Born Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli (1876 – 1958), Pope Pius XII became head of the Catholic Church and sovereign of the Vatican City State from March 1939 until his death. He presided over the church during World War II and the Holocaust, and his leadership remains controversial. While the Vatican was officially neutral during World War II, there are those who believe that he didn’t speak out strongly enough against the Nazis, and there are those who praise his behind-the-scenes work to aid the Jews and other victims of the Nazis. The Allied Powers considered his condemnation of genocide as completely inadequate, while the Nazis viewed him as an Allied sympathizer who had violated his policy of Vatican neutrality.
Pope Pius XII saw his primary obligation during World War II as ensuring the continuation of the Church’s divine mission. He lobbied world leaders to prevent the outbreak of war. In his first papal encyclical issued in October 1939, he established some of the themes of his pontificate: he denounced antisemitism, war, totalitarianism, the attack on Poland and the Nazi persecution of the church. During and after the war, he was lauded by many organizations, including many Jewish ones, for the work he had accomplished in protecting the Jews.
In the last 25 years, there have been countless books analyzing Pope Pius XII’s role during this period. A notable account came from British author John Cornwell in his 1999 book, Hitler’s Pope, in which he claimed that the pope was weak and vacillating toward Nazism and that he subordinated his opposition to Hitler in favor of his goal of increasing the power of the Papacy. He accused the pope of antisemitism and asserts that the pope did little to challenge the progressing Holocaust out of fear of provoking the Nazis into invading Vatican City. Many reviews criticized the book for “errors of fact” “selective use of sources” and “ignorance of context.” Cornwell later said that it was impossible to judge the motives for the pope’s silence during the war, “while Rome was under the heel of Mussolini and later occupied by Germany.”
In 2019 on the 80th anniversary of the election of Pope Pius XII, Pope Francis announced that Vatican archival material pertaining to the Pius XII’s pontificate would become available in 2020. Many scholars applied for access to the archives, including Brown University Professor David Kertzer, who had already written The Popes Against the Jews in 2001and The Pope and Mussolini in 2014. In his latest book published in 2022, The Pope at War,” Kertzer claims that Pius XII’s overriding dread of communism, his belief that the Axis powers would win the war, and his desire to protect the church’s interests all motivated him to avoid offending Hitler and Mussolini. He further reveals from new archival material that a German prince and fervent Nazi acted as a secret back channel between Pius XII and Hitler, and that the pope’s top Vatican adviser on Jewish issues urged him not to protest a Fascist order to arrest, and send to concentration camps, most of Italy’s Jews.
Defenders of Pius XII (whose case for sainthood is still being evaluated) have long argued that he often spoke out to condemn the false race theory and that he worked behind the scenes to save hundreds of thousands of Jews. In fact, the real heroes might have been the priests and the nuns who refused to hand over the desperate people they were hiding. Many Jewish organizations found that the pope’s weak protests against Nazism actually protected the Jews from more intensified persecution.
It is difficult to wade through the arguments on both sides that surfaced during and since the war. Some people accuse the Jews of supporting the legacy of Pius XII to try to win support for the state of Israel. Some accuse the Catholics of criticizing the pope in an attempt to bring reform to the Vatican. But most scholars do agree that a more nuanced portrait of the papacy is emerging. With millions of pages in the Vatican archives, it will take years to process the findings. In the meantime, Pope Francis must wrestle with how forcefully to condemn a dictator like Vladimir Putin of Russia and the ultimate cost of staying silent about mass killings.