The evolving legacy of Pope Pius XII: an interview with Ronald J. Rychlak
Ronald J. Rychlak is an American Catholic lawyer, jurist, author, political commentator, and professor at University of Mississippi School of Law. He holds a B.A. in economics from Wabash College and a J.D. from Vanderbilt University. He has been awarded medals for diplomatic service to the Holy See from St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI and has received numerous awards for his scholarship.
Holder of the Jamie L. Whitten Chair in Law and Government at Ole Miss, Professor Rychlak is an advisor to the Holy See’s delegation to the United Nations and a member of the Mississippi Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Known for his research on the role of Pope Pius XII in World War II, he is the author of several books, including Hitler, the War, and the Pope. On Aug. 22, I interviewed Professor Rychlak by email about the changing legacy of Pope Pius XII.
How would you characterize the current reputation of Pope Pius XII among historians?
It has improved over the past decade or two. Certainly it is better among historians than it is among those who are only casually aware of the whole controversy about his leadership during World War II and the Shoah.
The first edition of your book Hitler, the War, and the Pope appeared in 2000 just in time to rebut journalist John Cornwell’s 1999 book Hitler’s Pope, in which he charged that Pope Pius XII was a Nazi collaborator who didn’t do enough to save the Jews. In your view, how has public perception of Pius XII shifted in the past 15 years, if at all?
Hitler, the War, and the Pope came out on the heels of Cornwell’s book, but it was not intended as a rebuttal, just a fair accounting of what happened. We were actually at the printer when I first saw Hitler’s Pope. We held up printing so that I could add 40+ pages of analysis in an epilogue. I think anyone who reads that epilogue can see the sloppiness and outright dishonesty that went into Hitler’s Pope. (Cornwell disliked it so much that in his next book he called me “the Vatican’s favorite trial lawyer.” I took it as a compliment.)
In 2005, at the urging of Catholic philosopher Michael Novak, I wrote Righteous Gentiles: How Pope Pius XII Saved Half a Million Jews from the Nazis. That book was a rebuttal, but not just to Cornwell. In it I tried to answer all of the claims that I heard being made by papal critics.
As for the shift in public perception, there is still a long way to go, but more and more historians are coming out on the pro-Pius side; the Congregation for the Causes of Saints gathered overwhelming evidence of Pius XII’s efforts to save all victims of the Nazis, especially the Jews; revelations by Ion Mihai Pacepa (my co-author on the book Disinformation) and others have shown that Pius XII’s reputation was intentionally smeared by Soviet intelligence agencies in part of a covert war against the church; and we are seeing many more Jewish and Catholic leaders speaking up on behalf of the truth. So, we are moving in the right direction.
Your book pointed out that Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 play “The Deputy” originated the claim that Pius XII did nothing to stop the Holocaust. As we can see from reading World War II-era newspaper editorials, what was wrong with that claim?
First off, I’d say that we should no longer refer to “The Deputy” as Hochhuth’s play. As explained in the second edition of Hitler, the War, and the Pope and then elaborated upon in Disinformation, that play was outlined, crafted, translated, published, produced, and promoted by Soviet operatives. Hochhuth certainly played a role as the front man, but as early as 1969, British Intelligence recognized that he was involved in some kind of pro-Soviet campaign to discredit Western leaders and heroes. Pacepa’s admission that he was part of this scheme led me and others to do research that confirmed the Soviet hand behind this play.
The Soviets were in a virtual Cold War with the Catholic Church at this time, and literature was at the heart of it. In Berlin, where “The Deputy” debuted, theaters were openly political and propagandistic. “The Deputy” was the first play produced by a theater group that was established in West Berlin for the express purpose of spreading pro-Communist propaganda to an audience that could no longer cross over into East Berlin due to the Berlin Wall. The producer was a life-long communist who openly used the theater to advance the proletariat agenda.
