Thursday, June 21, 2007

Why Rome Must Open the Vatican Archives on Pope Pius XII (1939-1958)

In his online column June 8, 2007, National Catholic Reporter writer John Allen floats an idea that should be getting more attention and push-back than it has: “from the point of view of Catholic-Jewish relations, the best thing the Vatican could do right now would be to beatify and canonize Pope Pius XII immediately.”

Allen’s column is at

Eugenio Pacelli was Pope Pius XII from 1939 to 1958, which of course included the Holocaust and other terrors of World War II, as well as challenges of the post-war period, such as the Cold War and establishing the state of Israel on land claimed by Palestinians. The greatest controversy about Pacelli is over the Holocaust: why did he express so little public opposition to fascism and its policies, and couldn’t he have done more to prevent the slaughter of six million Jews?

The occasion for Allen’s suggestion was a speech June 5th by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, widely regarded as the second most powerful official in the church. Bertone suggested that “Pope Pacelli” (as he frequently referred to him) had been the victim of a smear campaign that ignored many solid accomplishments, including behind-the-scenes activities to help the Jews, as well as doctrinal advances on scripture scholarship, evolution, liturgy, and the value of women.

In a few sentences toward the end of his speech, Bertone said the Vatican archives contained documents on “thousands of personal cases” (italics his) of Pacelli helping individuals, which have not been made public because they are in a disorganized state that would not allow coherent, comprehensive research.

Then, in a tantalizing aside, he added: “Maybe it would be possible, with the ad hoc help of some charitable foundation, to catalogue in a brief amount of time these papers which are stored in the Archives of the Holy See!”

Whether the Vatican really lacks the technical expertise or the financial resources to do its own cataloging could certainly be debated. However, use of an outside foundation might at least help the Vatican rebut one of the claims already made against the closed Vatican archives for the Pacelli period: that the Vatican may already have sanitized the records, by removing or destroying any that were not favorable to Pacelli. Unfortunately, the only way anyone can prove that it happened would be by contradictory documentary or oral evidence from outside the archives. Until such evidence is found, the fear has not been substantiated.

Although there has been pressure for decades for the Vatican to open the archives, so that critics of Pius XII would no longer be able to say that the archives hide documents unfavorable to him, Allen notes that 11 volumes of documents that Jesuit scholars have published from the archives have not changed the position of people on either side of this argument. He cites two reasons why he thinks that happened and why opening the rest of the archives still won’t resolve the controversy.

First, he says, the primary indictment against Pacelli is that he “failed to issue a straightforward public denunciation of National Socialism, or an unambiguous public appeal for Christians to rescue Jews.” Allen argues that since this criticism is based on what Pacelli did and did not do in public, the private archives will not sway the discussion.

Second, the other main indictment condemns actions Pacelli failed to try, e.g., publicly excommunicating Hitler, or meeting with Hitler, Mussolini, or both at once. Allen doubts that the archives can shed any light on how effective such alternatives might have been.

In light of the Holocaust and a perception that Pacelli favored Palestinian rights over establishment of the State of Israel, the Jewish critics of Pius XII are quite passionate. As Allen observes, it’s not as though the Vatican can wait a few more decades or centuries for their passion to subside.

It was just in April that Vatican Ambassador to the Holy Land created an ugly stir by threatening to boycott the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day state ceremony at the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem, because of an exhibit caption about the Pius XII controversy. The ambassador later attended, but Yad Vashem’s position indicates that Jews’ deep misgivings about Pacelli are not going away.

Given this, what does the Vatican have to lose by opening the archives? If Pacelli’s proponents are right, the archives should provide additional positive facts. If the Jewish critics are right, are the archives likely to confirm anything worse than they already fear?

Allen may be right on both of his points. But no one will really know until independent researchers scour the archives in their entirety. It remains possible that documents and other assets still not researched can shed more light on the rationale and motivation for Pacelli’s public silence, perhaps providing more clues as to whether it was benign, malicious or negligent. It remains possible that the unresearched archives might also illuminate whether Pacelli considered some of the alternatives critics wish he had and, if so, whether specific factors influenced him not to pursue them.

Allen notes that Cardinal Bertone’s overture about letting a charitable foundation organize the documents he says prove Pacelli’s assistance to thousands of individuals got an enthusiastic response from Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League. Foxman told Allen that if lack of Vatican resources was an obstacle to opening those documents for research, “we should have an emergency meeting and figure out ways to make it happen.”

Rather than rushing Pius XII to sainthood, the Vatican could make a much more immediate positive contribution to Catholic-Jewish relations by actively pursuing Bertone’s idea.

Canonizing Pacelli would certainly announce to the Jewish people and to the world at large that the church has dug in its heels on his culpability for the Holocaust. But it would also only solidify the opposition in its conviction that Pacelli was wrong and the church since Pacelli has refused to admit it.

The result of opening the archives may be what Allen expects. But other outcomes remain possible. So long as that is the case, the only way to rule them out is to open the archives. Issues undoubtedly will remain afterwards. But at least the overarching issue—what secrets the archives may hold—will finally be laid to rest.

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