Historians have long sought access to the Vatican’s private World War II-era archives. But a year from now, the wait will end. Pope Francis announced this week that he will allow scholars access to the private papers of Pope Pius XII starting on March 2, 2020—the 81st anniversary of Pius’s election. The Vatican normally keeps such documents sealed until 70 years after the death of a pope, which in this case would have meant waiting until 2028. But Francis has wisely decided to accelerate the process, which will give the world the chance to try to answer questions that have long served to divide Catholics and Jews: Was Pope Pius a hero or a villain of the Holocaust? Or is the truth more complicated than these simplistic labels in what has been a bitter, partisan debate involving historians and ordinary Catholics and Jews?
At the heart of the contention is the belief that as the most important religious figure in Europe, if not the world, he alone had the standing and the power to restrain Nazi atrocities, but failed to do so.
The notion of the pope as a moral coward was popularized by the 1963 play “The Deputy” by Rolf Hochuth. It was a work of fiction rather than scholarship. But it hit a nerve, and though the debate about Pius has continued since then with more qualified historians taking up the cudgels for and against his record, the memory of that incendiary work—whose allegations took on the aspect of truth for some—has continued to shape the discussion.
Pius spent the years of his papacy, as well as his long term as Vatican secretary of state preceding his coronation navigating the world of European diplomacy, negotiating concordats between the Church and the German government. His chief concern seems to have been maintaining the independence of the Church and the Vatican’s central authority. In that role, his primary goal was more realpolitik than righteousness.
His statements of protest against atrocities were circumspect and failed to focus the world on the mass murder of the Jews. Though he had a position of unique moral authority, his actions show him very much a man of his time and cultural milieu in his attitudes towards Jews, whom he often regarded without sympathy. And, like others who favored the appeasement of Hitler before the war, his fear of communism outweighed his disgust for the Nazis.
The pope had the power to excommunicate Catholics, and such a tactic might have prevented the machinery of the Holocaust from functioning. The pope did not even manage to save the Jewish community of Rome.
His critics have also pointed to the fact that he could have done more to stop the Nazi’s puppet regimes in Croatia and Slovakia, which were closely tied to the Church. Indeed, Slovakia’s quisling leader, Catholic priest Monsignor Josef Tiso, was never formally censured by the pope and was received in private audiences.
But as the pope’s defenders have repeatedly pointed out, it’s not as simple as that. There were many instances of the Church seeking to help Jews. Among some outstanding examples were the courageous efforts of Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII. Nor was Pius always silent.
The pope also feared that a more heroic stance towards Hitler would do more harm than good. He worried about the destruction of the Church at the hands of a Nazi regime that was, at its core, hostile to the power of religion. In addition to his concern for the safety of priests and nuns, he had to consider the fate of ordinary Catholics whom he imagined might pay the price for a tougher Vatican stance.
Most of all, he was deeply conscious of the fact that for all of the Church’s influence, he was essentially powerless. Though Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s famous quip in which he asked “how many divisions” did the pope have is often cited as proof that he underestimated the power of faith, the truth is that the pope had no troops that might stand up to the murderers and believed that taking sides in the war might backfire.
But however much he did do, history has tended to judge him more by what he didn’t do.
The discussion about Pius has been made even more divisive by moves to declare him a saint by the church. Even though Jews don’t really have any business weighing in on the question of who it is that Catholics should regard as a saint, it was only natural that this still incomplete process should be the cause of dissension. And while Catholics should understand the sensitivity of Jews about anything that could be regarded as minimizing the Holocaust, the Jewish community needs to be sensitive to the fact that Catholics regard criticism of any pope as deeply offensive.
That’s why the opening of the archives should not be regarded as an opportunity to prove that the pope was a hero or a moral coward. The more we learn about his complicated role, the more likely we are to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of a man who is not so easily characterized with simple labels. He may well have done more than many of us thought, though still not as much as he could have.
Most of all, those who comment on this topic should remember the enormous progress made in Jewish-Catholic relations since Pius’s time. John XXIII and John Paul II both worked to end the teaching of contempt for Jews and Judaism, and ultimately, the recognition of Israel. That does not mean that all problems are resolved or that we should not be honest about chapters of history when the church failed to live up to the moral standards it sets for itself. But the goal now should be to further understanding between the two faiths, as opposed to carrying on a conflict about the past that does neither Jews nor Catholics any good.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him at: @jonathans_tobin.