The Perfect Pattern of a Prelate

Eamon Duffy

  • The Life and Pontificate of Pope Pius XII: Between History and Controversy by Frank Coppa
    Catholic University of America, 306 pp, £25.50, February 2013, ISBN 978 0 8132 2016 1
  • The Pope’s Jews: The Vatican’s Secret Plan to Save Jews from the Nazis by Gordon Thomas
    Robson, 336 pp, £20.00, February 2013, ISBN 978 1 84954 506 8
  • Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII by Robert Ventresca
    Harvard, 405 pp, £25.00, January 2013, ISBN 978 0 674 04961 1

The reputation of Eugenio Pacelli, who reigned as Pope Pius XII from March 1939 until his death in October 1958, is an object lesson in the fragility of popularity and public esteem. Pacelli was a favoured son of Rome’s ‘black nobility’, the cluster of families whose 19th-century fortunes were built on service to the papacy. In these circles, the Pacellis ranked very high, described by one historian as the most important papal family since the Borgias. Eugenio’s grandfather, Marcantonio, was a key financial administrator under Pope Pius IX until the fall of the Papal States in 1870, and then editor of the official papal newspaper, Osservatore Romano. The future pope’s cousin Ernesto was the banker who directed the papacy’s investment policy under Pope Leo XIII, and was largely responsible for the stabilisation of its finances after the loss of the papal territories to the Italian state. Eugenio’s older brother, Francesco, was the lawyer who handled most of the negotiations for the Lateran Pact of 1929, the treaty that normalised the papacy’s relations with Fascist Italy and established the Vatican City State, and with it the political arrangements that still safeguard the spiritual autonomy of the papacy in a secular Italy.

Eugenio was ordained in 1899 and immediately entered papal service as a junior official in the Secretariat of State. His family’s high prestige would have ensured him an auspicious start on the ecclesiastical ladder, but he was in any case exceptionally gifted. Devout, sensitive, memorably distinguished-looking, with long elegant hands, a classic aquiline Roman nose and enormous expressive eyes, he also had a prodigious memory, a lucid legal mind and a gift for languages. Under four popes – Leo XIII, Pius X, Benedict XV and Pius XI – Pacelli steadily grew in esteem and influence. He was the chief draftsman of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which greatly extended the powers of the papacy over the universal church. As nuncio to Germany from 1917 until 1929 he developed a lifelong love of Germany and its culture, and emerged as one of the architects of the papacy’s European diplomatic policy, particularly the concordats, treaties designed to protect the Church’s interests and freedom of action under non-Catholic regimes. As a witness to the Munich Bolshevik putsch in 1919, and the Vatican’s chief contact with Soviet Russia until negotiations collapsed in 1927, he acquired a deep-seated dread of communism that would shape many of his decisions as pope. In 1930 Pacelli succeeded his former mentor, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, as cardinal secretary of state to the fiery Pope Pius XI. He was now the second most powerful man in the Catholic Church, just as the papacy confronted the apparently unstoppable rise of hostile totalitarian powers all over Europe. As secretary of state, he attempted to temper and restrain Pius XI’s increasingly confrontational response to Fascism and Nazi racial theory. But he was also one of the principal authors of the papal encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, a swingeing attack on Nazi ideology, which to Hitler’s fury was smuggled into Germany and read from Catholic pulpits on Palm Sunday 1937.

Pacelli was elected pope in March 1939, in one of the shortest conclaves in papal history. Between then and his death he became a sort of icon, everyone’s idea of what a proper pope should be. It was an image deliberately cultivated, not least in the 1942 Vatican propaganda movie Pastor Angelicus, in which, in the midst of a good deal of Ruritanian pomp and flummery, Pacelli emerged as the very image of spiritual distinction, an austere swift-moving figure robed in white, his arms thrown wide and his face raised to heaven in prayer. In the flesh, as well as on celluloid, he charmed everyone who met him, from Kaiser Wilhelm II, who considered the young diplomat’s exquisite manners and refined intelligence ‘the perfect pattern of an eminent prelate of the Catholic Church’, to D’arcy Osborne, the British government’s representative in Rome during World War Two, who, though often critical of Pacelli’s actions – and inaction – thought him the saintliest man he had ever met, and wished that he was Catholic so that he could receive communion from the papal hands. Sensationally, at the end of the war, the chief rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, converted to Catholicism and took the baptismal name Eugenio, in gratitude, he explained, for the pope’s efforts on behalf of the Jews during the war. When Pacelli died in 1958 there was an outpouring of admiration: the Israeli foreign minister, Golda Meir, praised Pius as one who, in their darkest hour, had ‘raised his voice in favour of the Jews’.

