Book Review Essay
by John Cornwell, Times Literary Supplement (TLS), June 12, 2013
Robert A. Ventresca, Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII (Harvard)
Frank J. Coppa, The Life and Pontificate of Pope Pius XII: Between History and Controversy (Catholic University of America Press)
Eugenio Pacelli, who took the name Pius XII, was elected Pope in 1939 and died in 1958, having steered the Catholic Church through the Second World War and the early deep freeze of the Cold War. The reasons for his failure to condemn the Nazi regime forthrightly have been debated for half a century. Was he afraid that more people would suffer if he spoke out? Or was he indifferent to the fate of the victims of Nazi atrocities, including the Holocaust itself? The motives, or excuses, for his anodyne statements (he avoided direct public mention of Jews, Nazis and Hitler) can only be surmised. Official papers relating to his pontificate are still under lock and key – though Pope Francis may allow them to be scrutinized soon. As far as we know, Pius left no private journal. He neither sought nor took advice. There was no intimate friend. He ate alone throughout his pontificate, and his daily walk in the Vatican gardens was ever solitary. After the war, he neither explained his omissions publicly, nor apologized.
Studies of Pius XII tend to focus on the war years, as if he had no life before the start of his reign. But now come two new biographies by North American ecclesiastical historians – Robert A. Ventresca and Frank J. Coppa – who have broadened their account of his story to include the pre-papal period in the 1920s and 30s. Benefiting from the recent release of diplomatic papers covering the pontificate of Pius XI (1922–39), their studies reveal Pacelli to be no Nazi sympathizer, and yet the consequences of his policies, endorsed by the Holy See, arguably expedited Hitler’s plans at an early stage. According to both Coppa and Ventresca, the key to understanding Pacelli was his legal mindset and the diplomatic course established by the Holy See through the first third of the century.
Like his father and grandfather before him, Pacelli trained as a canon lawyer. His lay forebears were legal and political advisers in the service of the Holy See at a time when the Papal States were being devoured piecemeal by the emerging nation state of Italy. The Pacellis believed that greater control had to be exerted from the Vatican centre, underpinned by law. The young Fr Eugenio was recruited as secretary to a remarkable legal project, the collating and systematizing of the vast corpus of church law, with countless exceptions and scope for local discretion, into a Napoleonic-style single Code of Canon Law. The centralizing goal of the Code, published in 1917, was exemplified by a new rule – that only the pope was now entitled to nominate bishops. In the past, the local diocesan clergy, the lay faithful, and even the civil authorities, had contributed to this process in various parts of the Catholic world.
Pacelli was then ordained bishop and dispatched to Germany, where his long-term brief was to renegotiate concordats with the provincial states in order to bring them in line with the new Code. At the same time, he aimed to negotiate a Reichskonkordat, a super treaty with Germany as a whole.
Despite thirteen years’ toil, Pacelli failed to achieve his aim. Germany, a pluralist confessional state, was not about to grant the Catholic Church privileged status over other denominations, even though five chancellors during the Weimar period were Catholics. By 1930, Pacelli had returned to the Vatican as Cardinal Secretary of State, where he would spend more time on relations with Germany than any other country.
His principal concern was with the role of Germany’s Centre Party, a mainly Catholic grouping which had been a powerful broker of coalitions through the 1920s. Pacelli urged Heinrich Brüning, a devout Catholic and Centre Party leader who was Chancellor from 1930 to 1932, to enter a coalition with Hitler rather than the Social Democrats. Brüning refused, being also a passionate opponent of Nazism. He recorded in his memoirs, cited by Ventresca, that Pacelli “never understood the fundamental features of German politics, or the special place of the Centre Party”. Brüning added that Pacelli also “misunderstood” the true nature of Nazism. Brüning’s damning verdict was that Pacelli despised “democracy and the parliamentary system”, preferring “rigid governments, rigid centralization”. It explained perhaps Pacelli’s preference for Hitler over the Social Democrats.
In early 1933, Hitler, now Chancellor, but not yet dictator, surprised Pacelli by putting out feelers for a Reichskonkordat. Hitler was offering guarantees assuring Catholic rights to religious practice in exchange for the Church’s withdrawal from every kind of social and political action, assembly and association – including newspapers, scouting groups and women’s associations. As a sweetener, Hitler offered extra educational funding for Catholic schools – for buildings, places and teachers. But the condition laid down by Hitler was that the Centre Party should vote for the infamous “Enabling Bill”, awarding him dictatorial powers, followed by the Party’s voluntary disestablishment. Ventresca concludes that the Reichskonkordat left German Catholics with no “meaningful electoral opposition to the Nazis”, while the “benefits and vaunted diplomatic entente [of the Reichskonkordat] with the German state were neither clear nor certain”.
Recent historiography of the behaviour of the professions, Churches and judiciary from 1933 onwards in Germany, suggests that Pacelli’s dealings with Hitler had devastating consequences. The role of the judges, scientists, academics, who individually and collectively did deals with, and took benefits from, Hitler, while remaining aloof from his vicious ideology, has been characterized as that of the Mitläufer: the fellow traveller. It could be argued that the Mitläufer did more damage than card-carrying Nazi members of the churches and professions. There were indeed several Nazi Catholic prelates, known as the “Brown Bishops”, who were figures of contempt among the faithful. But the consequence of “fellow-travelling” by figures of respect and distinction, and the institutions they represented, was to demoralize potential opposition, scandalize the young, and dignify Hitler at home and abroad. Pacelli was the Führer’s ideal prelate, and future Pope, because his diplomatic accommodations suited, albeit unintentionally, the dictator’s long-term purposes.
