that leaders in Catholic higher education be pointed and specific with their students about the threats we’re seeing.”

Ultimately, however, these conversations must be prefaced with an intense spiritual and intellectual grounding for the students, he explained.

“When we’re talking about religious liberty, that’s the fourth or fifth step in this formation,” he said.

“The first step is our relationship with [God], and secondly the outward devotions, the signs, of course the sacraments,” he said. “The third would be the building of the community, and then fourth is the knowledge. And then the fifth step is this kind of explicit participation in the public square.”

That step “is very empty, in our minds, it is very hollow … if the first four aren’t kept,” he added.

Apathy about religious freedom is the most notable problem among students on this issue, he said, but there are others – many students don’t recognize heroes any more.

“The content, the substance, of curricula in American secondary education is abysmal, from a historical perspective,” he said. “There’s a lot of pablum,” he added, and “one of the things we don’t do is get students to have a love for heroes in history, generally.”

Thus, students “become very distrusting of leaders and of institutions, and then they don’t even have the knowledge to understand that plenty of generations in American history have been asked to do heroic things, and they don’t know what to do other than put their heads in the sand.”

Catholic US News

Catholics to Supreme Court: Don’t compromise women’s safety to protect abortion

Washington D.C., Feb 3, 2016 / 06:40 am (CNA/EWTN News).- If abortion clinics fail to meet established safety standards, the solution is not to lower those standards, said Catholic leaders in a brief before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of General Counsel filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Feb. 1 on behalf of the national bishops’ conference and the Texas Catholic Conference. 

Abortion clinics’ “failure to comply with health and safety laws” should not be a reason to strike down the laws, the brief said.

“There is ample evidence in this case that hospital admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center requirements protect women’s lives and health. When such requirements are not enforced, abuses detrimental to women’s lives and health arise.”

The brief commented on the Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt case set to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in early March.

The case involves a Texas law passed in 2013, which requires abortion clinics to meet the same safety and health standards as ambulatory surgical centers. The law drew a filibuster from then-State Sen. Wendy Davis (D), who became the focus of national publicity from pro-abortion rights organizations.

After the law was passed, the number of abortion clinics in the state fell by more than half.

Abortion advocates say the standards are too strict and will shut down most abortion clinics in the state. 

However, supporters of the law argue that regulations are necessary given recent abuses found at abortion clinics. These include failures to ensure a sterile environment, to prevent conditions that attract rodents, and to prevent failures to maintain equipment like a cardiac defibrillator.

In 2013, Philadelphia abortionist Dr. Kermit Gosnell was convicted on three counts of first-degree murder and one count of involuntary manslaughter after babies were killed after birth at his clinic. A police raid of his clinic had revealed horrific sanitary conditions.

The Feb. 1 brief also argued that the admitting privileges requirement ensures that physicians are competent. It helps ensure that physicians provide continuous care in the event of complications and not abandon their patients, the document said.

In addition, it cited the 1993 Supreme Court decision Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which allows for regulation of abortion to protect the life and health of women.

Other partners to the brief include the National Association of Evangelicals, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

In June 2015, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the admitting privileges requirement in the Texas law, which had been struck down by a lower federal court. A decision by the Supreme Court is expected in the case later this year.

Catholic World News

Could it soon be illegal for doctors to believe in male and female?

Washington D.C., Feb 3, 2016 / 03:44 am (CNA/EWTN News).- A current proposal by a federal agency has raised concerns that doctors may be punished for believing that there are only two genders, rooted in biological sex.

The proposed rule, issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, says that it is aimed at banning discrimination against transgender individuals under the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act. 

Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act cites decades-old federal laws that prohibit any individual from being denied benefits or discriminated against in any health program or federally funded activity on the basis of race, color, nationality, sex, disability and age. 

However, the Office of Civil Rights is now interpreting “sex” to include “gender identity” and “sex stereotypes.”

The consequences of this change could be wide-reaching. 

