FEBRUARY 14, 1992


IT must have taken courage and determination for Argentinian President Carlos Menem to open the files on Nazis who escaped to Argentina after World War II. No country helped Nazi war criminals with greater zeal than did Argentina. Its ruler at the time, populist dictator Juan Peron, sent 8,000 blank Argentinian passports and 1,000 identity cards to Germany just before its collapse. Its police force not only failed to investigate leads provided by other governments; it actively undermined investigations and helped Nazis escape their pursuers. Exposing the files almost 50 years later should have caused nothing but a belated condemnation of this terrible wrong. Indeed, much of the Argentinian press greeted the revelations with appropriate contrition. But there are still many admirers of the late dictator in Argentina, and the Peronist trade unions have accused Menem of betraying Argentina by opening the files last week "at the bidding of Zionists and the US."

Under the circumstances, his act was truly brave.

But it is not only Peron who is indicted by these files. He was, after all, a friend of the axis, and he was expected to provide war criminals with a safe haven . But aside from sending blank passports, he could do little for them as long as they were still in Europe. He could neither hide them from the advancing Allied armies nor spirit them out of the flaming continent.

Those who did rescue the mass murderers from the hand of justice were not Peron and his secret police but the [Roman] Catholic church and its emissaries.

It was the [Roman] Catholic church which, through its priests, churches, monasteries and forged Vatican passports, managed to foil the post-war hunt for Nazi criminals.

Nor was the church's rescue operation inconsistent with the policy it had pursued throughout the Nazi era. Henri du Lubac, a Jesuit theologian, filed a report in 1944, well before the end of the war, on the collaboration of the [Roman] Catholic church with the pro-Nazi Vichy regime. Hidden until this month, the report condemns what du Lubac calls the moral and spiritual abdication of Roman Catholic bishops under the Nazis.

The four years under the Nazi occupation were "a scandal in which Christian values were swept away." A few weeks before the report's publication, it was revealed that, for decades, French cardinals, monks and nuns had helped one of France's most notorious war criminals, Paul Touvier, escape justice.

It is difficult to imagine that it was possible in the monolithic [Roman] Catholic church for so many to act so uniformly for so long without the knowledge and approval of the highest levels of the Vatican. Israelis have found it difficult to understand why the Vatican has refused to recognize the State of Israel.

Perhaps the explanation lies in a certain consistency that even the church's post-war liberalization has not yet overcome. For its part, Israel owes it to itself and to the victims of the Holocaust not to consider diplomatic relations with the Vatican until the church acknowledges the enormity of its crimes against the Jewish people and admits its culpability.