Canonization of Pope Pius XII?

Dialogika Resources

Three expert Q&As about Pope Pius XII's problematic path to sainthood

From the National Post (Toronto, Canada)

1: Robert Ventresca, a historian at King’s University College at the University of Western Ontario. He is working on a biography of Pius XII titled Soldier of Christ: The Political Life of Pope Pius XII.

Q: What is the biggest misunderstanding about Pius?

A: Perhaps the area of the greatest confusion about Pius XII surrounds the question of his alleged silences during the Holocaust. There is no doubt that Pius XII never issued the kind of explicit condemnation and/or formal rupture in diplomatic relations with the Hitler state that was being asked of him from various quarters as early as September 1939. The Pope chose the path of more circumspect public addresses ­ still principled but without naming the crimes in question; some people at the time, and since, judged this as a failure of moral leadership or even of judgment. But it is not true that he did nothing or said nothing. Nor is it a case of him having been soft on Nazism or
wanting to appease Hitler. I don’t see that. I see, rather, a certain reasoned, deliberate choice to avoid the kind of public statement or gesture that, as he saw it, might provoke unintended consequences. Again, perhaps this was a failed policy, seen against the light of subsequent events. But there is a compelling case to be made that his more cautious approach protected the institutional integrity of Church institutions in Germany, Italy and elsewhere in occupied Europe. And that institutional presence ­ the papal nuncios in places like Budapest, for example ­ became havens for Jews.

Q: Do you think the Vatican is wise to push ahead with his cause given the number of questions that hover over him? And is the Holy See moving too fast?

A: The question of Pius XII’s cause for canonization continues to be the source of continued friction and misunderstanding. In part it is because of an apparent inability or unwillingness of the Vatican at times to communicate effectively, and in part because of a stubborn unwillingness on the part of some in the media and the general public to pay close attention to what the Vatican says and does. Perhaps it cannot be otherwise given the painfully sensitive issues in question but some measure of proportion about where things actually stand seems in order. I do not read the Pope’s recent decree approving recognition of Pius XII’s heroic virtues [in December 2009] necessarily to be a sign of an acceleration of the cause to have Pius XII declared a saint. It is, of course, a step along that path but we are still a good way away from eventual canonization. So, in a sense, everyone should take a deep breath before rushing to judgment of one kind or another about where the cause actually stands.

It is important to remember that by the Church’s own exacting criteria, the cause for canonization demands an exhaustive historical study of the candidate’s life. If it is the case that a full historical study of the life and activity of Pius XII remains incomplete ­while we wait for the release of the Vatican records for his pontificate ­ then it is perfectly sensible to expect this part of the process to be conducted in a diligent manner before the cause proceeds. Again, the Church demands nothing less of itself when considering a candidate for beatification or canonization.

Q: Why was Pius suspicious of democracies?

A: I think it’s true that Pius XII was not a great admirer of liberal democracy; everything about his personal experiences and intellectual formation would have made him suspicious of liberal democracy, especially in light of its anti-clerical tendencies in traditionally Catholic countries like Italy and France. But, as with most other issues, one has to look at the nuances of Pius’ philosophy and his practical approach to dealing with the modern state.

Q: Was there a logic to him appearing to be neutral during the war?

A: From the time he was a junior papal diplomat, to his eventful tenure as Secretary of State in the 1930s, to the even more eventful years of his pontificate from 1939 to 1958, Pius XII held firm to a basic precept of papal diplomacy and one might even say Catholic political theology ­ that the Church expressed no particular preference for any one form of government, leaving it to individual nations to decide on the type of government proper to its unique history and needs. The chief objective of papal diplomacy was to carve out for the
Church meaningful autonomy within any given system of government within which to exercise its spiritual, super-natural and supra-national mission.

Q: Do you think he saw Nazism as the lesser evil to Stalin and the Communists?

A: Pius, before even before he became pope, did not think of Nazism as the ‘lesser evil.’ While in the Vatican archives recently, I came across resolute declarations by Pius from the late 1930s to the effect that the Nazis intended to destroy the Catholic Church and Christianity. In other words, he was under no illusions about the true nature of National Socialism; about its racial doctrine; about its aggressive foreign policy objectives. I would say, however, that he also saw the Soviets as a great geo-political and moral/ideological threat to the rest of Europe; and so rather than seeing Nazism as a lesser evil in that context, Pius, like many other Western observers in the 1930s through to the 1950s, saw a united and stable Germany as an essential buffer or bulwark against the advance of Soviet communism.