Writing in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, Pacelli declared the Reichskonkordat a triumph for the Code of Canon Law. The subtext was that Hitler had accepted the imposition of the new Code on German Catholics, hence the shift of governing authority from the local Church to the Vatican. For Hitler, speaking in cabinet, the treaty meant the “recognition of the nationalist German state” by the Vatican, as well as withdrawal of the Church from political organizations, and the disbanding of the Centre Party. Finally, and ominously, Hitler declared that the treaty created a “sense of confidence” that would be “especially significant in the urgent struggle against international Jewry”. Pacelli was not anti-Semitic in the Nazi sense; yet he had accepted on behalf of Pius XI educational benefits from a regime that was simultaneously depriving Jews of corresponding rights and resources. The circumstance signalled an acquiescence in Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies at the origins of the persecution of Jews in Germany.
It is clear from these new biographies that the Holy’s See’s concordat policy with Germany gave unintentional impetus to Hitler’s plans. By the same token, Pacelli gave unintentional comfort to the Nazi cause during the war, because he clothed his statements in anodyne ambiguities that could be interpreted as moral indifference. Ventresca argues that Pacelli’s diplomacy – he never favoured one side of the Allied–Axis divide over the other – was inspired by a golden-mean model of prudence. Coppa insists, moreover, that the new Pope’s apparent neutrality during the Second World War did no more than echo the Holy See’s even-handed diplomacy during the First World War.
For the rest, Pacelli’s conduct was marked by serial paradoxes. At an early stage of the war, he showed readiness to aid a plot to overthrow Hitler; yet he did not protest against the invasion of Poland. He failed to warn Rome’s ghetto Jews of their imminent round-up in 1943, even though many religious houses were hiding Jewish people at this time. At the liberation of Rome, Pacelli warmly greeted Allied troops of many nationalities in St Peter’s Basilica, while requesting that the American authorities ban black troops from the Holy See lest they debauch Roman womanhood. On the ecclesial front, he advanced biblical studies and reformed the liturgy; yet he quashed the new French movement for theological renewal, and banned the worker priest movement. He failed to excommunicate Hitler or Nazi Catholics, but enthusiastically excommunicated Italian Communists after the war.
When he died at the age of eighty-two, tributes flowed in from the great and good across the world. But after an initial period of hagiographical reminiscences, the criticisms began. In 1964, Pacelli was depicted implausibly as a money-grubbing cynic in Rolf Hochhuth’s play Der Stellvertreter (The Deputy). More to the point, Hochhuth indicted Pius’s failure to condemn Hitler. From the mid-1960s, journalists and scholars expanded on that “silence”. Defenders countered that he secretly saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews. Paul VI launched the cause for his beatification. The ensuing polemic has resembled a night battle at the confused borders of Holocaust memory and Catholic anti-defamation polemic. The poisonous tone of the debate has been mostly generated by the defenders’ tendency to characterize the least criticism of Pacelli, however well evidenced, as vindictive slander.
The ensuing polemic has resembled a night battle at the confused borders of Holocaust memory and Catholic anti-defamation polemic
These new studies amply illustrate the vexed entanglement of Pacelli’s case. Coppa records that in 1919, Pacelli signed a document which denounced the Munich revolutionary Max Levien as “dirty”, a “Russian Jew” and “repulsive”. Coppa, however, attempts to see mitigation in the fact that Pacelli did not actually call Levien “a repulsive, dirty Jew”.
Ventresca concedes that “many thousands of Jews found shelter and ultimately survival thanks to the efforts of papal representatives acting apparently with Pius XII’s blessing”. He adds, however, that the absence of hard evidence linking the rescuing of Jews directly to Pacelli “has not discouraged promoters from building what they say is a solid argument [for designating Pius XII as their saviour]”. For these writers, the papal office is central to the interest of Pacelli’s story. The papacy, reshaped by canonists in response to a loss of temporal power, was severely tested and shaken by unprecedented crises and events. If the papacy was found wanting, the faults were collective and historic as much as personal. Both authors believe that Pius did the best that he could after he became Pope. Coppa has an authoritative grasp of the long-term trends of papal history and Vatican diplomacy. Ventresca has more successfully captured Pacelli in the round, with telling, if meagre, details of human interest. Neither book attempts to draw conclusions about the consequences of Pacelli’s policies for subsequent papacies. The future John Paul II’s refusal to negotiate a concordat with the Soviets in Poland, despite Pope Paul’s frequent urgings, may well have been for fear of repeating the Reichskonkordat debacle. Had such a concordat been struck between the Church in Poland and the Soviets, the trade union Solidarity might never have been formed, and the fall of Communism might have played out very differently.
There remains the question of Pacelli’s sainthood. Both Robert Ventresca and Frank Coppa quote with apparent approval the opinion of Pacelli’s private secretary of thirty years, Fr Robert Leiber, SJ. When asked whether he thought Pacelli was a great saint, he responded: “great, yes . . . a saint, no”. As for the Pius wars, the even-handedness of these academics is likely to raise more questions, and hackles, than it settles among the antagonists. Academic impartiality has never been a guarantee of non-combatant status in this area. But for those who have no vested interest on either side of the divide, there are now two reliable, complementary studies of one of the most enigmatic figures of twentieth-century history.
John Cornwell is director of the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge. He is the author, most recently, of Newman’s Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint, 2010.
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