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Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XIISoldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII

Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII

An excerpt from Robert Ventresca’s new book on the historically controversial pontiff

Robert Ventresca
6 minute read

From Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII by Robert A. Ventresca. Copyright © 2013 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Whatever we might say about him or however we might judge his actions, there can be no doubt that Pius XII always looked where he was going, always considered his steps. For his many critics, this suggests that Pius XII was more clever than prudent. Others, by contrast, reason that by carefully considering his steps, by refusing to speak out explicitly against the systematic persecution of Jews in particular, Pius XII wisely preserved the Church's capacity for concrete action, however limited or inadequate. Indeed, as we have seen, the Vatican's Secretariat of State itself boasted to Allied officials near war's end that the Holy See could be credited with making it pos-sible for Rome's many religious institutions and residences to offer shelter and assistance to some 6,000 Jews in Rome during the Nazi occupation of the city.

Other estimates cited by reputable historians such as Renzo De Felice and Mier Michaelis—and accepted by such eminent scholars as Sir Martin Gilbert—put that number at around 4,000 Jews who found shelter and survival in dozens of Rome's religious institutions, not to mention the thousands of others who found refuge in private homes. For the advocates of Pius XII, the salient point is this—without the pope's approval, albeit indirect and private, such systematic and effective succor would not have been feasible.

The absence of substantive documentation to trace the courageous rescue efforts of religious orders and ordinary citizens directly back to the pope and the Holy See has not discouraged promoters from building what they say is a solid argument grounded on an eminently logical inference. Indeed, to the criticism that Pius XII failed to protest forcefully in public when the Nazis began the roundup of Rome's Jews, his promoters argue that by virtue of his pru-dent, pragmatic approach, he helped save the lives of the vast majority of Rome's Jewish community. From the historical records currently available, we know that in places like Budapest tens of thou-sands of Jews found shelter and ultimately survival thanks to the efforts of papal representatives acting apparently with Pius XII's blessing and material assistance. Other evidence shows that through his representatives, Pius XII protested forcefully when the Slovak government began to deport approxi-mately 80,000 Jews to Auschwitz. There are many more such wartime records that document Pius XII's knowledge of and support for various initia-tives by papal representatives and Church institu-tions to protect tens of thousands of European Jews. Mostly, it did not help but sometimes it did. And lives were saved.

Yet the cause to have Pius XII made a saint will always be dogged by a great imponderable that lingers over Pius XII's policy of avoiding public con-frontation with the Hitler regime. It is the standard by which his pontificate has been judged wanting by so many critics, no matter what might be said about rescue and relief efforts. What if Pius XII had issued a forceful, unequivocal condemnation of Nazism and especially its persecution of Jews? What if the pope had directed his representatives and all European Catholics to resist Nazi policies actively? How many more Jews, and others, might have been saved?

It is impossible to provide properly historical an-swers to such imponderables. It might be a useful analytical tool to speculate on possible outcomes of a different approach from the pope during the Holocaust. It is clear enough that Pius XII could have spoken out more clearly, more explicitly, to denounce the Nazi persecution of Jews and others, including Catholics. He could have directed Catholic agencies and the Catholic faithful to make anti-Nazi resistance a religious crusade or the rescue of Jews and other victims a religious duty. So, yes, Pius XII could have done things differently. But we can never say with certainty that a different approach would have produced a different outcome. The approach he chose—to avoid public confrontation and thus avoid a greater evil, as he put it—is all we have to go by. How do we assess this approach? That is the question.

Or it is one question. If we widen our lens and view the whole of Pius XII's life and pontificate, the ques-tion emerges: where in the long, travailed history of the papacy, an institution with ancient roots that has seen its share of sinners and saints, does Pope Pius XII sit? While the study of Pius XII's full legacy awaits its historian, there is a strong argument to be made that taken as a whole his reign over the Church was consistent with the moral, pastoral, and political leadership expected of the Vicar of Christ. Pius XII fulfilled the complex papal role as well as anyone of his generation, or any generation, could. He maintained decent working relationships with all the major constituencies of the Catholic com-munity. While resolutely defending the claims of papal supremacy, Pius XII generally was respectful of the authority of local bishops. He sought their counsel and showed himself willing and able to defer to their discretion, especially in instances where the application of a universal standard risked having untold adverse effects according to local, regional, or national circumstances. He preached but also practised the noblest sense of the religious calling, marrying asceticism and self-denial with an elevated sense of the priest's vocation, all the while taking decisive first steps toward a greater opening to the laity. In many respects, he governed the in-ternal affairs of the Church with a firm but flexible, pragmatic sensibility. He left the Vatican's finances arguably in better shape than ever in modern times and helped to bolster the material position of the Holy See through a deft reliance on the growing financial power of American Catholics in particular. At the time of his death, there were more Catholics in the world than ever before, and they were spread out across the globe further than ever before. There were more non-Italians in the governing offices of the Church, too, including the College of Cardinals. It is little wonder that just twenty years after Pius XII died, the world would see the election of the first non-Italian pope in well over 400 years.

We return to where we started and remember that, despite the caricatures and mythic versions, Pius XII was a person, not an institution. As he readily ac-knowledged in his last will and testament, Eugenio Pacelli, like anyone, had many deficiencies and shortcomings. He hurt, offended, and scandalized a good many people, Catholics and non-Catholics—sins of commission and of omission for which this pious and God-fearing man sincerely asked forgiveness in his last testament. In death, as in life, Pius XII remained polarizing, enigmatic, and elusive, even to those who knew him. Temperate and cau-tious by nature and training, Pius XII could also be severe and unyielding. Reflective and self-critical to the point of self-doubting at times, he could also be stubbornly self-assured and self-righteous. While ruling with a strong, resolute hand in some areas of Church life, he sometimes seemed to govern little and thus delegated to a narrow clique of informal confidants responsibility for delicate papal affairs. Broad-minded, intellectually curious, and prescient, he allowed a reactionary, inquisitorial culture to fester—to the personal and professional detriment of some of the Church's most intelligent, creative, and faithful servants.

In the parable of the good shepherd from John's Gospel, the sheep hear the shepherd's voice and follow him because, Jesus says, they recognize his voice. Can we say that Pius XII called his own sheep; that he let his voice be heard for them to follow? And not just his followers but others who, to borrow again from Scripture, did not belong to his fold? For, as Jesus admonishes in the same parable, "these also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd." Perhaps no failure—personal or pastoral—was greater than Pius XII's inability or unwillingness to lend his sin-gularly authoritative voice to arouse the individual and collective conscience in a humanitarian defense of European Jews before and during the war. After the war, when the self-imposed and justifiable restraints of impartiality had been removed, Pius XII either failed to perceive or refused to accept the obvious spiritual need for a public accounting of what had transpired in the heart of Christian Europe. This is not to say that he was anti-Semitic or hard-hearted in the face of the catastrophe that befell Jews and others during World War Two. We know that he was neither of these things. It was simply that he failed to appreciate how a word from the foremost spiritual leader of the Christian world could serve as a powerful symbol and practical im-petus for action during the war, and for atonement and reconciliation after.

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