Pope Francis has announced that in March 2020, the Vatican will open archived documentation on the papacy of Pope Pius X11. Pope Pius has been the center of controversy for 70+ years. Did he intentionally abet the Nazi regime or at the very least remain silent while not far from the Vatican, Jews and other “undesirables” were rounded up for extermination. He was the last pre-Vatican II pope. He is not short on defenders. Conservative Catholics and clergy are becoming more vocal in his defense as they opine that the Catholic Church is becoming more “liberal”. His defenders claim that Pope Pius X11 acted in the best interest of those persecuted, especially Jews, by remaining neutral and not instigate further persecution by the Nazis. Whatever the truth may be, Pope Pius’s role during the Holocaust remains controversial and shrouded in speculation and opinion.
After the end of the war, and when the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed, the pope and the Vatican came under attack for remaining seemingly quiet and appeasing to the Nazis. As early as 1963, a play by Rolf Hockhurth entitled The Deputy, portrayed Pius X11 as a cold calculative man negotiating an amiable agreement with Nazi Germany in return for protection of the Catholic church and Catholics. The book and accusations against the pope, prompted the Vatican to commission four Jesuits to look into documentation that would help put the controversy to rest. 12 volumes and 16 years later, they were no closer to determining one way or another whether there was truth in the allegations. However, it was noted that after the fall of Mussolini, the Jesuit emissary to the pope paid a visit to the new Italian government justice minister. The plea to the minister was scathingly dark and pathetically bizarre. The papal emissary ascertained that although the Vatican felt that the anti-Semitic racial laws had some “good qualities”, the provisions on baptized Jews should be repealed. A confusing statement that can be interpreted in many sordid ways. Was the pope arguing a compromise to save baptized Jews while ignoring the rest?
The dark cloud surrounding Pope Pius X11 and the Vatican continued through the decades. In 1999 John Cornwell wrote the best seller entitled Hitler’s Pope. The author alleged that he was given unauthorized access to pre-Pope Pius X11 Vatican archives. Pius XII was Eugenio Pacelli, secretary of state to the Vatican. John Cornwell alleges that Eugenio Pacelli made a deal with the devil and assisted in ending organized Catholic opposition to the Nazi regime in Germany. Following the publication of this book, the Vatican was again compelled to commission yet another commission, this time an interreligious one, composed of three Catholic and three Jewish scholars in the hope of an unbiased research into the Vatican’s activities during the Holocaust. Like the Jesuits some 30 years before them, the scholars couldn’t find solid information that would either confirm or deny what really happened. However, they were not given access to all archives. When in 2009, Pope Pius X11 was up for beatification toward sainthood, fierce criticism and opposition stopped the process.
Popes like any other world leader, are often caught in a Catch 22 situation. Damn if they do and damn if they don’t. Some may argue, as I have done in the past, that the current Pope Francis is just as guilty in conveniently turning a blind eye to political corruption and murder as his predecessor. Pre-papacy, Fr. Jorge Bergoglio the Jesuit priest, if not supportive, remained amiable with the fascist regimes in Argentina. The regime imprisoned and tortured hundreds of alleged dissidents; this included priests who opposed the regime from the pulpit. Some directly blamed Bergoglio for their capture. In recent times we have seen Pope Francis shake hands and meet with leaders we would all prefer to see in jail. Abbas of the Palestinian Authority comes to mind. Pope Francis has welcomed to the Vatican, Chinese leaders directly responsible for persecuting and confining thousands of Muslims in camps. China is not too kind on Christians either. Two months ago Pope Francis granted audience to the disgraced Prime Minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat. Mr. Muscat was forced to resign after being implicated in the assassination of a local journalist. Much to the disgust of the Maltese and the family of the assassinated journalist, the Pope still gave Mr. Muscat and his family a photo op. Maybe not on the same level as lending a blind eye to the Holocaust; but this pope has also ignored what is considered “the right thing to do”.
I have a problem with any absolute hierarchy whether papal or not. Power makes strange bed fellows. The Vatican has always shrouded itself in mystery disguised as papal prerogative. The traditions and rituals of the Catholic Church date back to empirical times when popes were as powerful and ruthless as emperors. Not very Christ like and hardly endearing. Humility and poverty as prescribed by Christ morphed into treasure and power that do not somehow aspire to shepherding the faithful flock. The papacy and the tight lipped Vatican is an enigma to non-Catholics and highly annoying to Catholics. The Vatican and the pope are a lightning rod for criticism. Social justice seems nothing more than interfering partisanship.
Pope Pius X11 defenders contend that he developed amicable relations with the occupied German hierarchy to protect rather than to ignore. A case in point is the massacre at Rome’s Fosse Ardeatine. When in 1943 the allies led by General Eisenhower landed in Sicily, King Vittorio Emmanuelle II started procedures to arrest Benito Mussolini in anticipation of Italy surrendering to the allies. By this time, realizing that its major ally was on the brink of defection, Germany started moving more troops into Italy. Rumor had it that Italian officials had already made overtures to Eisenhower’s army in the hope of assisting in the fight against the Germans. That same year, Rome was heavily bombed; compelling Pope Pius X11 to make a feeble attempt at saving the city by insisting that Rome becomes “open”. An idea unacceptable to the Americans and scoffed by the Germans.
Badly equipped hard headed resistance groups still managed to successfully attack and provoke German authorities to the point where the Pope was asked for assistance. Allegedly, the Germans asked him to intervene fearing that the situation would eventually become deadly. In March 1944, in Rome, 16 partisans from the group known as Gruppo d’Azione Patriottica (Group for Patriotic Action) packed 12 kilograms of TNT in a bag loaded with another 6 kilogram of TNT and hid it in a trash can on an SS Police Regiment marching route. The attack killed 28 SS officers and several bystanders. 32 was the final dead count. The attackers were never found. As predicted, retaliation came fast and strong.
With the help of the fascist chief of police, the SS police commander rounded up prisoners; long sentences, Jews, alleged bombing suspects, and others described as “worthy of death”. Together they managed 271 names. For the sake of documentation, except for the Jews (who by virtue of being Jews were already guilty and dispensable), the rest had their crimes listed next to their name. Eventually, 335 people were carted out to the Ardeatine caves on the outskirts of Rome. They were shot at close range to save bullets. The confined space in the caves prompted the German officers to shoot prisoners while kneeling on top of dead bodies to safe time and space. The German Commandant in charge of the massacre ordered cases of cognac for the young officers ordered to do the killing to prevent them from becoming traumatized.
Speculation by writers and conspiracy theorists argue that the Pope had prior knowledge of the massacre and did nothing to stop it. Ardent pope defenders contend that Pius did not protest the massacre or make a public stand against it to protect religious houses harboring those seeking refuge. Among them many Jews. If he had provoked the Germans, they might not have remained lenient toward religious houses. That was not too farfetched. After the partisan attack and consequent massacre, the Germans stepped up their searches of civilians and their homes. Was the pope vindicated?
The unsealing of Vatican records will surely send a buzz across the world. There will be those who will continue to discredit Pope Pius XII regardless of what is revealed. If no smoking gun appears they will most surely accuse the Vatican of hiding the truth. Soon more cover-up theories, books, and movies will keep the story alive. Those who have always defended Pius XII will revel in their “aha I told you so” moment and push for his beatification. One thing for sure; thousands of Jews and others “worthy of death” were murdered in Italy and a stone’s throw from the Vatican. Whether Pius XII intentions to remain silent were honorable or not remain hidden in the approximate 17 million sheets of documents to be unearthed in March. Is he a saint or a villain? We shall know soon enough.