Neither Demonic nor Heroic

Another Round in the Pius XII Controversy
Pope Pius XII gives a blessing at the end of a radio message, September 1, 1943. (CNS photo)

 

They abhor one who speaks the truth. (Amos 5:10)

In early March, after decades of anticipation, the Vatican opened its archives for the controversial papacy of Pope Pius XII (1939–1958). In response to criticisms of Pius XII made in the early 1960s, Pope Paul VI (1963–1978), who as Giovanni Montini had served him and his predecessor Pope Pius XI (1922–1939) in the Secretariat of State, ordered the publication of part of the wartime records of his pontificate. The result was twelve volumes of documents released over the course of sixteen years, between 1965 and 1981. Because the documents were compiled by four Vatican-appointed Jesuits, questions have lingered about the principles that guided the selection and editing of the documents. Had sensitive material been purged? Were other documents, embarrassing to the pope or the Curia, left unpublished? 

A recent article in the Atlantic by Brown University historian David Kertzer answers both of these questions in the affirmative. His findings, unflattering to the wartime Curia, elicited a predictable response from veteran defenders of Pius XII. When their criticisms are scrutinized, however, it’s clear that what bothers them is not scholarly dereliction or twisting of the truth on Kertzer’s part, but dismay over his inconvenient conclusions. T. S. Eliot famously observed that humanity could not “bear very much reality.” The pope’s champions, when it comes to unfavorable revelations about Pius XII or the prelates advising him, can tolerate scarcely any at all.

Until the recent opening of the Vatican archives for the pontificate of Pius XII, scholars had to rely almost entirely on the Acts and Documents of the Holy See Relative to the Second World War (ADSS), the twelve volumes published at Paul VI’s direction. The four Jesuit editors’ footnotes openly acknowledged that not all the archival documents had been published in their entirety, or at all. They typically describe those they elected not to publish in anodyne language, as if they wished to save readers from the labor of working through surely irrelevant documents (written in German, Italian, Latin, French, and English, no less). Kertzer’s findings draw on sources the editors either agreed not to publish or, when published, were purged of sensitive content. They are, it turns out, far from irrelevant. 

One document Kertzer discovered (and transcribes in its entirety) relates to an internal debate at the Vatican Secretariat of State, involving Pius XII’s closest advisers, over whether or not the pope should protest the October 16, 1943, Nazi roundup of more than a thousand Jews in Rome. Until now, the only insight we have had into Pius’s decision-making on the matter had come from a narrative published in the ADSS of the meeting the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Luigi Maglione, had with the German ambassador to the Holy See, Ernst von Weizsäcker. That account of the meeting, whose meaning is disputed by scholars, was, in my view, already quite damning. The documents that Kertzer has discovered are, if anything, less flattering to the wartime Curia. Yet again they demonstrate Vatican support for the Italian racial laws. More gravely, they show that the Vatican decided not to risk jeopardizing its relations with the Nazi regime by denouncing its ongoing murder of Italy’s Jews. Worst of all, conversations by the pope’s closest advisors—by those both for and against a statement by the pope—were, in Kertzer’s description, “steeped in anti-Semitic language.” Despite genocidal danger having visited Rome’s ancient Jewish community, the Vatican’s attitude toward Italian Jews remained hostile. Not even intimate knowledge of the Holocaust caused those closest to the pope to modify the traditional teaching of contempt or to desist from expressing traditional anti-Jewish smears—remote but necessary causes of the anguish Roman Jews were just then suffering.

Despite genocidal danger having visited Rome’s ancient Jewish community, the Vatican’s attitude toward Italian Jews remained hostile.

Kertzer also confirms suspicions about choices made by the ADSS’s four Jesuit editors, in this case involving memos from the Jesuit papal advisor Pietro Tacchi Venturi, longtime papal envoy to the Fascist Italian regime, and Msgr. Angelo Dell’Acqua, then in the Secretariat of State and a future cardinal vicar of Rome. The ADSS buried in a footnote an expurgated version of the memos; it had purged all their considerable anti-Semitic content. When Kertzer compared the original documents, which he has transcribed and published in their entirety, with the excerpts published in the ADSS, he revealed how completely the Jesuit editors cleansed the document of the sensitive content at its core. The Dell’Acqua memo, which undoubtedly would have been part of the same folder of material, is not reproduced in any way in the ADSS. This is the first time that scholarly skepticism about the integrity of the previously published documents has been given real substance. Indeed, aside from the specific historical findings of Kertzer’s article, its greatest significance may reside in the proof he offers that, at least in some cases, the ADSS editors did in fact publish those parts of the documents that spoke positively of Italy’s Jews, but otherwise utterly misrepresented the Vatican debate by expunging anti-Semitic material. Whether or not this purification of documents proves exceptional or rare will only become clear over time and with further study.

