The papacy is an institution that matters, whether or not one is a religious believer. The succession of the popes, all 262 of them, is the world’s most ancient dynasty. The Roman Empire was young when the popes first emerged on the stage of history, and the earliest references to them, in the late second century, already claim for the bishop of Rome a status greater than that of any other Christian leader. Eighteen centuries on, the popes exercise a quasi-monarchic rule over the world’s largest religious organization. They touch the consciences, or at any rate the opinions, of almost a fifth of the human race. The papacy has endured and flourished under emperors, kings, and robber barons, under republican senates and colonial occupations, in confrontation or collaboration with demagogues and democrats. And by hook or by crook, it has survived them all.

For non-Catholics, of course, the significance of the papacy stems not from its religious claims but from its impact on human affairs. Thomas Hobbes famously remarked that the papacy was “not other than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned on the grave thereof.” The comment was certainly not intended as a compliment, but it encapsulated an important historical reality nonetheless. Through no particular initiative of their own, the popes inherited the mantle of Empire in the West and the papacy became the conduit for Roman imperial values and symbolism into the European Middle Ages. In a time of profound historical instability at the end of antiquity and in the early Middle Ages, the see of Peter was a link to all that seemed most desirable in the ancient world, custodian of both its sacred and its secular values. The papacy embodied immemorial continuity and offered divine sanction for law and legitimacy.

Whatever its roots and its vicissitudes, papal influence over world events remains formidable. Popes no longer mobilize armies or launch crusades, but over the past century or so a greatly enlarged papal diplomatic corps of nuncios and apostolic delegates has secured for the modern popes powerful representation before most of the governments of the world, and in international bodies like the United Nations. Catholics form a fifth of the world’s population, and the Catholic Church is the world’s largest conglomerate of humanitarian and relief organizations. Those facts alone give immense significance to the opinions and actions of popes, while raising sometimes difficult questions. Can the Vicar of Christ be a cautious diplomat? Must the church always call evil plainly by its proper name, whatever the consequences? Can her priests keep silent in the face of abomination, in the hope of rescuing something positive from chaos, or so that tyranny may bear down a little less cruelly on those who must endure it?

Those were the dilemmas confronting Eugenio Pacelli, pope during the Second World War, a diplomat who found himself sitting in the seat of prophecy. His reputation has suffered more than that of any pope of modern times because of his answers to those agonizing questions.

In the nineteenth century the popes were confronted everywhere by governments indifferent or hostile to their claims. They resorted to diplomacy, to treaties, called concordats, giving national governments guarantees about Catholic loyalty, even allowing them a say in the choice of bishops. In return, the church was allowed, within limits, to get on with her life. Fighting from its corner in a tough political world, the Vatican came to judge regimes primarily by how they treated Catholics. Concordats in theory were about securing freedom for the gospel: in practice that often meant protecting the interests of the church.

Vatican diplomacy could also be altruistic. During the First World War, a diplomat pope, Benedict XV, devoted great skill to a selfless objective—the restoration of harmony among the nations. Preaching universal peace, he struggled to preserve the impartiality of the papacy, refusing to denounce specific war crimes but urging the combatants to observe international law, hoping that all sides would see him as an honest broker, and resolve their differences by his arbitration rather than by the horrors of modern warfare. The combatants pressed him to condemn enemy atrocities; when he refused he was accused of callousness and moral indifference. Germans thought him pro-French, the French called him “The Bosche Pope.”

Benedict died in 1922, but his vision of world peace achieved by impartial papal arbitration had made a deep impression on Msgr. Pacelli, and would inspire his own actions as pope during the Second World War. But though their policies were similar, the wars in which they pursued them were not: idealistic impartiality in Benedict would come to look like moral cowardice in Pius XII.