The proposed regulation defines “sex stereotypes,” in part as “expectations that gender can only be constructed within two distinct opposite and disconnected forms (masculinity and femininity), and that gender cannot be constructed outside of this gender construct (individuals who identify as neither, both, or as a combination of male and female genders).”

Gender identity is defined as “an individual’s internal sense of gender, which may be different from an individual’s sex assigned at birth.”

As a result, doctors and medical institutions could be penalized – or even forced out of business – if they are not willing to perform or facilitate sex reassignment surgeries and other “gender transition” treatments for individuals who identify as transsexual. 

Critics of the suggested regulation say that it is a radical proposal that could result in severe penalties for doctors who cannot in good conscience comply.

Jonathan Scruggs, legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, called the proposed regulation an “unparalleled overreach by bureaucrats who want to advance a specific agenda.”

“Everyone knows that under Title IX, sex means biological sex,” he told CNA. “HHS has exceeded its authority and is going against the intent of Congress.”

“The government should not be in the business of trying to redefine sex,” Scruggs said. “HHS is supposed to apply the law faithfully, not go beyond the terms of the law.”

Roger Severino, director of the De Vos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation, questioned the impact that the rule could have on religious liberty and rights of conscience.

“(W)hat about an individual’s moral convictions and religious freedom?” he asked. “Will they be respected and preserved?” 

Apart from religious beliefs, many doctors oppose sex reassignment surgeries for medical reasons. Statistics show that individuals who have these surgeries can face serious psychological consequences and are at a significantly higher risk of suicide.  

Once a pioneer in sex reassignment surgery, Johns Hopkins University has since ended the practice, finding that it was actually damaging to those who undergo it.  

If finalized, the proposed regulation would be binding on all health insurers that offer plans under the Affordable Care Act, including those participating in health insurance exchange plans. 

The regulation would also apply to approximately 133,000 health care facilities, all state Medicaid programs, all private insurers that receive federal funding, as well as almost all physicians in the United States who accept some form of federal reimbursement.

Failure to comply could result in a loss of government funding and other legal penalties. 

“The authority for the government to revoke funds for health facilities and doctors that do not comply is vast,” said Severino. “So many health facilities and doctors would be run out of business because their business model is based on government funding.” 

“They would be hit very hard,” he stressed. “Practically all of them would suffer millions of dollars in losses if their funding was cut.” 

Doctors who refuse to conduct gender reassignment treatments and surgery because of their religious beliefs, personal convictions, or for other medical reasons could risk losing their job. 

“If a hospital is threatened with the loss of millions of funds, you would expect them to fire any person who does not comply,” said Severino. “Hospitals will not want to be sued, so the easy way out is to fire anyone who disagrees with the mandate and jeopardizes their funding.”  

“But therein lies the conflict,” he continued. “This mandate threatens religious liberty because it forces individuals to choose between violating their conscience or risk losing government benefits or their job.”  

Legal experts believe that legal challenges against the proposed regulation could be successful in the courts. 

 “It is unconstitutional for religious doctors and health facilities to be forced to violate their beliefs,” said Scruggs. “No federal court has ever said that sex includes gender identity or sexual orientation.”

“Individuals who refuse to comply with this mandate will have recourse under the First Amendment and under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” he added. 

This is not the first time that the Affordable Care Act has stirred up controversy surrounding religious freedom.

In recent years, hundreds of plaintiffs have filed lawsuits against the federal contraception mandate, which was issued under the Affordable Care Act and requires employers to offer health insurance plans covering contraception, sterilization and some drugs that can cause early abortions.

The Supreme Court ruled against that mandate as it applies to closely-held for-profit companies in 2014. Another case involving numerous non-profits that object to the mandate on religious grounds will be heard by the court this year.

“The Obama administration is hostile to religious freedom,” said Severino. “We have seen this with Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor.”

“Now the administration is trying to advance a specific gender ideology that redefines what it means to be a man or a woman,” he said. “This gender ideology will result in discriminating against people who believe that a person’s biology is something to be respected rather than something that should be treated as a disease.”

Photo credit: Guschenkova via

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