The bubble was burst in 1963 by Rolf Hochhuth’s sensational play, The Deputy: A Christian Tragedy. This clunky five-hour drama about the Holocaust portrayed Pacelli as an icy and calculating schemer, heartlessly indifferent to the fate of the Jews, intent instead on protecting Vatican financial interests and maintaining Nazi Germany as a bulwark against Soviet communism. It was a gross caricature, but with just enough basis in fact to lend it plausibility. The play’s impact had much to do with timing. The Israeli kidnapping, trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann had intensified public interest in the Holocaust. Within the Catholic Church itself, the Second Vatican Council was revolutionising Catholic thought and practice. Pacelli had published a series of remarkable encyclicals initiating far-reaching reforms of the Latin liturgy and opening Catholic theology and biblical studies to new methods and ideas. But his pontificate had also seen a corresponding reaction against theological liberalisation, and a repressive campaign by the Holy Office (the Inquisition) against theologians deemed to have stepped beyond the bounds of orthodoxy. In his later years, many of the theologians who would one day set the agenda for the reforms of Vatican II found themselves forbidden to teach or publish. So in the wake of the council, Pius, himself a product of the fortress Catholicism of late 19th-century Rome, became for many Catholics the symbol of a repressive, inward-looking church, at odds with the contemporary world. That perception led many to believe that Hochhuth’s allegations might contain some truth. The subsequent controversy, astonishing in its bitterness, forced the Holy See to appoint an international historical commission of Jesuit scholars, who between 1965 and 1981 issued the massive Actes et documents du Saint Siège relatifs à la Seconde Guerre Mondiale, 11 volumes of material selected from the archives to illustrate the activities of the Vatican on behalf of victims of violence and persecution in all the theatres of war.

Actes et documents was an invaluable historical resource, but it fuelled rather than halted controversy. The fact that the rest of the archives for Pacelli’s pontificate remained (and remain) closed, and that the 11 volumes consisted of ‘selected’ documents, prompted speculation that more sinister material was being concealed. A decisive verdict on Pacelli’s record was also hindered by the lack of any personal papers, which he had ordered to be destroyed after his death, a lack only partly compensated for by the oral and written testimony which was gathered for the process of his canonisation. But whatever the limits of the evidence, books and articles for and against the dead pope have continued to pour from the press, their contrasting positions sufficiently indicated by two representative titles – Michael O’Carroll’s Pius XII: Greatness Dishonoured and John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII.

The case against Pacelli is both complex and cumulative. As nuncio in Munich he experienced the seizure of power by the communists, led by Kurt Eisner, who was Jewish. Pacelli had no time for contemporary racial theory and was not an anti-semite, but he undoubtedly shared the low-level anti-Judaism widespread in church and society in his day, and the belief that responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus lay with the Jewish people collectively. His dispatches to Rome make clear his distaste for the persons and bohemian lifestyle of the putsch’s leaders, and the association in his mind between their Bolshevism and the Jewish origins of many of them.

More to the point, Pacelli in these years was committed to a policy, inherited from his mentor Cardinal Gasparri, of securing concordats with as many non-Catholic political regimes as possible, in order to protect the Church’s freedom of action. This involved a moral trade-off: the Vatican undertook to keep out of politics in return for uncensored communication between Rome and the local bishops, and freedom for Catholic religious houses, schools, newspapers, trade unions and welfare organisations. This policy seemed to some to amount to a pact with the devil, since it reduced the Church’s freedom to speak out against injustice or breaches of human rights. The criticism is probably anachronistic: the notion of ‘human rights’ had not yet gained wide currency. But to many the policy seemed utterly discredited anyway by the Vatican’s 1933 concordat with the newly formed Nazi government, which was designed to safeguard the interests of the Catholic Church in Germany, but also represented the first international recognition of Hitler’s regime.

Pacelli masterminded this concordat, but he had no illusions about Hitler, whom he despised. He knew the Nazis were likely to ignore the concordat whenever it suited them. But he believed that even a broken treaty was better than no treaty at all. Schooled by a lifetime in the Vatican Secretariat of State, his first instinct in the face of atrocity was to write a diplomatic note of protest. Public denunciation, he believed, might relieve the denouncer’s feelings, but closed the door to negotiation and the possibility of practical remedies.

The opening in 2006 of the papers of Pacelli’s predecessor, Pope Pius XI, revealed for the first time the extent to which Pacelli’s commitment to diplomatic caution contributed to a growing rift between Pius XI and his secretary of state as the 1930s unfolded. Pius XI was no democrat, but he detested Nazi racial theory, and was increasingly horrified by the practical consequences of Fascist and Nazi ideology. Anti-semitism, he believed, was incompatible with Christianity’s claim to continuity with the religion of Israel: spiritually, he declared, ‘We are all Semites.’ To Pacelli’s dismay, the pope became increasingly outspoken in denunciation, and it now seems clear that his involvement in the drafting of the fierce encyclical Mit brennender Sorge was a matter of reluctant obedience rather than belief in his boss’s confrontational tactics. This divergence became clear in 1938, when the pope circumvented Pacelli altogether, and secretly commissioned Father John LaFarge, an American Jesuit campaigner against racism, to compose an encyclical for him condemning Nazi anti-semitism. But the draft encyclical, Humani Generis Unitas (‘On the Unity of the Human Race’), reached Pius XI’s desk when he was already terminally ill, and remained unsigned at his death. It was not published until 1995, though Pacelli incorporated some of its affirmations about the unity of the human race, suitably generalised, into his first encyclical, on the eve of war.

