The role of Pope Pius XII during World War Two is a subject of endless dispute, part of which we’ve tracked on FaithWorld over the past year. This has gained in interest because of Vatican plans to put him on the path to sainthood, which may be held up now because of protests from Jewish groups. We’re all waiting for the secret archives of his papacy (1939-1958) to be opened to finally see what the documents say about his relations with Nazi Germany. While we’re waiting, one of the key questions that could be assessed on the basis of files already available is what Pius thought about dealing with the Nazis before he became pope. There is a long paper trail there, because Pius was the Vatican Secretary of State — effectively, the prime minister of the Vatican — from 1930 until his election as pope. But a lot of people argue for or against Pius without having read this material. (Photo: Pope Pius XII/Vatican photo)
Gerard Fogarty S.J., a University of Virginia historian and Jesuit priest, has worked through much of this material and come up with a fascinating article in the U.S. Jesuit magazine America. He’s examined much of the paper trail the future pope left in the 1930s but many of the documents are in a language that the leading commentators on Pius don’t speak. We’re not talking about that dead language Latin, but Italian — a lively regional tongue in Europe that happens to be an international language within the world’s largest church, Roman Catholicism.
“This is one of the problems even now,” Fogarty recounted in an informative podcast for America. “Scholars come to me and ask, do you use a translator? No scholar is going to do that. You’ve got to learn the language yourself. So people have not looked at what was published.” (Photo: Cover of America magazine, 15 Dec 2008 edition)
Fogarty has scoured archives in the United States, Britain, Italy, Germany, Spain, Ireland and Vatican City for all the information he can find about Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli — the future Pius XII — and the Nazis in the 1930s. He has also pushed the Vatican to publish documents from the Pius XII papacy in stages, so we can get the files from the war years soon, but come up against the reflexes of a bureaucracy that goes back two millennia. “Some people in the archives opening up just a segment because they want to open it pontificate by pontificate,” he said. Publishing the war documents once the archivists have sorted material until 1945 could give us this information earlier, “but they want to go up to 1958.”
After reading what’s available now, Fogarty thinks Pius XII did the best he could given his understanding — from long diplomatic experience with Germany and advice given by, among others, members of the German resistance — that open protest against the Nazis was counterproductive.