Final word yet to be written on Pius XII

Pope Francis recently ordered the unsealing of the Vatican’s WWII archives on Pius XII. TP O’Mahony looks at the controversies surrounding the pontiff, Hitler, and the Nazis.

Eighty years after his election as Pope Pius XII in March 1939, the reputation of Eugenio Pacelli remains mired in controversy.

The source of that controversy is succinctly captured in the title of John Cornwell’s 1999 book — Hitler’s Pope.

But it was a much earlier piece of writing that really focused international attention on what Pius XII did — or didn’t — do during the Second World War. This was Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy (the tile is sometimes translated as The Representative), first staged in Berlin in February 1963.

“The Deputy has stirred up more controversy and caused greater repercussions than any other post-war work. Its treatment of Pius XII and the Church during the Nazi persecution of the Jews has been the object of impassioned praise and violent denunciation. It is a powerful, shocking play,” the Los Angeles Times said at the time.

The play depicted Pius XII as a detached, aloof, cold-hearted, ruthless cynic more interested in the Vatican’s stockholdings than in the fate of the Jews. It created an image of Pius XII as a moral coward, a Pope whose “silence” about the Holocaust was a shameful betrayal of his responsibilities.

Serious students of the papacy found this portrait unconvincing, and of course it was dismissed out of hand by the Holy See, but The Deputy did start a new controversy about the culpability of Pius XII in the Final Solution and it continues to blight his pontificate.

In a confidential memorandum at the time, the Irish Ambassador to the Holy See wrote that “the whole thing has been a matter of great distress and mindsearching” in the Vatican.

The ambassador went on to say that the play was “far from being” a “serious exercise in the historical presentation of the late Pius XII”. He also acknowledged a fact that “before the end of the war and during the actual period when persecution of the Jews by Hitler was rampant, Pius XII did not — for his own good reasons — issue an Encyclical in condemnation of national-socialism”.

What were these “good reasons”? This failure or omission on the part of Pius XII was in marked contrast to his predecessor, Achille Ratti, who as Pius XI in March 1937 ordered his encyclical ‘Mit Brennender Sorge’ (With Burning Anxiety), condemning National Socialism and branding Nazism as fundamentally anti-Christian, to be read from all pulpits in Germany, even though copies had to be smuggled in.

In his 2014 book The Pope & Mussolini, David Kertzer of Brown University in the US said that Pope was planning to release a second anti-fascist encyclical but died on February 10, 1939, before the draft was finalised.

According to Kertzer, a file containing a draft and notes was left on Pius XI’s desk after his death but this was removed by Cardinal Pacelli — who within a matter of weeks would be elected in succession to Pius XI — and nothing more was ever heard of it at the time. The working title of the encyclical was ‘Humani Generis Unitas’ (On the Unity of the Human Race).

“Rejecting the idea that a good Christian could embrace racism, it demanded an end to the persecution of the Jews,” wrote Kertzer. “It was Pius XI’s fervent hope that such a statement be issued, but among those who survived him, many were eager to see it buried along with the Pope.”

In October 1997, a book entitled The Hidden Encyclical of Pius XI by Georges Passelecq and Bernard Suchecky was published. Passelecq was a Belgian monk and Suchecky an historian, and the book contained a draft of the encyclical prepared by John LaFarge, a Jesuit from Fordham University in New York. He had been instructed in 1938 by Pius XI to prepare an encyclical and to “write as if you were the Pope”.

Long before that book, however, attention had been drawn to the encyclical that never was. In December 1972 and January 1973, a series of articles in the National Catholic Reporter (published from Kansas City) by Jim Castelli, raised for the first time the issue of “an unpublished encyclical of Pius XI attacking anti-Semitism”.

Castelli, the paper’s associate editor, had unearthed most of the information relating to the encyclical. Why was Humani Generis Unitas suppressed? There is no precedent for posthumously publishing a papal encyclical. But Pacelli, after his election in March (the Second World War would start in September), could have made the encyclical his own and published in his own name while giving due credit to his predecessor. But this presupposes he was of one mind with Pius XI on the matters.

New light may now be thrown on this issue, and many others, after Pope Francis ordered the unsealing of the Vatican’s Second World War archives on Pius XII. They will be available to scholars from next year. The Vatican usually waits 75 years after the end of a pontificate before it makes the archives of that Pope available. That would mean scholars waiting until 2033 for access in the case of Pius XII.

Now, because of the news from the Vatican, all of the documents in the Vatican Secret Archives from the election of Eugenio Pacelli in 1939 to his death in 1958 will be made available to researchers starting March 2, 2020.

According to the Catholic News Service, staff in the Secret Archives, which holds the bulk of the documents relating to the wartime Pope, have been working for the past 13 years to get the material organised and catalogued.

Bishop Sergio Pagano, prefect of the archives, said years of work were necessary to catalogue material previously held in a variety of Vatican offices.

In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI authorised the archives to make available to researchers documents from the pre-Second World War pontificate of Pope Pius XI up until 1939. Writing in The Tablet, the English Catholic weekly, in the aftermath of the decision from Rome, John Cornwell, whose book Hitler’s Pope contained sensational revelations, expressed doubt the decision to open the sealed archives will settle the 60-year-old controversy about Pius XII’s silence on the Holocaust.

Cornwell, a senior research fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge, and also the author of Thief in the Night: The Death of Pope John Paul I, claimed Cardinal Pacelli, as Vatican Secretary of State, had by negotiating in 1933 a concordat with Hitler (the so-called Reich Concordat), assisted Hitler to power and destroyed a viable Catholic resistance in Germany. The concordat was a church-state treaty for the whole of the Third Reich. “The treaty provided that the Nazi regime would protect Catholic rights to worship and education, provided the Church promised to withdraw from all social and political action,” Cornwell wrote.

He quoted German church historian Klaus Scholder, who argued the treaty demoralised Catholic opposition to the Nazis, scandalised the young and gave Hitler credit around the world.

“It was also evident,” says Cornwell, “that Cardinal Pacelli had encouraged the Catholic Centre Party in Germany to vote in 1933 for the Enabling Act that gave Hitler his dictatorship, and insisted that the party should disband itself voluntarily.”

Cornwell’s most damning conclusion about Pius XII is contained in the final paragraph of his Tablet article: “One thing is certain: when the pressures were lifted at the end of the war, he never attempted to explain, still less apologise, for what he had done, or left undone”.

Eugenio Pacelli has his defenders. One of the staunchest was Kenneth Woodward, for years religion editor of Newsweek magazine. In March 1998, he wrote a trenchant one-page article in that publication. “That Golda Meir, later a prime minister of Israel, and leaders of Jewish communities in Hungary, Turkey, Italy, Romania and the United States thanked the Pope for saving hundreds of thousands of Jews is now considered irrelevant. That he never specifically condemned the Shoah is all that seems to matter.

“No one person, Hitler excepted, was responsible for the Holocaust. And no one person, Pius XII included, could have prevented it.”

Given what’s to emerge from the Secret Vatican Archives in 2020, the last word on one of the most controversial figures of the 20th century has by no means been spoken or written. The long-running quarrel — was Pius XII a saint or a sinner? — is far from being settled. It may be that the material from the archives will back up the observation made by Pope Francis when announcing the unsealing, that some of the criticisms of Pius XII were “biased or exaggerated”. That story awaits.

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