The controversy surrounding Pius XII has dogged the Vatican at least since the appearance of Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 play, The Deputy, which portrayed the wartime pope as indifferent to the plight of the Jews. An important reason for the continuing controversy is the beatification process of the silent pope, and determination by the Holy See to elevate him to sainthood.
In 1999 the Church convened its International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission to look into the allegations in the hope of exonerating its wartime pope. Two years later the commission resigned protesting Vatican refusal to allow access to materials beyond those specially chosen by the Church itself. The documents in the collection now scheduled for release are not newly declassified, as might be inferred by their location in the “Secret Archives” but are, instead, a re-release of the same materials previously rejected as one-sided by the Vatican commission in 2001.
Which raises the question of how, ten years after these documents failed to convince its own commission, the Holy See hopes they will achieve a different outcome with the public today?
More than sixty years have passed since the end of the Second World War. With the exception of the Vatican, all major war-time archives, including those of the United States, Russia and Germany, have long been open for study. The Vatican continually puts off opening the archives for "technical" reasons, but a more immediate reason seems at hand, its experience with having opened the archives to John Cornwell.
Mr. Cornwell, a noted Catholic scholar who once considered joining the priesthood, was permitted access to the archives for background material to a biography on Eugenio Pacelli, Pius XII he intended to write. From the Introduction to his book Cornwell relates that he began the task believing that "if his full story were told, Pius XII's pontificate would be exonerated.” But by “the middle of 1997,” he writes, “I was in a state of moral shock. The material I had gathered amounted not to an exoneration but to an indictment.” Among his conclusions was that Pius was not merely anti-Jewish, he was a supporter of Hitler who acted to silence what Catholic opposition existed to the Fuhrer in Germany.
The Vatican's International Commission was convened soon after Hitler’s Pope was published.
The Zenit article is intended to support the Vatican in its beatification of Pius XII. That is understandable since the news service describes its purpose as, “The world as seen from Rome.” But what purpose is served by the Vatican attributing the release of these materials to an outside, supposedly unaffiliated organization as the subheading to the Zenit article announces, Pave the Way Foundation Proposal Approved. What is this Foundation that the Church would go to the trouble of turning over the materials to them on request; why was it chosen to serve this purpose? And who is its leader, Gary Krupp? Conveniently both Zenit and the Foundation are based in New York City. But let Jesús Colina, the article’s author and editor of Zenit, take it from here.
For purposes of clarity and to avoid misunderstanding what follows is a verbatim transcript of Krupp’s comments as they appear in the Zenit article. “The organization's president, who is from New York but of [sic] Jewish decent, stated, ‘In the furtherance of our mission we have recognized the papacy of the war time Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli) as a source of friction impacting over one billion people.’" The interview continues, “controversy abounds on whether he did enough to prevent the slaughter of Jews at the hands of the Nazis... Our research has revealed that five years after Pius XII's death, the KGB hatched a plot to discredit their enemy, the Roman Catholic Church, called 'Seat 12.' A dirty trick, which condemned Pope Pius XII for his 'silence' during the Holocaust in the form of Rolf Hochhuth's fictitious 1963 play The Deputy. The result was the worst character assassination of the twentieth century."
That certainly should put the matter to rest! According to Krupp Pius silence is an invention of the Russians. Certainly they attacked Pius. But their attack, political considerations notwithstanding, did not occur in a vacuum: Pius invited attack as an outspoken critic of Russia and Communism spanning his entire career, and particularly during and following the Second World War. This is one explanation for his well-known support of Nazi anti-Communism. By conveniently leaving out Pius provocations towards the Soviets the impression is created of an unprovoked assault by the superpower. By projecting Pius the victim of that recent bugaboo, Soviet Communism, his innocence of the allegations appears intact, and his beatification is restored to credibility.
As for the controversy surrounding the 2001 resignation of the International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission, Krupp has an equally imaginative rationalization. As Colina summarizes the Foundation leader, “Krupp explained that in 1999, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, at that time the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, called for a special commission of Jewish and Catholic scholars to come together to study these documents. ‘This positive advance unfortunately ended July 21, 2001 in failure partly because the scholars simply did not read the languages of the collection." Not “read the languages of the collection"? Is Krugg-Colina here suggesting that Cardinal Cassidy intended from the start to ensure an unsuccessful outcome by limiting his selection to those illiterate in the document's languages? That makes even less sense than what actually did occur, forcing their resignation by limiting access to relevant documents. My own memory of the incident is that these were all recognized experts in their fields. Some among them would have been proficient in all languages involved. What would Cassidy have achieved by inviting illiterates?
As with Krupp's earlier assertion regarding Pius innocence as victim of Soviet propaganda, this assertion also falls short of credibility.
But whatever the facts regarding the “Russians” or the “Commission,” using an obviously partisan that just happens to be headed by someone described as a Jew as driving the release of these materials achieves nothing. Because the main issue continuing to drive the controversy of Pius silence is still Vatican silence.
It has been thirty years since President Nixon learned the hard way that stonewalling results only in intensifying crisis and loss of credibility. Perhaps the Vatican is yet capable of learning that lesson from history.
If the Holy See would seek absolution both for the silence of its pope as well as its own indifference during the Holocaust; if indeed there truly is no smoking gun hidden in those Secret Archives, then time has long since past to open them and be rid of the appearance of cover-up. The only way to achieve credibility, to clear itself and its wartime pope, is to reconvene the Vatican International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission, and allow the scholars to finally complete their work.
Alternatively the Vatican can remain silent, continue to stonewall. And face the decades and longer repercussions certain to follow its controversial promotion of Eugenio Pacelli to sainthood.