Canonization of Pope Pius XII?

Dialogika Resources

"Rescuing a Pope's Spiritual Legacy"

Pius XII — popularly vilified as “Hitler’s Pope” — is inching closer to becoming a 21st century saint. There are still some imposing tests to be met, and his canonization is far from certain, but under Pope Benedict XVI, an important step on that long journey has been taken.

Having spent some time studying the contentious issue of Pius XII’s role in the Holocaust, Pope Benedict has clearly seen nothing, even in the Vatican’s private records, that would prevent Pius’s canonization. Pope Benedict believes that Pius, born Eugenio Pacelli, worked constantly but prudently behind the scenes during the war, directing papal representatives and Catholic institutions throughout Europe to shelter and rescue thousands of Jews. This announcement suggests that Benedict intends to use the full weight of the papal office to challenge the public image of the wartime pope.

What makes Benedict’s decision so potentially provocative is that it will challenge the prevailing tendency to reduce Eugenio Pacelli’s long life of service to merely that period during the Second World War. Pius XII’s role during the Holocaust, important as it is, has obscured our view of this man’s broader legacy. After all, Pius XII continued to reign as Roman pontiff for some 13 years after the end of the war. In some respects, it was the Cold War that defined his pontificate. He was an influential scholar, diplomat and theologian, and left a lasting mark on the Church. Little of this is remembered today.

The judgment of history and historians has tended to obscure Pius XII’s spiritual legacy, which Pope Benedict wants to acknowledge. The Church teaches that the “goal of a virtuous life is to become like God.” To say that he exhibited “heroic virtues” in his lifetime is to say that Pius XII gave extraordinary witness in word and deed to the Christian virtues, among them prudence, fortitude and temperance. Above all, it is to say that he made the three theological virtues — faith, hope and charity — the cornerstone of his conscience and activity.  

Whether in his renowned asceticism and spirituality; his Eucharistic devotion; his concrete initiatives as a diplomat during the First World War and later as Pope on behalf of POWs and refugees; his prophetic warnings about the evils of pagan nationalism and atheistic materialism; even his cautious response to the many demonstrable crimes of Nazism — in all this, his promoters say, Pius XII practiced the Christian virtues in an extraordinary way.

Caution and prudence often have the feel of indifference or timidity. Pius never explicitly criticized the Third Reich, not even when the Nazis occupied Rome and began to round up the city’s small but ancient Jewish community in October 1943. One thousand Roman Jews were sent to Auschwitz; most were gassed within a week of arriving. All this, it was said, happened “under the Pope’s very window,” without public protest.

In fact, the Pope was not oblivious to the complaints coming from various corners of Nazi-occupied Europe that the Holy See was not responding to the Nazis’ brutality. As he wrote to the German bishops in February 1941, “Where the Pope wants to cry out loud and strong, it is expectation and silence that are unhappily often imposed upon him; where he would act and give assistance, it is patience and waiting [that are imposed].” Pius’s approach — silence, patience and waiting — was to avoid greater evil. This principle of avoiding greater evil was consistent with all of Pius XII’s diplomatic training and careful character. It may even have saved lives.  

Pius XII’s oratorical restraint did not equal inaction. Some estimates suggest that Catholic institutions, including Vatican properties, offered shelter or offered assistance to more than 4,000 Roman Jews during the Nazi occupation of Rome. In Budapest, 25,000 Jews were sheltered and survived thanks to the efforts of papal representatives acting with Pius XII’s blessing and material assistance. Through his representatives, Pius XII protested directly and forcefully when the Slovak government began to deport approximately 80,000 Jews to Auschwitz.  

Was this enough?  More to the point: Was this prudence befit the Vicar of Christ? What if Pius XII had issued a forceful, unequivocal condemnation of Nazism and especially its persecution of Jews? What if the Pope had directed his representatives and all European Catholics to resist actively Nazi policies? How many more lives might have been saved?

It is impossible to provide properly historical answers to such imponderables. It is entirely understandable that for many people, especially Jews, such is not satisfactory. To many, Benedict’s decision to advance the process of Pius’ canonization will appear premature and insensitive, given the many fresh wounds and pronounced scars in Jewish-Catholic relations.

However, Benedict’s actions do not render a final verdict on the open questions about Pius’s wartime activities. Benedict simply suggests that Pius lived as a virtuous man striving in extraordinary ways to be like God. The extent to which he succeeded awaits final judgment.