Spurred by widespread criticism over the unavailability of its documents from the Nazi era, the Vatican in 2003 began to open secret archives to researchers, making public an array of material from the pontificate of Achille Ratti, who as Pius XI held office from 1922—the year of Mussolini’s march on Rome—to his death, in 1939, on the eve of World War II. The Vatican is now preparing to release documents from the pontificate of Ratti’s successor, Eugenio Pacelli, the wartime Pope Pius XII. According to the Vatican’s man-in-charge, Bishop Sergio Pagano, some 16 million such documents will eventually appear, but the work of cataloging and preparing them may take five years. As controversy continues to swirl about the proposed beatification of Pacelli, one wonders what these papers will reveal. Some idea of what we’re likely to learn—and what we’re not, as well—may be gleaned from Pope and Devil, Hubert Wolf’s excellent examination of the Pius XI archives.

A highly respected researcher, theologian, and Catholic priest, Wolf is perhaps best known for his work on the Index Prohibitorum Librorum, the list of prohibited books by which the church’s Inquisition clamped down, during the Counter-Reformation, on allegedly heretical thought. No stranger to the dark side of church history, and intimately familiar with ecclesiastical dogma, politics, and procedure, Wolf presents sensitive material with admirable evenhandedness, avoiding both apology and easy condemnation. Concerning the Nazi-era material, he writes that “it is too early to render a judgment, given the mass of documents and the short amount of time the archives have been opened.”

Though the material studied in Pope and Devil stems from the prewar period, when the atrocities of World War II still lay in the future, most readers will inescapably encounter it as a foretaste of the war and the Holocaust. The future Pius XII is everywhere in this book. His predecessor, Pius XI, was a mercurial and even impulsive leader, suspicious of the fascist upstarts but disinclined to confront them boldly until the very end of his term. Pius XI worked closely with Pacelli, his nuncio first in Munich and then in Berlin, and finally his secretary of state from 1929 until the end of his pontificate. A protégé of the powerful Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, the great canon lawyer and promoter of papal authority, Pacelli as secretary of state was an invaluable servant to his sometimes erratic superior.

Wolf paints a detailed and vivid portrait of Pacelli during the interwar years, a hard-working man, learned, steady, devoted, and intensely conservative—just what Ratti needed as a counterpoint to his own temperament. Personally ascetic, an admirer of German industriousness, punctuality, and discipline, Pacelli resolutely opposed the temptations of modernism, which he perceived as a threat to the church’s moral authority. As secretary of state, the future pope was a determined centralist, viewing the bishops as “little more than papal head altar boys,” Wolf asserts. As a diplomat, Pacelli affirmed the Vatican’s neutrality in international affairs, and sought to avoid conflict with the fascist dictators whenever possible. As a result he was far more deferential to Hitler and Mussolini than was Ratti. Pacelli became the great champion of concordats, diplomatic agreements he viewed as a means to ensure the church’s freedom of action. He was the point man for the 1933 Reichskonkordat with Nazi Germany, a carefully calculated agreement undertaken in the hope of protecting the church in Germany—a “pact with the devil,” Pacelli himself called it, but in his view a necessary one.

Jewish matters occupy much of this book. Wolf lays out the anti-Jewish perspective that prevailed at the Vatican, a sentiment that drew upon a mixture of theology, antimodernism, and ultramontanism. For much of the period discussed here, the Jews were not so much spurned by the Vatican as simply absent from its considerations. But after 1933, with Hitler in power and the church drawn, against its will, into confrontation with the Nazi regime, Jewish issues could no longer be ignored. As we now know, Jews appealed directly to the Holy See, begging the pope to intervene and to condemn the persecution of the Jewish people. Wolf takes up the case of St. Edith Stein, a Jewish woman who had converted to Catholicism and who appealed to Pius XI “as a child of the Jewish people.” Though Pacelli and Ratti spoke about this case in a private audience in April 1933, nothing came of their discussion. “One searches in vain for a response to Edith Stein’s plea,” Wolf writes. “Pacelli expended not a single word on the persecution of the Jews in Germany.” Pacelli’s response to Stein came in a formulaic idiom that would be repeated over and over in subsequent years: “I pray to God...that He provide special protection in these difficult times to his holy church, and bestow on all children of the church the grace of courage and magnanimity, which are the necessary preconditions for final victory.” Such an answer, Wolf writes, “must have sounded like mockery to Stein.”

Yet Wolf’s book—its lurid title notwithstanding—is more than just another contribution to what have been called the “Pius Wars,” the fierce, take-no-prisoners debate over the wartime pope’s stewardship and his alleged silence on the murder of European Jews. Instead of a verdict, Pope and Devil gives us a behind-the-scenes exploration of what made the Vatican tick, providing the sort of background information with which political historians contextualize the decisions of secular leaders like Churchill or Roosevelt. Wolf shows that in the last months of his life Ratti became consumed with the issue of Nazi-inspired racism, and devoted much of his waning energy to it; while Pacelli, for his part, “was clear in his rejection of racial anti-Semitism, and...believed that the church had a general responsibility to support human rights.” Both men, however, understood their responsibilities in the light of traditional Catholic priorities. Both viewed Catholic dogma as immutable; and both consistently put Catholic institutional objectives—understood as an essential requirement of salvation—first and foremost. Pacelli in particular felt that “he could not hurl a thunderbolt at the National Socialists,” since doing so would diminish the capacity of the church to discharge its sacred obligations.

Like most of us, in other words, those in charge of the church were prisoners of their upbringing and education, their doctrine and their offices. And such influences, as we now appreciate, left them woefully ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of those perilous years.

Related: Why the Rush?, by Peter Quinn
Canonizing Pius XII, by Michael Phayer

Michael R. Marrus is the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor Emeritus of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto. He is the author of The Holocaust in History and, most recently, Some Measure of Justice: The Holocaust Era Restitution Campaign of the 1990s.
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