The Soviets, of course, did not care that this depiction departed from the truth in significant ways. They were writing a new history; one that differed from editorials that appeared in the New York Times and elsewhere praising Pius as a staunch opponent of Hitler and a champion of Nazi victims. Unfortunately, the world’s greatest propaganda machine did significant damage to Pius XII’s reputation.
I might note that the Kremlin did not actually care about an already deceased pontiff. By discrediting any pope—particularly by linking him to the Nazis, as they had done with Mindszenty, Stepinac, Beran, Wyszinski, and numerous other churchmen after World War II—they also brought discredit on the Catholic Church, Christianity, Western values and perhaps the very concept of religion. That was a big deal for atheistic Communism.
In 2014, Pope Francis defended Pius XII in a Spanish newspaper interview, promising that sealed documents from the Vatican secret archive would show the pope had directly saved Italian Jews. As promised, the Vatican released some of those documents later that year. What did these records actually show us?
In 2014, I took part in a conference held in Rome in anticipation of the opening of those archives. Unfortunately, most of those archives remain sealed. I did, however, have dinner with the head of one of the principal archives. He assured me that the news will all be good—in other words, consistent with all of the other evidence we have about Pius XII's character and determination to help the victims.
More importantly, new evidence has been unearthed in archives outside of the Vatican. In fact, that is where much of the most interesting evidence has always been found. It was dangerous to keep papers in the Vatican. Pius and the Curia knew that Nazi forces might invade at any minute, so they were very judicious in their use of the written word. Archives outside of the Vatican, however, have proven quite fruitful.
Perhaps the most important recent revelations can be found in Mark Riebling's new book, Church of Spies: The Pope's Secret War Against Hitler. It's an amazing book that documents Pius XII's role in the conspiracies against Hitler, including those with better known co-conspirators like Bonhoeffer and Stauffenberg. I have written a bit about Pius XII's involvement with these groups, but the archival documents that Riebling found in German, Italian, and other archives are overwhelmingly compelling.
In 2014, Pope Francis also announced that Pope Pius XII’s cause for canonization had stalled due to a lack of reported miracles through his intercession. While opening the archives on Pius XII may help his image in the long run, it seems uncertain that his reputation will ever recover fully from its postwar drop. What are your own thoughts on Pius XII’s future prospects for sainthood?
Like Pope Francis said, it's down to the miracles now. The cause has never been stopped. There have been some very promising reported miracles, but they have to be verified. Delay related to that is to be expected.
Vatican historians, theologians and bishops have concluded that he led a life of “heroic virtue” and that he is venerable. The Vatican's official report, the Positio, covers all the issues and stands as the Vatican's official analysis of his life. I am particularly proud that it refers to my “excellent book Hitler, the War, and the Pope” and says that my epilogue “is a detailed and well documented refutation of the falsehoods in Cornwell's book; it is a final and definitive demolition of that work.”
I expect that Pius will one day be named a saint, but I also do not expect that to end the debate. The bigger issue may be the petition to have him named as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem, which was filed a few years ago. He deserves that honor and perhaps one day will receive it.
Although you’re not a professional historian, you started writing about Pope Pius XII because you were astonished at the things people were saying about him. What are some lingering stereotypes which Americans continue to hold today about Pius XII?
When I started studying Pius XII, I did not know anything about the controversy. I looked into it because a colleague of mine said that he had been a Nazi. I've often said that if Cornwell's book had been out, I probably would have read it and stopped there. Instead, I found contradicting reports that drew me into deeper research, ultimately leading to the truth.
There are a lot of lingering falsehoods. When you read accounts by people who actually knew him, they say that Pius was a brilliant conversationalist, funny, a good card player (in his younger days), very compassionate, and someone who truly brightened a room. The false narrative developed in “The Deputy” and elaborated upon in numerous books, articles and reviews since then, has him as a cold, aloof aristocrat who cared more about papal authority than human life. It's true that he had an illness late in life that left him more distant, but until then he was recognized as a particularly warm and welcoming pope.
As for not being a professional historian, that’s true. I do, however, think that I can evaluate evidence pretty well. My book for lawyers, Real and Demonstrative Evidence, is in its third edition. Fair evaluation of the evidence is the key, not who discovered any particular document. Unfortunately, too many authors in this area have been less than honest with the evidence.
