One of the most contentious debates involving Church figures of the 20th century involves the actions of Pope Pius XII during World War II.
On one side are those who accuse Pius of being a virtual Nazi collaborator for failing to adamantly and publicly oppose Hitler and the Holocaust. On the other are those who claim he actually acted boldly to challenge Hitler through clandestine initiatives that saved thousands of European Jews.
The debate may never entirely subside but the truth may be on the horizon now that the entire secret archive of Pope Pius XII will be opened to scholars. This news has been long-awaited and is now much welcomed. As Pope Francis said in making the announcement, “the Church is not afraid of history.”
The archives comprise approximately 16 million documents. Typically, there is a 70-year waiting period before a papal archive is opened, but next year scholars will get an eight-year head start on the Pius papers.
Pius XII was pope from 1939 to 1958 but historians are mainly interested in the war years, 1939 to 1945, when Hitler murdered six million Jews. They’ll be looking for evidence that explains why Pius, for the most part, was silent about Hitler and Nazi evil. Was he frightened, or worse, complicit, or conversely was he a dogged Nazi antagonist who worked diligently and quietly through diplomatic channels to save lives?
A lot is riding on the answer. Disputes about Pius have strained Jewish-Catholic relations for six decades. Despite many claims that the war pope did all he could in an impossible situation, suggestions remain in Jewish and other circles that for the pope to pursue diplomacy as Jewish deaths mounted was the least Pius could do.
An entirely separate matter is that the case presented by the archives may well determine whether or not Pius is canonized. This has become a delicate matter.
Pope Benedict XVI faced harsh criticism in 2009 when he declared Pius XII venerable and put him on the path to sainthood. He was following up on a 1965 initiative by Pope Paul VI, who initiated an examination of Pius’s life as a prelude to a sainthood cause. A committee was formed and it made a recommendation to Benedict that led to Pius XII being declared venerable.
Canonization decisions don’t ride on public opinion, but moving forward with Pius XII would be bold if the archives paint him as an anti-hero. In opening the archives, Pope Francis seemed to caution researchers to approach the material with an open mind in order to fairly analyze the “moments of serious difficulty, tormented decisions . . . which to some could look like reticence.”
In other words, remember the context because it may not all be pretty, but it will be the truth, which is long overdue.
This editorial originally appeared in The Catholic Register. Reprinted with permission.