Pius XII was pope through most of my childhood. Though I never remember my parents speaking his name, a framed blessing from him, adorned with his severe profile, hung on the wall of our apartment.
No one ever intimated to me that he was immortal, but my young mind assumed he was. When he died, in October, 1958, I remember going with my class into a hushed and darkened church to pray for his soul.
It is now the controversy over Pius’s conduct during the Holocaust that seems immortal, as the reaction to Pope Benedict XVI’s January visit to Rome’s main synagogue made clear. Was Pius the heroic leader in a time of great crisis who stayed silent about the Holocaust out of fear of provoking reprisals? Or was he a decidedly unheroic prelate whose inordinate love of all things German and fear of communism blinded him to the true dimensions of Nazi evil? For its part, the church insists that it alone will evaluate which Catholics, through “the exercise of heroic virtue,” have earned the high honor of sainthood. In the case of Pius’s recent elevation to “venerable,” the Vatican seems to regard his canonization as not only earned but urgent.
Neither a professional historian nor a scholar of the papacy, anti-Semitism, or World War II, I’m not qualified to offer a definitive judgment on Pius’s response to the Holocaust. From the reading I’ve done, it seems to me that while Pius XII wasn’t the villain he’s been made out to be by some—“Hitler’s Pope,” as one book...