In his Atlantic article, however, Kertzer focuses on the abduction of two Jewish brothers, Robert and Gérald Finaly, not the Holocaust. The Finaly boys had been taken in by a Catholic woman in Grenoble, France, when, in 1944, their Jewish parents were sent to their deaths at Auschwitz. When the boys’ aunts tried to reclaim the boys the following year, the woman, who was a deeply anti-Semitic Catholic, refused to give the brothers up. Eventually, French courts ordered that the boys be given back to their relatives, but an underground network of nuns and priests spirited them from monastery to convent under assumed names. Though this story was not unknown, the role played by the Vatican behind the scenes has not previously come to light. Kertzer shows that discussions about the fate of the boys among the pope’s most trusted advisors, including Dell’Acqua, then sostituto in the Secretariat of State, were drenched in the language of anti-Semitic prejudice. 

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Initially, the Church in France actively opposed attempts to give the two Jewish boys back to their relatives, who had survived the Holocaust; the Church believed that the boys should be raised according to the faith into which they had been secretly baptized. Kertzer demonstrates that the Vatican was directly involved in these efforts, all while striving to keep its role secret. (In fact, both the pope and the Holy Office resisted returning the boys to their Jewish family.) Press coverage of the abduction eventually began to pressure the Vatican to change course. Many of the French clergy who had conspired in the scheme remained in prison for their crimes, further humiliating the Curia. Finding its position untenable, the Vatican finally agreed that the boys could be returned—not to their Jewish family, but to a neutral institution where their putatively Catholic identity could be preserved.

 

It didn’t take long after Kertzer published his findings for a number of Pius XII’s veteran defenders to pounce. University of Molise professor of international relations Matteo Napolitano began the pushback in early September with a full-page article in L’Osservatore Romano. Then two American writers, neither a historian, responded to Kertzer in venues that, while certainly disreputable, have alarming influence among U.S. Catholics. Ronald Rychlak, an expert in “disinformation” and gambling law at the University of Mississippi, published a critique on the Catholic League website. The tireless pro-Pius champion William Doino, meanwhile, took on Kertzer in an extensive interview with Church Militant bearing the title, “Pius XII No Conspirator.” It wasn’t his first collaboration with that online publication. In an “exclusive” interview with them in February, he confidently predicted that the opening of the Holy See’s archives would “enhance Pius XII’s reputation” and “reveal to the whole world Pius XII’s true greatness.” These comments are revealing. Genuine historians are not in the business of prophecy. They don’t know what an unopened archive will reveal. They may have hypotheses. But their research will be judged by the severe standards of peer and guild review, and so they don’t—they can’t—enter an archive with a predetermined result in mind.

Kertzer’s evidence-based findings did not please Pius’s champions. All three launched broadsides against Kertzer, some ad hominem, accusing him of claiming (in Rychlak’s words) that “Pius XII did nothing when Germans rounded up almost 2,000 Roman Jews for deportation.” (Actually, it was roughly one thousand Jews, but the inflated number makes Kertzer seem even more reckless.) This charge is groundless: Kertzer has never alleged, in his Atlantic article or elsewhere, that the pope did nothing. He merely noted that the Vatican Secretary of State Maglione met with the German ambassador, as he did, and that the Vatican chose not to lodge a complaint, which is true. Kertzer’s detractors offer no evidence to the contrary; they can’t, because none exists. Similarly, the assertion by Napolitano (and repeated by Church Militant) that the archives had been open for only four days in March, an insufficient amount of time for research purposes, is not true. The archives reopened at the beginning of June—a fact that Napolitano, who uses the nearby Vatican Archives regularly, omits. 

Napolitano, Rychlak, and Doino also engage in the regrettable habit of characterizing Kertzer as “anti-papal.” They repeatedly refer to his findings as “charges,” reducing a scholar’s archive-based work to little more than fodder for polemics. But Doino spoke more truly than he knew when he observed that “many Jewish historians know their history better than Catholics do.” He’s quite right. Kertzer grasps the details of these events, and is more familiar with the relevant Vatican archival documents, than any of his American detractors. His recent article was based on archival documents none of them has inspected. 

