What did Pope Pius XII do to help Jews, and was it soon enough?

Secret Vatican archives covering the wartime correspondence of Pope Pius XII, above, will be opened in March 2020 after Jewish groups asked that the Church help dispel concerns that he turned a blind eye to genocide (Jewish News)
Secret Vatican archives covering the wartime correspondence of Pope Pius XII, above, will be opened in March 2020 after Jewish groups asked that the Church help dispel concerns that he turned a blind eye to genocide (Jewish News)

Monday’s opening of the Vatican archives covers the period of the Holocaust and is an important moment in Jewish-Christian relations. It also demonstrates the willingness of Pope Francis to encourage openness because, in his words, “the Church is not afraid of history”.

It is too soon to answer whether the archives support those who argue that Pope Pius XII acted in a saintly manner and that his actions resulted in the saving of Jewish lives.  Or whether it will encourage those who decry the Pope’s silence during WWII and argue that he was a flawed individual who failed Jews, especially the Jews of Rome, when they faced Nazi persecution.

The answer more than likely lies somewhere in between and it’s this ‘in between’, which will be the focus of scholarly examination, which will take some time because there are 53 miles of stacked shelves, containing files with more than one million papers.

The Vatican traditionally waits 70 years after the end of a pontificate (for Pope Pius XII, this would be 2028) but Pope Francis has decided to open the archives earlier. He has also put on hold the movement towards sainthood, which was supported by his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI who proclaimed Pius XII “venerable” in 2009. Francis has indicated that a miracle, necessary for sainthood, hasn’t been identified.

Lisa Billig, who represents the American Jewish Committee at the Holy See, explains what scholars are keen to uncover. “Two equally passionate but opposing camps have been wrestling with each other for decades. One is composed of those who claim Pope Pacelli did his utmost to save Jewish lives while necessarily taking precautions to safeguard the Catholic populations of Europe. They want him to be declared a Saint, contrary to the opposing group who claim he failed as a moral leader and could well have raised his voice to be heard publicly and stopped the persecutions without endangering the Catholic Church.”

Pope Pius XII’s response to the Holocaust is of profound significance for Jewish–Christian relations. He was in Bavaria when it was declared a Soviet Republic in 1919, an experience that contributed to his antipathy towards communism. He was also Vatican Secretary of State and responsible for the Reich Concordat of 1933 that effectively neutered Catholic opposition to the Nazis.

Jews were not a priority.

Whilst the Pope condemned the effects of war on its innocent victims, Pius XII failed to specify the persecution of Jews nor did he publicly protest the transportation of Rome’s Jews to the concentration camps in 1943, refusing pleas for help on the grounds of neutrality.

The legacy of Rolf Hochhuth’s play, The Representative which portrayed Pius as more concerned with safeguarding Vatican interests than with the fate of Jews, should not be underestimated; nor should hundreds of years of Christian anti-Jewish teaching. It is easily forgotten that Pope Pius XII lived in pre-Vatican II times when traditional anti-Jewish Catholic teaching was the norm, until this was reversed by the publication of Nostra Aetate in 1965 which transformed Catholic-Jewish relations for the better.

 

In my view, the Pope’s behaviour was complex and inconsistent and I expect the issue will come to some kind of resolution in the years ahead – as long as discussion is conducted by respected academics who, I hope, will tackle the central question: did Pope Pius XII do all he could and did he do it soon enough?

 

 

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Founder of the Woolf institute in Cambridge
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