You could fill
a room in the Vatican Library with all the books about Pius XII.
Few popes have suffered as many posthumous reversals in reputation
or had their names invoked as often by critics of the church. Unlucky
enough to head the Vatican during the reigns of Mussolini and Hitler;
praised effusively by world leaders at his death in 1958; blisteringly
condemned in Rolf Hochhuth's 1963 play, "The Deputy,"
for his apparent indifference to the murder of the Jews; and puzzlingly
nominated for beatification one year later, Pius XII today serves
mainly as a battleground in the continuing war between conservative
and liberal Roman Catholics and Jews.
than healing the wound, only aggravates it. In a 1998 statement
on the Holocaust, the Vatican hailed Pius XII for saving Jewish
lives. In 1999, the British journalist John Cornwell replied in
an attack that set off the latest slew of books on the subject.
Cornwell's "Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII"
was criticized for minor errors and its sensationalist title, but
appears to have derailed the canonization process. Within the past
year, two American historians, Susan Zuccotti and Michael Phayer,
published books that qualify but don't contradict Cornwell's conclusions,
and two American Catholic writers, James Carroll and Garry Wills,
took the controversy as the starting point for books that upbraided
the church for its history of anti-Judaism and intellectual dishonesty;
both books became best sellers. The most recent defense of Pius
XII comes, oddly enough, from a rabbi. In a review in the conservative
magazine The Weekly Standard, David G. Dalin, who is also a historian,
maintains that the church's record of rescuing Jews in wartime has
been grossly underestimated.
over Pius XII threatens the détente between Catholics and
The brief against
Pius XII goes as follows: He had a soft spot for Hitler and therefore
maintained diplomatic relations with the Nazis throughout the war.
He failed to protest their atrocities, even when Roman Jews were
rounded up, in the now notorious phrase, under his windows. Contrast
this, his detractors say, with his treatment of Communists, whom
he hated, denounced and excommunicated. His defenders reply that
Pius XII spoke up, albeit in generalities, and refused to be more
specific for fear of reprisals against the very people he was trying
Pius XII was authoritarian and anti-Semitic. Church officials say
that a genuinely pious man is being slandered. That we keep going
around in circles about this probably testifies to the steepness
of the challenge he poses to the moral and historical imagination.
Neither a monster nor a victim, he occasions category confusion.
By what standard are we allowed to judge a man for what he failed
to do rather that for what he did? How do we feel our way into the
horrifying choices that boxed him in without ourselves succumbing
either to easy sympathy or to the false certitude of hindsight?
Raul Hilberg, among the greatest of Holocaust historians, warns
against rushing to dismiss the pope in his book "Perpetrators,
Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945." Pius
XII has been accused of being "the supreme bystander,"
Hilberg says, but should instead be seen as exemplifying the predicament
confronted by everyone caught up indirectly in the Holocaust, beset
by danger and confusion, limited by faulty perceptions and "delineated
by ... nationality and temperament, much as all the inhabitants
On the other
hand, it's hard to see a pope as merely one European among many.
One of his titles is "Vicar of Christ"; in Pius's day,
if slightly less so in ours, Catholics were taught to view him as
their direct link to God. Pius XII was particularly insistent on
that role, using every tool available to enhance his own authority
and that of the papacy. In 1933, when Hitler came to power and Pius
XII was still Eugenio Pacelli, the Vatican's secretary of state,
he signed a concordat with Hitler that legitimized him in the world
community and stymied many would-be German Catholic resisters. According
to Cornwell, Pacelli was motivated at least partly by a desire to
secure the Vatican's control over the large and often independent
German Catholic Church.
us that by World War II, Christian churches, "once a powerful
presence on the European continent, had reached the nadir of their
influence." As the world moved away from traditional forms
of belief and plunged into ever more terrifying manifestations of
political modernism, Pacelli saw his task as that of strengthening
and preserving the Catholic Church. He wanted to make sure there
would still be a church after the likely destruction of civilization.
This helps explain why, for example, he placed the Vatican's political
neutrality above its role as the world's leading moral spokesman.
Of the writers
who have tried in the past 40 years to tease out Pius XII's state
of mind during World War II, it is Hannah Arendt, writing in 1964,
whose mix of rigor and compassion yields the most satisfying view
of his character. Unlike Hochhuth's Pius XII, a cruel and selfish
man, hers is a pope buried in papers and prayers, a cautious bureaucrat
shockingly out of touch. His faith in diplomacy was misplaced, to
say the least, because Hitler played diplomats like marionettes,
but what appears to us as moral obtuseness was actually, she wrote,
"the rigid adherence to a normality that no longer existed,
in view of the collapse of the whole moral and spiritual structure
of Europe." The Vatican also misconstrued the mass killings
- not just of Jews and Gypsies but also of Poles and Serbs and their
priests, which the pope knew about and never objected to either
- as "part and parcel of war," not the senseless murders
that they were. It was a terrible mistake, but one that continues
to be made by diplomats today.
If Arendt is
right (and she may have been too charitable), then Pius XII was
at best heartbreakingly wrong. In any event, he can't be used as
a weapon against Catholicism per se. If you want to view Pius XII
as a saint, you can't ignore his misbegotten silence and damning
legacy of his concordat. If he symbolizes anything, it would seem
to be a truth more sociological than religious, though one that
all religions should probably heed. It is that the logic of institutional
self-preservation may be incompatible with moral clarity.
© THE NEW YORK
TIMES BOOK REVIEW