Now, in the summer of 2010, two twentieth-century pontiffs of the Roman Catholic Church are being considered for sainthood. Their lives and works are being studied thoroughly as they make their way through a rigorous investigative process. Perhaps no more unlikely pair could be imagined: Eugenio Pacelli, who reigned as Pope Pius XII from 1939 to 1958; and his successor, Angelo Roncalli, who reigned as Pope John XXIII from 1958 to 1963. Pacelli – tall, pale, thin, ascetic, aristocratic with dark, piercing eyes, elegant carriage, and a fondness for pomp and pageantry; Roncalli – short, ruddy, rotund, from peasant stock, informal with little patience for any more ceremony than the essential. Though both served in the Vatican’s diplomatic corps, Pacelli spent no time in traditional pastoral work while Roncalli would spend considerable time in that endeavor, rising to become Patriarch of Venice before his election to the throne of St Peter.
The cause of John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Council that attempted to awaken a somnolent medieval church, advances smoothly and no one expects he’ll be denied sainthood. The cause of Pacelli, however, is another matter.
Eugenio Pacelli spent his whole career in the diplomatic corps. Carefully groomed for diplomatic service – certainly talented at it, with an elegant, engaging manner, shrewd powers of observation and negotiation, and command of many languages – and favored by Pope Benedict XV and Pope Pius XI, Pacelli’s star rose until it outshone nearly all others. He became the most important Roman Catholic prelate in Germany, prior to his appointment as Vatican Secretary of State in 1930.
Why, then, problems with the cause for his sainthood? Well, perhaps, it can be blamed on two writers, one German, the other British: Rolf Hochhuth and John Cornwell, who, more than any others, are complicit in besmirching the name and reputation of Pius XII. In 1963 Hochhuth’s play, The Deputy, premiered in Germany; in 1964, in translation, it was produced in Britain and the United States. Hochhuth’s Pius is an elegant, aristocratic, imperial pontiff, roundly condemned for doing nothing in the face of Hitler’s rabid attempts at genocide. Cornwell, a British historian, took after Pius in his Hitler’s Pope (1999); the title says it all. Though Cornwell maintains that he undertook his research hoping to revise, if not reverse, the negative judgment of Pius, he came rather to endorse it: he argues that Pacelli played a strategic role in facilitating Hitler’s rise to power – and that as Pope, his indifference to Hitler’s “Final Solution” makes him an accomplice to genocide.
Both texts are less than trustworthy. Hochhuth’s play distorts the smattering of historical material it uses and ignores testimony from a number of Jews – available even then – about Pius’s substantial efforts on behalf the Jewish people. Indeed, Hochhuth’s approach to historical fact seems rather creative: in his next play Soldiers, Necrology on Geneva (1967), his allegation that Churchill had been responsible for the death of the Polish Prime Minister resulted in a libel suit, with verdict delivered against him. Cornwell’s book did make use of Vatican and Jesuit archives never before opened to a layman; but critics took him to task for sensationalism and intemperance as well as speculation.
And now we have Hubert Wolf’s Pope and Devil, published in German in 2008, available in translation by Kenneth Kronenberg (Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2010). Wolf, Professor of Church History at the University of Munster, seems to have had no agenda other than to refocus attention on Pius and his times through the filter of new data.
During Pacelli’s time in Germany (1917-1929), the political power structure shifted as the Weimar Republic faded and the Third Reich came into power. Examining the only-recently-opened archives containing materials for the years leading up to 1939, Prof. Wolf documents the bitter conflicts that raged among factions within the Holy See. Though influential bishops and cardinals sparred and took different sides, all were united in fear of new movements – liberalism, communism, fascism, National Socialism – sweeping Europe. Disagreement focused on how to deal with these threats to the faith and the Church – appease, accommodate, or attack?
Wolf makes it clear that Pacelli was not part of the anti-Semitic faction within the Vatican; though traces of anti-Semitism occasionally crop up in his private writing, he was not sympathetic to Hitler’s campaign to exterminate the Jewish people. With the assent and encouragement of Pius XI, Pacelli, as Cardinal Secretary of State (1930-1939), negotiated a concordat with the Third Reich in 1933, clearly believing that it would protect the Church and the faithful from Hitler’s rampage. Virtually forced to accept terms within one week, Pacelli assented, telling a British diplomat that he felt a pistol had been held to his head. Furthermore, Pacelli explicitly stated that the Concordat did not constitute approval of Hitler or his policies. Critics have leveled two other charges at Pacelli, one concerning his role in dissolving the Catholic Centre Party, the other concerning his later failure to proscribe Hitler’s Mein Kampf . Wolf asserts that both actions were motivated by a desire to protect Roman Catholics, not by approval of Hitler’s policies.
Wolf’s extensive research illuminates Pacelli’s instrumental role in writing a refutation of Nazi racism for Pius XI’s 1937 encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, a document vigorously asserting that National Socialism and Catholicism were irreconcilable. Shortly after it was proclaimed from pulpits throughout Germany, the Nazis resumed persecution of the Church and Pacelli learned the lesson: public denunciation brought only suffering and slaughter to Catholics.
Wolf makes several other points about Pius XII. Trained as a diplomat, he thought and acted as a diplomat throughout his career, seeking reconciliation and accommodation. Unfortunately, that could sometimes be interpreted as weakness, worse as cooperation or approval. Of supreme importance to him as a Roman Catholic was his faith and the Church which embodied it. It is manifestly unfair to expect that he would have acted to endanger those who shared his belief, and over whom he was given charge, during one of history’s most violent periods. And perhaps, like so many others, perceiving that “atheistic communism” was the greatest threat to the Church, he sought not to validate National Socialism but to mitigate, if not eliminate, its impact upon the church, leaving greater energy for the fight against communism. And particularly so during the early years of his pontificate, Pius felt it unwise to issue publication condemnation of the Nazis for fear of reprisals against his flock.
Certainly, the fate of Roman Catholics in Holland had a chilling effect not unlike that of the 1937 reprisals on Pius: on 26 July 1942 the Dutch bishops denounced the Nazi deportation of Jews. Immediately, the Nazis expanded their campaign of deportation, terror and murder to include baptized Jews among the ranks of those rounded up. Among those taken were Edith Stein, a Jewish convert who had become a Carmelite nun, and her sister: arrested on 2 August, they, along with hundreds of others, were gassed at Auschwitz on 9 August.
The historical record shows that Pius quietly and earnestly did a great deal: many Jewish people were saved from slaughter because of his efforts and a number of famous and not-so-famous Jews came to his defense, including Golda Meir, Albert Einstein, Rabbi David Dalin, and Pinchas Lapide, who, in his Three Popes and the Jews, documented examples of papal initiatives indicating that Pius’s efforts directly contributed to saving more than 700,000 Jewish lives.
Prof. Wolf’s exhaustive archival research, and his objective, detailed, and documented presentation of his research as well as his refusal to trade in conjecture and speculation, or accept received opinion, make Pope and Devil essential reading for anyone interested in getting at the truth of some of the twentieth century’s most troubled times. Certainly, Wolf’s scholarly project does not exonerate Pius – nor does it airbrush the portrait of the Pontiff. But it does make it impossible to condemn Pius out of hand or to denounce him as “Hitler’s Pope” or demonise him. It will certainly demand that his detractors re-evaluate his actions during the first part of his pontificate, those dark days when the National Socialism of Germany was the scourge of the earth.