No one in 20th-century church history has attracted more controversy than Eugenio Pacelli, who as Pope Pius XII reigned from 1939 to 1958. To his critics, he was the pope who shamefully failed to protest the mass murder of Europe’s Jews. To his defenders, for whom his sainthood has become a sacred cause, he was a holy man who did all in his power to save Europe’s Jews and preserve the church through perilous times. In this new biography, the historian Robert A. Ventresca provides what he sees as an antidote to the “Pius war,” offering a balanced examination based on primary sources.
The last Roman pope, Pacelli, born in 1876, came from a family identified with Rome’s black papal nobility, his father and grandfather prominent in Vatican service. The combination of Eugenio’s family connections and his own intelligence and drive led to early placement in the office of the Vatican secretary of state and a rapid rise there. In 1917, with the Great War still raging, he was sent to Munich to become papal nuncio, moving on in 1925 to establish the nunciature in Berlin. The 12 years he would spend in Germany are central to understanding his life.
Pius XI chose Pacelli to become his secretary of state, recalling him to Rome in late 1929 and offering him the cardinal’s hat. It was natural for the pope to turn to him to help cope with the unstable situation in Germany. Pius XI’s decision, at Pacelli’s urging, to enter into a concordat with Hitler shortly after he came to power in 1933 offers one of the early points of dispute in the “Pius war.” The pope’s reversal of German church leaders’ previous condemnation of the National Socialists, along with Pacelli’s concordat negotiations, paved the way for the dissolution of the Catholic Center Party. Heinrich Brüning, Center Party chancellor of Germany from 1930 to 1932, famously denounced Pacelli for abandoning the party to make a deal with Hitler.
Pacelli learned to his horror that Engelbert Dollfuss, Austrian chancellor at the time, was writing a denunciation of his own, charging that the Vatican’s concordat with Germany undermined Austria’s ability to resist a Nazi takeover. A devout Catholic and leader of Austria’s Social Christian Party, Dollfuss was much appreciated by Pius XI. When Pacelli heard of the document, Ventresca tells us, he met with the Austrian ambassador to the Holy See and asked him “to expunge any trace of Dollfuss’s critique from the archives.” Dollfuss himself was assassinated by the Nazis in 1934, four years before Nazi Germany seized Austria.
It is a mark of Ventresca’s desire to adopt a balanced approach in dealing with such controversial topics that in evaluating Pacelli’s life-long defense of the German concordat he leaves the judgment to the reader. “He was either unwilling or perhaps simply incapable of envisioning alternative means of engaging with Hitler.” He adds, “This was evidence either of a resolute character and prudential judgment, or, conversely, of a fateful inability to admit mistakes and to learn from them.”
Much of Ventresca’s book focuses on relations with Germany, including Pacelli’s role in restraining an increasingly irascible and combative Pius XI from doing anything that might risk a break with the Nazi regime. Ventresca attributes the measured tone and absence of any explicit reference to National Socialism in the pope’s famous 1937 encyclical, “Mit Brennender Sorge,” which denounced the failure of the German government to abide by the concordat, to Pacelli’s influence. As for the Vatican decision not to say anything about Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom of 1938, he mentions the plea by the Archbishop of Westminster to Pacelli and the pope to speak out. “Pacelli’s response to Hinsley’s suggestion was characteristically evasive,” writes Ventresca.
Ventresca passes fairly quickly over another controversial episode, one whose contours are only now becoming better known with the recent opening of the Vatican archives for the Pius XI papacy. Pius XI died the day before all the bishops of Italy, together with various high government officials, were to mark the 10th anniversary of the Lateran accords that had put an end to the decades of conflict between the Holy See and the Italian state. Benito Mussolini feared that the pope would use the occasion to denounce Italian Fascism and the Fascists’ embrace of the Nazis.
Upon the pope’s death, Pacelli used his position as chamberlain to suppress the text of the remarks the pope was to deliver. He also buried the text of the secret encyclical that the pope had commissioned denouncing racism and anti-Semitism. Neither document would see the light of day until after Pacelli’s death.
Pacelli was eager to turn over a new leaf with both Mussolini and Hitler, and in fact both governments were much relieved by his election as pope. Although others have been critical of Pacelli’s decision to conceal Pius XI’s final two efforts to distance the church from the totalitarian regimes, Ventresca offers a much more nonjudgmental interpretation. “In both instances,” he writes, “Eugenio Pacelli showed himself very much to be his own man, deftly steering a course for papal diplomacy consistent with his temperament and philosophy.”
Ventresca’s account of Pacelli’s almost two decades as pope concentrates heavily on the Second World War, the Holocaust and its immediate legacy. Although under intense pressure to do so, the pope refused to denounce publicly the Nazis’ invasion of Poland in 1939 or its invasion of France the following year. As Ventresca writes, he did not want to seem to be taking sides. Moreover, in these early war years the pope thought it likely that the Nazis would win and worried about the damage the church would suffer if it were identified with the losing side.
As Ventresca amply demonstrates, criticism of the pope’s silence began early in the war and came in good part from Catholics. For Catholic critics in the midst of the war, he writes, “the pope’s refusal to condemn explicitly Nazi aggression…began to feel like a failure of moral leadership, a betrayal of the pastoral function of the papal office.” Ventresca also notes that even after the war, when the pope was no longer constrained by worries about protecting the church from the Nazis, he “offered no special word of acknowledgement or comfort to the Jews.” This, concludes Ventresca, provides “further evidence of his unwillingness or inability to grasp the true nature and scale of the Nazi war against the Jews and its consequences.” Likewise, “any frank talk about the thorny problem of lingering anti-Semitism throughout Europe, let alone the historical legacy of anti-Judaism, was out of the question.”
After the picture that Ventresca has painted, his conclusions come as something of a surprise. Following a final section detailing the “tendency toward inertia, stagnation, and reaction” that marked the last years of Pius XII’s reign, he offers a final, highly positive assessment. “[T]here is a strong argument to be made,” he writes, “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.”
Thanks to the rich historical evidence Ventresca has brought together here, readers will be able to reach their own conclusions.