Can a sober assessment of history rehabilitate the WWII pontiff?
There is something odd, perhaps even jarring, about contemplating the most controversial pope of the 20th century, Pius XII, during a week celebrating that most respected and adored modern pontiff, Blessed John Paul II. But a little bit of dissonance can grab our attention and stimulate our thought. It can help us remember that the Catholic Church not only teaches eternal truths, but is a church rooted in history.
Our popes are both spiritual exemplars and historical figures, who have often played both a religious and a political role in their times. I want to explain why Pius’ reign — and especially his conduct during the Holocaust — remains controversial and may impact his own cause for canonization. My purpose is to untangle history from myth, and help us better understand the controversy.
Since the 1960s, public awareness and academic study of the Holocaust have grown exponentially. This began with the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1961, and culminated in 1993 with both the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the success of the Oscar winning film Schindler’s List. Today, the legacy of the Holocaust is inescapable in higher education, popular culture, and political discourse. Beginning with the publication of Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews in 1961, Holocaust research has gradually become a major historical field, focusing not only on perpetrators and victims, but also bystanders.
In the meantime, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) opened up new possibilities for improving Christian-Jewish relations. The Catholic Church’s repudiation of anti-Jewish prejudice has accompanied significant historical and theological research into the centuries-long tradition of anti-Judaism. Questions have been raised about longstanding Christian antipathy toward Jews and either indifference or complicity in antisemitism and the Holocaust. Pope Pius XII has received particular attention, scrutiny, even condemnation in this regard. His alleged “silence” in the face of Hitler’s extermination of Europe’s Jews has been the focus of numerous books, many of them far more polemical than scholarly.
The best-known work about Pius remains John Cornwell’s 1999 bestseller Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII. On the book’s final page, Cornwell not only declares the controversy over, but removes Pius from consideration for sainthood: “Having come to the end of my own journey through the life and times of Pacelli, I am convinced that the cumulative verdict of history shows him to be not a saintly exemplar for future generations, but a deeply flawed human being from whom Catholics, and our relations with other religions, can best profit by expressing sincere regret.”
For many people, Cornwell’s condemnation still serves as the last word on Pius XII and the Holocaust.
I want to offer a broader and deeper historical perspective, an appeal to reason and the historical record. Increasingly, historians have produced balanced, documentary-based works that avoid resorting to ad hominem attacks or hagiographic praise, instead focusing on the pontiff’s actual words and deeds, as well as his background and training, and the context of wartime Europe. Hopefully we can move beyond what the late Jesuit scholar Robert Graham called “the Black Legend of Pius XII.” Let’s begin at the beginning.
Rise of a Vatican Diplomat
Eugenio Maria Pacelli was born in Rome in 1876. Maria was the middle name of all his siblings, and his childhood was infused with a deep Marian piety (as Pope he would later proclaim the dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary). Discussion of Pius’s background is essential, and has been neglected in many studies of his papacy, especially those that treat the Holocaust years in isolation. Importantly, young Pacelli was a scion of the “Black Nobility” — this sounds rather Gothic, even sinister, but the term refers to middle class officials who were elevated to honorific titles in the Vatican civil service. He came from a family of lawyers (grandfather and father), who were loyal servants in the papal bureaucracy. Steadfast loyalty to the Holy Father was increasingly important in the 1870s.