Can a sober assessment of history rehabilitate the WWII pontiff?
Beyond the Pius wars
The issue of Pope Pius XII’s stance during the Holocaust is still open to debate, but in the second decade of the twenty-first century the “Pius wars” are largely over. While Pius XII remains a polarizing figure in the court of public opinion, scholarly interpretations over the last decade or so are increasingly more nuanced. The very titles of books can provide one indication. Polemical works such as Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope or Gary Wills’ Papal Sin, on the one hand, and Ralph McInerny’sThe Defamation of Pius XII and Rabbi David Dalin’s The Myth of Hitler’s Pope, on the other, have given way to more authoritative, archival-researched studies.
These scholarly works include José Sanchez’s Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy, Frank Coppa’s The Policies and Politics of Pope Pius XII: Between Diplomacy and Morality, and Robert Ventresca’s new biography Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pius XII. These newer books do not have a stake in the question of Pius’ canonization nor have they been written expressly to rebut another book or books. These monographs take differing positions on specific events and issues, but they emphasize the significance of a Holy Father trained as a lawyer and a diplomat. And they all try to navigate the complex circumstances of World War II Europe, offering better insights into the pope’s inclinations, awareness, and most importantly, options during this terrible time of unfolding horrors.
Research continues, and as I have indicated above, researchers still do not have all the documents at hand to answer all questions.
The archives for Pius XII’s pontificate have not yet been opened to researchers. In fact his predecessor Pius XI’s files only became available in 2006. If Pope Francis decides to open these archives, it would still take a year or two to sort and catalogue them. Even then, a fuller record will not end the debate, because the question of evaluating what a pope did not say or did not do is essentially a counterfactual one. Historians have a hard time measuring concern or indifference, and the inadequacy of virtually every Western leader’s response to the Holocaust as it was happening seems apparent in the moralizing comfort of retrospective clarity.
There is overwhelming evidence that Pope Pius XII led a life of holiness, perhaps sanctity, and that he agonized and wept for all the victims of Nazism including Jews.
Could he have made a real difference by saying more about the Nazi machinery of mass murder and by calling evil by its proper name? God only knows. Hopefully we have learned since then to better respond to prejudice and dehumanization before they become lethal threats to human dignity and existence.
By Richard Francis Crane is a Professor of History at Benedictine College and author of Passion of Israel: Jacques Maritain, Catholic Conscience and the Holocaust.
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