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With Pacelli’s election as pope, diplomacy triumphed over denunciation. His decisive formation as a diplomat had come during the First World War under Pope Benedict XV. Benedict aspired to be the arbiter of peace between the warring nations, and to that end had adopted a policy of undeviating ‘impartiality’, refusing to denounce atrocities by one side or the other on the grounds that the Father of all the Faithful must not be seen to take sides. Given the moral ambiguities everyone now acknowledges in the First World War, this was a defensible position, particularly as after his death it became clear that Pope Benedict had virtually emptied the Vatican coffers to fund humanitarian and relief work.

As pope, Pacelli would emulate Benedict XV in almost every detail: he too saw the papacy as a potential referee in any peace process, and believed that the Common Father must remain impartial above the smoke and dust of battle. But what had made moral sense in the First World War was far more problematic in the war against Nazism. Pacelli was well informed about Nazi atrocities, and lamented them in private, though like everyone else before 1945 he did not fully grasp the horror of the Final Solution. But his ‘impartiality’ had some warrant in the fact that he was also aware of Soviet atrocities and believed that Britain and America’s alliance with the mass murderer Stalin, even in the interests of defeating Hitler, ruled out any simple equation of the Allied and Axis powers with the forces of good and evil.

This goes a long way to explain Pacelli’s alleged ‘silence’ about the Nazi extermination of the Jews. Pressed on all sides to condemn, he insisted that he could not denounce Nazi crimes without also denouncing Bolshevik crimes. Instead, he resorted to what Robert Ventresca characterises as ‘formulaic appeals to universal peace and brotherhood, and demands that the belligerents respect the rules of war’. The pope believed that informed hearers would recognise the targets of these generalisations well enough. And his silence was not confined to the fate of the Jews. When Germany invaded Holland and Belgium, Pacelli tore up the draft protest supplied by his advisers and sent telegrams of sympathy to the heads of state, telling the Italian ambassador that had he condemned Germany it would only have made matters worse for the victims. Even more pointedly, when Germany invaded Poland, Pacelli refused to issue an outright denunciation, instead praising Poland’s fidelity to the Catholic faith and lamenting ‘premeditated aggression against a small industrious and peacable people’, without naming the aggressor. There was ample room here for ambiguity. As Frank Coppa points out, when the German foreign minister, Von Ribbentrop, complained about even this mild censure, Pacelli claimed that the ‘small nation’ he had in mind was Finland, not Poland, and that the aggressor, therefore, was Russia. Poles felt betrayed, and the outspoken exiled bishop Karol Radonski told Pius’s secretary of state that the pope’s silence was ‘a cause of spiritual downfall’.

The nearest Pacelli came to an explicit condemnation of the Final Solution was his Christmas Eve broadcast in 1942, in which, after much lobbying from the Allies and some of his own advisers, he included a lament for the ‘hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or to a slow decline’. Within months he was to learn that ‘hundreds of thousands’ was a gross underestimate. Characteristically, however, to the end of his life he believed that this Christmas Eve speech, which mentioned neither the Jews nor the Germans, constituted a strong condemnation of Nazi savagery. To others, even in his own loyal entourage, its convoluted obliquity robbed it of any sting.

He knew that history would judge him harshly, but was convinced of the rectitude of what he called his own ‘supreme rhetorical restraint’. He told Pirro Scavizzi, an Italian army chaplain who kept him briefed on Nazi atrocities in Occupied Europe: ‘Tell everyone you can that the pope agonises for them and with them.’ He had, he explained, often thought of ‘striking Nazism with excommunication’ and denouncing to the civilised world ‘the bestiality of the extermination of the Jews’. But, ‘after much tears and prayer’, he had decided ‘that a protest from me would not have helped anyone, and would have provoked the most ferocious ire against the Jews.’ There was real substance in these fears. When in July 1942 the bishops of Holland denounced the round-up of Dutch Jews, the Nazis responded with mass arrests of Catholics, including 40,000 Catholics of Jewish origin, who until then had enjoyed a degree of immunity. His closest associates testified to the deep impression the Dutch calamity made on Pacelli, convincing him that though the pope might protest in safety, others would bleed and die in consequence.