 

In the months after October 1943, the Germans continued to round up Jews in Rome, deporting another thousand to the death camps. Kertzer accurately observes that still no protest was heard from the pope or the Vatican. In his response, Napolitano asserts that Kertzer examined the material on which he based this claim with a pre-ordained conclusion: that the pope’s silence condemned Rome’s Jews to extermination in death camps. Such a reckless, offensive charge—that Kertzer is such an ideologue he would bend the evidence to smear the pope—has never been sustained by a serious scholar. Napolitano nonetheless insists that Kertzer set out to condemn Pacelli to a damnatio memoriae by maintaining that “the silence of Pius XII determined the sad fate of the Jews.” That is simply false. What Kertzer did say is that “the silence” of Pius XII is a subject of scholarly debate—a statement so obviously the case and even banal that it’s unworthy of discussion.

Napolitano exhibits pronounced difficulty handling the anti-Semitic language that Kertzer found in two documents drawn up in 1943 by Dell’Acqua and Tacchi Venturi. Both priests were among the principals in the discussion over whether the pope should protest the continuing murder of Italy’s Jews. Napolitano downplays the significance of the way these documents were buried by suggesting that the four Jesuit editors of the ADSS were stymied by the “archival chaos” supposedly prevailing when they began their work in 1965. But there’s no record of any such chaos at the time, and all the editors were intimately familiar with the Vatican Archives. Tacchi Venturi’s note is even mentioned and some of its lines transcribed in the documents that the editors elected to publish (ADSS 9:611). Dell’Acqua’s memo is also briefly cited. That is clear evidence that the editors knew of the documents. However, the brief lines the editors transcribed and published are—and this is Kertzer’s point—the least ideologically compromised. By only publishing those selections, the editors appear to have actually reversed the meaning of Tacchi Venturi’s memo and concealed the deeply prejudiced language that was still being deployed, even amid Jewish agony.

Another way that Napolitano minimizes the importance of these documents is by suggesting that they never reached the hands of Pius XII, though he offers no evidence of that. Surely it is significant that his most trusted advisors—Msgr. Tardini, Maglione, Dell’Acqua, and Tacchi Venturi were all involved—had written, annotated, or read these documents. It seems highly unlikely, given the importance of the subject and Pius XII’s hands-on habits, that he would not have read the documents. Not to be detained by such matters, Napolitano goes on to argue that Pope John XXIII and Giovanni Montini (later Paul VI) would never have elevated Dell’Acqua to such episcopal dignity had he been an anti-Semite. Surely, though, it is not at all hard to imagine, given the tenacity of the teaching of contempt at the Vatican, either that Montini or a prelate he appointed shared a prejudice against Jews. But there’s not even a need to imagine: in his Atlantic article, Kertzer published a document signed by Montini in 1953, at the conclusion of the Finaly affair, that clearly suggests the future pope was infected with traditional anti-Semitic views. 

Pius XII’s apologists only seem capable of dealing in dichotomous interpretive extremes: Hitler’s pope or righteous Gentile?

Errors mar virtually every paragraph of Rychlak’s critique. He oddly faults Kertzer for using “internal memoranda” in his analysis of the Curia’s debate about issuing a papal protest. “What matters,” he grandly pronounces, “is the final decision.” Matters for whom? Professional historians treasure internal memoranda because they are often revealing. “Final decisions” can obscure unflattering truths. Rychlak correctly notes that memoranda prepared for popes often conflict with each other. But in this case, on the central issue of anti-Semitism, the memos do not conflict. They differ only on the advisability of protesting further German deportations; they do not differ in being suffused with the language of traditional ecclesiastical anti-Semitism. 

When Rychlak turns to the case of the kidnapped Jewish boys, he asserts that the “Jewishness” of the brothers had “nothing to do” with the Curia’s decision—that if they (to take his examples) had been atheist, Hindu, or Muslim, the result “would have been the same.” This is possibly true in the abstract; those with any number of religious or ethnic identities might also have ended up in a state-run institution. In this context, however, it is bad faith, a tawdry attempt at distraction, because the issue at hand was the baptism of boys born to Jewish families amid a brutal surge in European anti-Semitism. His speculation about how anyone else would have been treated is preposterous. How many atheists, Hindus, or Muslims were abducted and baptized by Catholics during the war? 

Rychlak then criticizes Kertzer’s observation that Cardinal Gerlier, the principal French prelate involved in the Finaly affair, changed his mind on the advisability of continuing to hide the children in France because “the press had gotten hold of the story.” Rychlak finds this insulting to Gerlier. But the cardinal himself explicitly indicated in a letter to members of the Curia (which Kertzer quotes) that press coverage of the scandal was the source (the sole source he cites) of his discomfort and, indeed, the primary motive for his shift. Much more troubling than that peculiar oversight, however, is that Rychlak does not mention the conspicuous fact that the boys were returned sub conditione: they were not allowed to be taken in by their Jewish aunt but placed at an institution where their Catholic identity could be assured.