2: James Carroll is the author of Constantine’s Sword, a history of Christian anti-Semitism through the ages.

Q: This debate has become utterly polarized. It almost seems that if one is not for sainthood, that you must be an enemy of the Church and of Pius. As a Catholic, how do you feel about this?

A: You don’t have to believe Pius XII was some kind of war criminal to oppose canonization. I don’t accept the slanderous characterizations of him in The Deputy. [The Deputy was a play that came out in 1963 and has become the basis for much popular sentiment against Pius.] A lot of people think to oppose canonization is to demonize Pius XII.

Q: But you do not think he should be made a saint?

A: It’s to me clear from the historical record that Pius was not a figure of heroic stature during the great moral test of the 20th Century. Why would you be canonizing this man? I’ll suggest an answer: what’s really at stake here is a defensive hierarchy of the Vatican looking for ways to shore up the threatened authority of the top levels of Church leadership. If a pope could fail in the greatest moral test what does that say about the reliability of any pope’s moral leadership? Benedict is trying to shore up that authority. This is not really about making Pius a saint. It has become a totemic issue that is a substitute for a whole world view argument that only a few Germans were Nazis, that Polish Catholics were as much a victim of Hitler as Jews. Making Pius a saint is a way to minimize the Church’s failure to act during the Holocaust and serves to maximize papal authority today.

Q: Forgetting about the process of canonization, what is your historical judgment of the man?

A: I think the historical judgment has much more to do with his behaviour when he was the papal legate in Berlin in 1933 in Berlin, six years before he became pope. The Reich concordat was the great moral failure of the Catholic Church in the 20th Century, in my view, and it was his negotiations and his document. Hitler comes to power in January 1933 and by April Hitler launched a boycott of Jewish-owned businesses. Jewish books were burned and Jews were beaten. It was the Nazi party declaring its intention to badger and punish Jews; it was putting the principles of Mein Kampf into action. It was clear by then what was happening. In the midst of this, Eugenio Pacelli (before he became Pius) opens negotiations. Hitler got moral authority from approval of the Vatican. Hitler’s way forward was enabled by the Vatican.


3: Margherita Marchione, a Roman Catholic nun who has written 10 books about Pius XII, with a special emphasis on Pius’ behaviour in Rome when the Germans occupied the city in 1943 and instituted deportations of Jews soon after.

Q: Why should he be made a saint?

A: The point of having him beatified is to encourage the Catholic population who love him and want to revere him. As far as I’m concerned, he’s already a saint. I would also say to encourage Catholics in their beliefs and correcting the errors of historians. The documents prove without a doubt that he saved approximately 5,000 Jews in 1943 when the Nazis occupied Rome. He did that by opening the doors of convents and monasteries. He told the bishops to encourage Catholics to save Jews either in Church institutions or in their own homes. We had three convents and in one convent there were 60 Jewish women. Now how could these nuns supply food for 60 extra people during a time when food was rationed? The Holy Father sent trucks from the Vatican to the convents to bring extra food. When the bombs were falling on Rome he was praying in his chapel and as soon as he could get out he rushed out to the areas that were being bombed in order to help the people. Here he was in the midst of all this devastation and people crying asking for help and here he was right on the scene. His actions speak louder than words and his actions prove he was someone very special.

Q: Where do the myths come from?

A: Many great people have been misunderstood and he’s just one of those great people. He has been misunderstood because of the rumours that were spread. While he was alive the world revered him, including Jews. They know what he did during the war. He was the only leader in the world who saved 5,000 Jews, and that was just in Rome. What did Roosevelt do? Roosevelt sent a shipload of Jews and Jewish children [before the war] back to Germany. Allied leaders refused to bomb the rail lines leading to Auschwitz. What did they do? Pius did nothing but tried to save people. He’s being judged by a measure far more severe than people who were in safe places rather than being in the middle of it.

Q: But why didn’t he speak out more forcefully?

A: If he had, what good would it have done? It would have made the Nazis pounce on him and made matters worse. His silence was not really silence; that silence protected the Jews. Naturally he was concerned about the Church too. But he was really concerned about all of humanity.