John Cornwell’s 1999 book “Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII” unleashed a storm of controversy surrounding Eugenio Pacelli, elected as Pius XII in 1939, and his (implicit) connection with the horrors of the Holocaust. And while Cornwell’s scholarly methodology and interpretation of historical events (along with condemnatory forerunners Rolf Hochhuth’s play “The Deputy,” Saul Friedländer’s “Pius XII and the Third Reich,” and Carlo Falconi’s “The Silence of Pius XII”) have been largely questioned in Catholic circles (especially in the critiques of Father Peter Gumpel and Filippini Sister Margherita Marchione), it is crucial that a serious and informed believer consider multiple perspectives before leaping blindly into a hagiographical defense of Pius’ actions during World War II.
That being said, innumerable intellectuals of both Christian and Jewish background maintain that Pius was without doubt a leading religious figure, both spiritually and politically, of the 20th century, and he deserves not only a fair hearing in the court of public opinion, but credit and veneration on multiple fronts.
Pacelli had been sent as nuncio to Bavaria in 1917 and continued to represent the Holy See to the German Empire in various capacities for 12 years. When he returned to Rome, Pius XI named him Secretary of State. It was in this role that Pacelli laid the groundwork for various concordats between the Vatican and the German states, most notable of which was the Reichskonkordat signed with Hitler’s representative Franz von Papen in 1933. Almost immediately upon its enactment, the Nazi party began to violate the terms of the agreement.
In the following years, Pacelli penned over 70 memoranda protesting the Germans’ actions, culminating in his psuedonymous composition of the bulk of Pius XI’s encyclical Mit Brenneder Sorge, condemning the Third Reich’s policies and breaches of the concordat.
Upon his election as pontiff, Pius XII continued to view with the disdain the downward spiral of German atrocities and their “Final Solution.” On Christmas 1942, Pius mourned those “put to death or doomed to slow extinction, sometimes merely because of their race or descent.” Pius was personally responsible for safeguarding three quarters of a million European Jews during the tragic genocide.
No one refutes the “undoubted fact that most Nazis hated Christianity and would have done their best to destroy its institutional power if they had been victorious” (Diarmaid MacCulloch, “Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years,” 948). However, it would be callous and irresponsible to overlook the historical connection between Christianity and prevalent institutionalized anti-Semitism which allowed such actions to escalate to unthinkable proportions.
As MacCulloch points out, “The Holocaust has [in following decades] provided a useful spur to humility for Christians” (948). This humility manifests itself in Vatican II’s statement that “God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues…the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone” (Nostra Aetate, 4).
Pius also provided theological grist to the mill for the developing doctrines of the church. He solemnly defined the bodily Assumption of Mary in 1950, a truth which, while non-biblical, had been held by Christians for centuries. His encyclicals Divino Afflante Spiritu, on Scriptural studies, Humani Generis, on the acceptability of biological (not spiritual) evolutionary theory, and Mystici Corporis, on the Church as the Body of Christ, all served to promote new understandings of the Gospel in light of advancements in secular knowledge.
He had a practice of nominating rising young ecclesiastical stars as bishops, one of whom was the then-38 year old Karol Wojtyla, the youngest bishop in Poland, and future Pope John Paul II. Pius canonized St. Maria Goretti and his namesake Pius X, and is himself being considered for future canonization, currently declared venerable by Pope Benedict XVI. He was the last pope to be born in Rome, and as such continues to be heralded as a hero to many Lazio natives and Vaticanisti.
Upon his death, Golda Meir, the Foreign- and future Prime-Minister of Israel gave the following tribute: “We share in the grief of humanity. …When fearful martyrdom came to our people, the voice of the pope was raised for its victims. The life of our times was enriched by a voice speaking out about great moral truths above the tumult of daily conflict. We mourn a great servant of peace.”
While the last word on Pius’ actions during the War are yet to be spoken, the evidence mounts to view him as distrustful of Hitler’s radical and seemingly diabolical policy of “ethnic cleansing” and as following his conscience in protecting the interests of the church and all of humanity in the way he deemed most fit in the face of unmatched intolerance and persecution toward God’s Chosen People.
Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.