When you meet someone today who voices the opinion that Pope Pius XII “did nothing” or “didn’t do enough” about the Holocaust, how do you respond?
I suggest that they read Hitler, the War, and the Pope. If I really like them, I'll give them a copy!
Israel Zolli, the Chief Rabbi in Rome from 1939 to 1945, converted to Catholicism at the end of the war and took the name of Eugenio in honor of his close friend Pius XII, whose birth name was Eugenio Pacelli. But Yad Vashem, the state of Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, has generally been critical of the pope, refusing several nominations to honor him as Righteous Among the Gentiles. How do you reconcile the wartime popularity of Pius XII among Italian Jews with the Israeli government’s more recent ambiguity toward him?
Chief Rabbi Zolli wrote a good book about his experiences and his conversion. It’s called “Before the Dawn.”
Like everyone who was close to Pius during the war, Zolli attested to the good work that Pius did to protect Jews from the Nazis. In fact, Roman Jews put up a plaque at their synagogue thanking Pius for his help. I believe a picture of it (along with a ton of other evidence) can be found on the web page of the Pave the Way Foundation.
As for Yad Vashem, there has been some positive development. They revised a prominent plaque on Pius XII, moving from a critical assessment to a more neutral one. It's not where I'd like to see it or where I think it will end up, but it is a significant improvement. As more and more evidence comes forth to show the Soviet hand behind the smear campaign, I think even more opinions will change.
Looking at the career of Pius XII as a whole, and not merely at the record of his dealings with Nazi Germany, what do you believe were his greatest accomplishments?
Saving Jewish lives, particularly in Rome, has to rank high. In addition, I might add his role in the Cold War and fighting off a communist takeover of Italy. Numerous commentators have pointed out that his openness to ecumenism reshaped Catholic theological work and laid the groundwork for Vatican II. He encouraged women religious to study theology, scripture and psychology. He also defined the dogma of the Assumption of Mary.
In your view, what were Pius XII’s biggest shortcomings as pope?
He certainly did not devote much attention to public relations! Actually, he once said something to the effect that a statement might make him look better in the eyes of the world, but it would likely bring more suffering on innocents, so he did not do it.
What do you hope people will take away from your work on Pius XII?
I hope people recognize that I have striven to find the truth, that I documented my work, and that I reached logical conclusions as I evaluated the evidence.
You’ve written a lot on politics and law in addition to your work on Pius XII. What’s your next project?
I just edited a book called American Law from a Catholic Perspective: Through a Clearer Lens. I'm very proud of that work. We have contributions from many of the most insightful Catholic lawyers and law professors in the nation. Currently I'm writing a chapter on Pope Pius XII for a book on papal social teachings.
If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about Pope Pius XII, what would it be?
Francis once said that he gets an “existential rash” when he sees people speaking against Pius XII and the church during World War II, but I doubt that I would mention that to him.
After thanking him for all he has done, I simply would say that I—along with many others—have investigated all of the charges that have been made about Pius XII. They do not hold water. He should not hesitate to open any archives on that basis.
What are your hopes for the future?
As the father of six, my hopes are for my children, that they have peace and prosperity. I also hope that they have the drive to seek the truth, the tenacity to find it, and the courage to defend it.
Any final thoughts?
I'm sure some people will resist what I am saying. People have set ideas, and those are always hard to change. Understand, however, that during and after the war, Pius XII was recognized as an arch-enemy of the Nazis. That near-universal perception changed only after Soviet and Soviet bloc intelligence agencies—the greatest propaganda machinery the world has ever seen—went into high gear to discredit him. Many people, in absolute good faith, have been deceived by that Kremlin-directed disinformation.
You have to look past the false narrative. The truth is out there. During the war, the Nazis despised Pius XII, the Jews praised him and the rescuers cited him as their inspiration. They are the real witnesses; they are the people to whom we should listen.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.