Eugenio Pacelli had been born into the Roman business aristocracy: his grandfather was the banker who rescued the Vatican’s finances after the fall of the Papal States. Pacelli himself, ordained in 1899, went almost immediately into the Vatican diplomatic service. Austere, reserved, intensely devout, he never worked in a parish or held a pastoral position of any kind, and to the end of his life he was a man who rarely confided in others, preferring the company of his pet canary. But he was a natural diplomat—charming and sympathetic in conversation, fluent in six languages and discreet to the point of secretiveness. In 1917 Benedict XV sent him to Munich as nuncio to Germany, where he remained until 1930—through Germany’s defeat, through an abortive Communist revolution that confirmed his lifelong hatred of socialism, and through the turmoil and decadence of the 1920s. And in 1934 Pacelli, now cardinal secretary of state to Benedict’s successor, Pope Pius XI, negotiated a concordat with the Nazi regime, designed to ensure maximum freedom for the church in an increasingly authoritarian state.

Pacelli loved Germany and German culture but he despised Nazi violence and the Nazis’ open hostility to the church. He knew they would dishonor the concordat but felt that it would at least provide a legal basis for protest when they did. The legal basis came at a price, for the Nazis demanded that the Catholic Center Party, the main defender of the church’s interests in German politics for half a century, should be dissolved. The Nazis would have destroyed the Center Party anyway, with or without the concordat, and that no doubt was part of Pacelli’s calculation, but the Vatican’s agreement to its demise seemed to many an ominous indication of the church’s lack of enthusiasm for democratic politics.

Pacelli’s boss, Pope Pius XI, was certainly no democrat: he saw communism as the ultimate enemy of Christianity, thought democratic governments too weak to resist it, and in one unguarded moment he hailed Mussolini as a man of destiny. Nazism, however, he loathed from the start as pagan thuggery, becoming increasingly disgusted by Nazi racial policies and by the harassment of the church in Hitler’s Germany. In 1937 he issued an encyclical in German, Mit Brennender Sorge, denouncing Nazi attacks on the Old Testament and infringements of the concordat. To Hitler’s fury, this “battle call against the Reich” was smuggled into Germany and read from the pulpits. The pope was planning another encyclical condemning racism and anti-Semitism when he died in February 1939. With world war looming, Pacelli, known for his intelligence and diplomatic experience, was elected pope after only three ballots, in the shortest conclave in centuries. He took the name Pius XII.

Pius XI had admired and trusted Pacelli absolutely. The two men were united in their loathing of Hitler, and the secretary of state had played a key role in drafting Mit Brennender Sorge. But temperamentally the two men were poles apart: Pacelli had no unguarded moments, and instinctively recoiled from the confrontational stance of the encyclical. There would be no confrontations under his management.

With the outbreak of war, reports of atrocities began to come in from bishops and Vatican diplomats in occupied territory. The archbishop of Warsaw, Cardinal Augustyn Hlond, fled to Rome where he pleaded for a papal condemnation of the Nazi invasion of Poland. Thousands of Polish Catholic priests and religious died in concentration camps, but the pope issued no condemnation. In 1940, Germany invaded Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg. The pope sent telegrams of condolence to all three monarchs but didn’t mention the Germans, nor explicitly condemn the invasion itself.

The pope knew of mass deportations of Jews from all over Nazi Europe. The papal nuncio in Turkey, Angelo Roncalli, told the Vatican that these deportations, allegedly to work camps, were actually to extermination. Both Roncalli and the Budapest nuncio issued thousands of bogus baptismal certificates to Jews so that they could claim the protection of the concordats. In private the pope expressed his horror at the deportations. Nuncios sent diplomatic notes, some of which saved Jewish lives by halting deportations, and the pope himself issued statements deploring in general terms breaches of international law and the sufferings of innocent victims of war. But despite pressure from the allies, from local bishops, from members of the papal diplomatic corps, and from within the Vatican itself, Pacelli drew back from naming names, or directly blaming the Germans. He told the archbishop of Cologne that it took “superhuman efforts” to keep the church “above the strife of parties.”

