Canonizing Pius XII

Why did the pope help Nazis escape?

The past, a historian once ironically remarked, is unpredictable. Certainly, much of what happened in World War II falls into that category, including the saga of Pope Pius XII. Some historians view the record of his long papacy (1939–58) and wartime predicament sympathetically; others view his actions (or inactions) critically, if not harshly. The interpretations of nonhistorians vary even more widely, with some (John Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope) accusing him of pursuing personal power at the expense of the Jews, while others (Ronald Rychlak, Hitler, the War, and the Pope) argue he did everything in his power to help them.

Adding to this particular confusion is the growing number of commentators who either want to promote or sidetrack Pius’s cause for sainthood. While the interpretations of historians are supposed to depend on the careful evaluation of the facts, Pius’s promoters and detractors don’t necessarily play by these rules. Disagreeable facts are ignored by some and exaggerated by others. Unfortunately, the Vatican itself has indulged in such polemics. In We Remember, the 1998 statement on the church’s role in the Holocaust, the Vatican claimed that Pius saved "hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives." It was an absurd statement. Historians have been able to document a limited number of cases in which the Vatican intervened on behalf of Jews and have identified other instances when an opportunity to do so was passed by.

Given...

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About the Author

Michael Phayer is professor of history emeritus at Marquette University.