Doino, too, blurs the distinction between permitting the children to return to France and allowing them to be returned to their Jewish family. He also goes astray by arguing that only “renegade and disobedient Catholics” were involved in the “small number” of kidnapping cases, such as the Finaly affair. This is a transparent attempt to seal off the Curia from involvement in such cases—to segregate the pure, even philosemitic Vatican congregations from the hoi polloi who are regrettably insensitive to the “gravity and evil of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism.” This practically divulges Doino’s extra-historical agenda: to keep Pius XII’s reputation immaculate. He even goes so far as to maintain that the pope ordered Catholic institutions to rescue Jewish children in the hands of Christian families or institutions. While it is true that papal apologists have asserted the existence of such an order, no one has yet produced any evidence for it. 

 

Rychlak wanders far from the issue at hand when complaining that Kertzer, in his Atlantic article, neglected to mention Pius’s 1942 Christmas address, or “his open encouragement” to Howard Wisla in 1941 that he must “always be proud to be a Jew.” It’s true that Kertzer does not mention these things. Why? Because they are utterly irrelevant to the issues he does take up. When did Kertzer ever deny these things? Why does Rychlak insist that he again affirm them in an article dedicated to an entirely separate subject? One possible answer: he, along with Napolitano, Doino, and others, instinctively interprets all articles not laudatory of the Vatican’s decisions during this period as ipso facto attacks on the wartime pope. These attacks, we’re informed ad nauseam by Doino, are launched by “disaffected” or “leftist” Catholics motivated by their opposition to magisterial teachings. One problem with this theory is that Kertzer is not a Catholic. If he has a covert agenda to subvert ecclesiastical doctrine, he has hidden it well.

Pius XII’s apologists only seem capable of dealing in dichotomous interpretive extremes: Hitler’s pope or righteous Gentile? But not even John Cornwell still believes that Pius XII was, as he titled his controversial 1999 book, Hitler’s Pope. Nor does Kertzer, Hubert Wolf, or any other respected historian. The image of Hitler’s pope is now understood by all to have almost no explanatory power and, indeed, to be quite misleading. That phantom, however, is what the apologists continue to fight—recall Doino’s prophecy that the opening of the Vatican Archives would “debunk the myth of Pius XII as Hitler’s Pope.” Such framing seems less about dealing with Kertzer’s findings than about serving as a justification for leaping to the opposite extreme, as Doino does, and pronouncing Pius XII “Hitler’s fiercest enemy.” (That would be Stalin, actually.) Had Hitler ever contemplated his greatest nemesis, Pius XII would never have occurred to him.

These absurd antinomies are not our only choices. No one should accept a morally and historically puerile, black-and-white, and thus impoverished narrative of crucial events and decisions that demand to be treated with complexity and nuance. Trained historians know that requiring evidence to pass through the screen of ideological precondition—like the impeccability of the pope—only produces results welcome to ideologues: in this case, Pius XII as heroic rescuer of Jews and Hitler’s dread enemy.

Kertzer’s contribution to these matters is to have withdrawn the ideological screen. The man he reveals naturally fails to fit the image that Pius’s faithful apologists wish to promote. Kertzer never comes close to suggesting that Pacelli was “Hitler’s pope.” It would be better to say, instead, that the pope seems just like tens of thousands of Catholic priests during this period—no better or worse than those moral mediocrities who, like most European Christians, failed to transcend the cultural assumptions and religious prejudices of their day. By thinking only in extreme dualities, Pius’s defenders do not perceive how very ordinary—neither demonic nor heroic—he appears in Kertzer’s account. 

Nonetheless, Pius’s defenders set out to discredit Kertzer. It is worth recalling the headline of Doino’s prophecy-peddling interview with Church Militant: “Opening of Pius XII Archives Will Demolish Myth of ‘Hitler’s Pope’” (emphasis added). The mission of the papal apologists is not simply to challenge threats to Pius’s reputation—and canonization. It is to “demolish” them. That word is telling. The debris and dust wrecking crews kick up make it very hard to see. 

Published in the November 2020 issue: 

Kevin Madigan is professor of the history of Christianity at the Harvard Divinity School. With Jon Levinson, he is the author of Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews (Yale University Press).

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