In 1942, Catholic bishops in France and Holland denounced the deportation of Jews. Pacelli was well aware that by contrast his silence dismayed many, who felt that he was abdicating the church’s responsibility to speak for the oppressed. At Christmas that year he decided he could be silent no longer, but the condemnation, when it came, was characteristically guarded and oblique. Toward the end of his Christmas Eve broadcast he lamented the fate of “hundreds of thousands, who, through no fault of their own, and sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or slow decline.” There was no explicit mention of either Jews or Germans.

For the rest of his life the pope believed that this coded utterance was an unequivocal and outspoken condemnation of Nazi genocide against the Jews. Few people then or since have agreed.

On October 16, 1943, atrocity was enacted under the pope’s very windows: the deportation of the Jews of Rome began, from a depot ten minutes’ walk from the Vatican. Pacelli’s secretary of state, Cardinal Luigi Maglione, reminded the German ambassador in Rome, Ernst von Weizsacker, that the pope had consistently avoided speaking against Germany, and declared that “the Holy See should not be placed in a position where it is forced to protest.” Weizsacker promised to do what he could to stop the deportations and Maglione left the matter in his hands. The deportations went ahead, the Vatican did not protest, and Weizsacker told Berlin of his relief that the pope had “not allowed himself to be stampeded into making any demonstrative pronouncement against the removal of the Jews from Rome.”

The pope’s failure to condemn the deportation of the Roman Jews has come to focus the case against him. Little was said in his lifetime, but five years after Pacelli’s death, Rolf Hockhuth’s play, The Deputy, explained the pope’s silence in terms of anti-Semitism. Debate has raged ever since.

Why was he silent? It was certainly not a case of anti-Semitism. In the wake of the deportations on October 16, colleges and other institutions in Vatican territory began hiding Roman Jews. Up to five thousand were rescued, something that could not have happened without Pacelli’s agreement. His defenders have pointed out that by and large the German forces respected Vatican territory, though they were aware that Jews were there. This immunity would certainly have vanished if the pope had spoken out, and the hidden Jews would have been found and deported with the rest.

So was it concern for consequences? The pope’s housekeeper later claimed that Pius had in fact drafted a strong condemnation of the murder of European Jews in 1942 but burned it when the Nazis responded to the Dutch bishops’ denunciation of the arrest of Jews by deporting all the baptized Jews as well. Protest was a luxury for which other people would die.

There was another possible reason. Pius knew about Nazi atrocities, but he was equally aware of Soviet atrocities, and he feared atheistic communism even more than Nazism. He believed, correctly, that if Germany were to be annihilated, nothing would stop the Soviet advance into Europe. He repeatedly told allied leaders that he could denounce Nazi crimes only if he also denounced Soviet crimes.

Does all this amount to a defense? A papal condemnation of Nazi crimes might indeed have brought reprisals—for Catholics as well as for Jews—but it is clear that the German authorities feared a papal condemnation. It would have influenced public opinion and unsettled Catholics in Hitler’s armies. And a declaration from the pope might have alerted Europe, and Europe’s Jews, to the real fate of those deported to “work camps” in the east, and might have helped waken them to resistance.

The arguments from prudence are very weighty: Pacelli’s commitment to papal impartiality was inherited from his great predecessor Benedict XV. And yet there still seems something lacking, something frozen, in Pacelli’s response, even in his humanity. He was not the anti-Semitic monster of Hockhuth’s play—he was silent in public even when Catholics were the victims—but in the face of one of the most terrible crimes in human history, impartial diplomacy and agonized calculation do not seem an adequate response from Christ’s vicar on earth. When the helpless were being slaughtered, the most powerful voice in Christendom faltered, and fell silent.

This essay is adapted from Ten Popes Who Shook the World, published by Yale University Press in November 2011. Reproduced by permission.

Related: Peter Quinn, Why the Rush?
Richard Cohen, Pius XII: Not Vindicated
Michael Phayer, Canonizing Pius XII
John F. Morley, Pacelli's Prosecutor
The Editors, Cornwell's Popes

Eamon Duffy is Reader in Church History in the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Magdalene College. He is the author of The Stripping of the Altars and Saints and Sinners, a history of the popes, both published by Yale University Press.
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Published in the 2011-11-04 issue: View Contents
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