A ‘Wide Lens’ On Pius XII’s Life


Pope Pius XII, head of the Catholic Church during World War II, died in 1958, but a controversy over his reputation lives on. Did he do enough to stand up to the Third Reich? Amazon.com lists 3,002 books about Pius, and they keep appearing.

Two of the most recent are “The Pope’s Jews” (Thomas Dunne Books), by British author Gordon Thomas, which presents previously unpublished documents and interviews with Jews and Catholics who testify to Pius’ role in clandestinely fostering lifesaving activities by the Church; and “Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII” (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press), by Robert Ventresca, associate professor of history at King’s University College of Western Ontario.

Ventresca’s book offers a balanced look at Pius’ career before, during and after the Holocaust. In the run-up to Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, The Jewish Week spoke via e-mail with Ventresca, a founding member and co-chair of the former Center for Catholic-Jewish Learning at his university. This is an edited transcript.

Q: Pius XII has been dead for more than a half-century. Why is there still interest in his life?

A: Interest in Pius XII, especially in his role during World War II, is less about him as a person and more about interest in the Catholic Church and the papacy as an institution. He’s become a lightning rod for a much wider debate about the role of the Church before, during and after the Holocaust, and especially about the lingering effects of traditional anti-Judaism on Catholic attitudes.

What new perspective or facts or sources do you bring to the discussion?

My book views the life and career of Pope Pius XII through as wide a lens as possible. I believe this is the first major study of his long and varied career to make extensive use of a broad and diverse range of sources — in addition to original research in archives and libraries in Europe, the UK and North America, I also re-evaluated the documentary record on which previous studies have been based.

Pius’ critics say he was at best indifferent to the fate of European Jewry during the Holocaust, at worst an anti-Semite who was silent during the war. His supporters say he was a saint, a Righteous Gentile, who helped save countless Jews through his behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Where does the truth lie?

The historical reality lays somewhere in between these widely divergent interpretations. One of the things my book does, using the genre of historical biography, is to revisit these controversial debates over Pius’ role during and after the Holocaust. One of my chief objectives is to dissect some of the commonplace assumptions and outright “myths” that persist in public memory, and hopefully offer some new insights on an old debate.

How much influence did Pius XII have — in other words, what could he have accomplished in preventing the Final Solution had he taken a more-public stand against the Nazis?

His influence was considerable, but not nearly as extensive or as widespread as we might think. He, along with most members of the Vatican’s diplomatic corps, were keenly aware of the limits of their influence, even over Catholics, be they political leaders or ordinary citizens.

Pius XII, who earlier served in Munich, was clearly a lover of Germany, or of German Catholicism. Is it fair to call him “Hitler’s Pope?”

Clearly it’s not fair. Pius XII was not a pro-Nazi pope, nor would it be fair to ascribe to him some measure of sympathy for the Nazi ideology or complicity in Nazi policies. It’s one thing to acknowledge that he insisted on maintaining diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the German state. But this was not the same thing as support for the Hitler regime.

Will Pope Francis, in answering questions about Pius XII’s action during the Shoah or in dealing with his path to being declared a saint, have to contend with Pius XII’s legacy?

There’s no doubt that the new pope will have to contend with Pius XII’s legacy, in all its complexity. Doubtless there will be renewed calls for the new pope to hasten access to the remaining files from Pius XII’s pontificate that have yet to be made available to researchers.