The policy had its severest test on 16 October 1943, when the occupying Germans began to round up the Jews of Rome and imprisoned more than a thousand of them on the Via Lungaro, half a mile from the Vatican. Most were deported to the gas chambers. On hearing of the arrests, Pacelli responded swiftly, but at one remove: his secretary of state, Cardinal Maglione, summoned Ernst von Weizsacker, the German ambassador, to the Vatican, and begged him to help the victims: it was, he said, ‘painful beyond words’ that so many people ‘under the eyes of the Common Father’, were being made to suffer ‘simply because of their particular background’ – a typical Pacellian euphemism for their Jewishness. He reminded Weizsacker of the pope’s strict policy of impartiality up to this point: ‘The Holy See,’ he hinted, ‘would not want to be obliged to express its disapproval.’ The conversation ended with Maglione assuring Weizsacker that he would now leave the matter in the ambassador’s hands.

This extraordinary intervention has been central to assessments of the adequacy of Papa Pacelli’s response to the genocide unfolding ‘under his very windows’. Weizsacker did take the matter up with Berlin, and there were no more arrests, though the role of Maglione’s intervention in securing that outcome is by no means clear. But many critics, then and since, have argued that rather than making a polite request, however urgent, for diplomatic intervention, the pope should have gone to the railway station himself and insisted that if they deported the Jews, the Germans would have to deport him too.

But there are problems with this scenario. If the pope had forced a confrontation, the precarious immunity of Vatican ‘extra-territorial’ property would certainly have been breached, and the Germans would have searched for fugitives there. In the wake of the arrests of 16 October Rome’s Jews had flocked to Catholic schools, convents and into the Vatican itself. Pacelli is often credited with having ordered the doors to be opened to these refugees, though there is no surviving evidence of any such central directive, and given his extreme caution, a compromising order of that kind seems unlikely. Nevertheless, the institutional response was generous. Estimates of the number of Jews given refuge vary, but the tally certainly ran into thousands. Would the moral luxury of a protest that made clear the pope’s sympathies to the world have been worth the loss of those lives? Pacelli did not think so.

And yet, whatever its short-term consequences, the moral weight of a papal condemnation might have raised awareness of the Final Solution and forced German Catholics to examine their consciences: given the scale of the Nazi genocide, a denunciation might have checked rather than provoked worse atrocity, where worse is hard to imagine. Pius considered this, but what seems to have struck him most forcibly was the possibility that a denunciation might cause large numbers of German Catholics to leave the Church.

In the years after the war, Pius abandoned his policy of taciturn caution in the face of despotism and became a very vocal Cold Warrior. He denounced communism at home and abroad, and excommunicated Catholics who voted Communist in Italian elections. Confronted with communist tyranny, he asked: ‘How can the pope keep silence?’ Catholics living under communist rule certainly suffered on account of these denunciations, but still the pope denounced. He had always thought Stalinism a more formidable danger to Christian civilisation than Nazism, and was sufficiently alarmed by the threat of communism in Italy to try forcing Christian Democrat politicians into alliance with former Fascists. The contrast between wartime silence and Cold War denunciation is very striking.

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These welcome new biographies by Frank Coppa and Robert Ventresca make telling use of the newly available papers of Pius XI. The detailed picture that emerges of Pacelli’s diplomatic career and years as secretary of state brings a new depth to our understanding of this austere and complicated man. Studies of Pius have too often made cases for the prosecution or the defence, in which Pacelli features as a monster or a saint. Gordon Thomas’s account of Pacelli’s response to the Final Solution, for instance, is a tendentious exercise in exculpation and hagiography that implausibly depicts Pacelli as a papal pimpernel, actively masterminding a campaign to save European Jewry. Both Coppa and Ventresca, by contrast, offer more nuanced and believable portraits. Both are conscious of Pacelli’s personal dedication, asceticism and sense of high vocation. Both do justice to his enormous talents, and both draw attention to the excessive self-confidence that led him at times to overestimate his own prowess as a negotiator, though Ventresca also stresses Pacelli’s contrasting proneness to bouts of chronic indecision. Both believe him to have been a great pope, while recognising that his choice of backstairs diplomacy and prudential silence in the face of one of the most appalling crimes in human history raises profound moral questions. Coppa’s study is the more narrowly academic, at times repetitious and wooden, but richly based in the sources and sober in judgment. Ventresca’s is the livelier book and provides a rounded and persuasive portrait of flawed greatness.

It seems likely that the present pope will open the archives for Pacelli’s papacy, and there will then be much to discover: on one estimate, 16,000,000 documents survive from his pontificate, filling 700 boxes. But no amount of documentation is likely to dispel the ambiguities well and sympathetically explored in these two books. Judgments on Papa Pacelli will continue to be shaped by perceptions of his response to the moral dilemmas that confronted the papacy in an age of total war, and that have ever since overshadowed his reputation.