Controversial wartime Pope Pius XII's archives to be opened on March 2

Debate surrounds whether Pope Pius XII did enough to direct the Catholic Church to help Jews during the Holocaust


The Vatican will throw open the archives of controversial wartime Pope Pius XII on March 2, allowing scholars to probe documents on the Pope’s knowledge and actions relating to the Holocaust.

Holocaust researchers will be among the first to gain access, including some from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Bishop Sergio Pagano, Prefect of the Vatican Apostolic Archive, said last week that the Holy See would leave scholars “to make a historical judgement”, although he believed the new documents “will better clarify, deepen and contextualise different aspects” of Pius XII’s papacy.

“We have no fear,” he continued, saying that Pius’ “good was so great it will dwarf the few shadows”.

The Apostolic Archive, formerly known as the “secret archive”, has been open since 1881 to qualified scholars and holds documents of historical and theological importance. Archives up to the end of Pope Pius XI’s papacy, which ended in February 1939, were the most recent available to scholars.

The Vatican has been under pressure from historians and Jewish groups to open Pius XII’s documents earlier than the usual 70 years after the end of a Pontificate, while Holocaust survivors are still alive.

Documents from the Second World War contain millions of pages and have been categorised into 121 thematic topics, according to Bishop Pagano, who added that it had taken between 14 and 15 years to prepare the documents, which have been digitised.  

Pius XII’s papacy ran from 1939 until 1958, as the Catholic Church sought to react to the Second World War, the Holocaust and the advance of Communism through Europe, Latin America and Asia.

Pius never publically condemned the Holocaust, despite the Holy See having had sources who painted a reliable picture of the progress of the Final Solution through the war. Pius had previously been the Holy See’s ambassador to Germany and later oversaw the signing of a Concordat with Nazi Germany in 1933.

There is debate as to whether an intervention by Pius XII could have dissuaded German Catholics from cooperating with the Nazis, or whether criticisms of Berlin might have endangered Catholics and persecuted peoples throughout Europe.

In an interview with Reuters, Norbert Hofmann, the Vatican’s chief envoy for relations with Jews, said: “I don’t think that you will find a smoking gun.”

Mr Hofmann defended the former Pope, declaring that “Pius XII was a diplomat and he was a very shy character and a very, very cautious man. Under the circumstances of the occupation, it would have been difficult to shout out loudly." 

David Kertzer, an academic at Brown University and an expert on the Holy See’s relationship with the Jews and diplomatic manoeuvring during Pius XII’s papacy, told the JC: “Hopefully some of the myths surrounding Pius XII will be dispelled, at least among those who have open minds,” Kertzer continued, “Pius XII certainly had little sympathy for Nazism, but he had hopes of reaching an understanding with Hitler in order to protect the Church.”

Pius XII had a close relationship with Mussolini and regarded alignment with Italian fascism as beneficial for the Catholic Church.

The picture that has emerged of the Vatican’s war-time activities from the documents that the Vatican have previously released suggest that “the pope hoped Italy would not join Germany in the war, but despite knowing about the mass murder of Europe's Jews by Axis forces virtually from the beginning, he saw his responsibility as first and foremost protecting the institutional interests of the church,” Kertzer explained, “Vatican documents should help flesh this out considerably”.

 “There has been pressure on the Vatican for over fifty years to open the Pius XII archives, primarily due to the controversy over the pope's silence during the Shoah,” Kertzer says.

Decisions to open or restrict access to Vatican archives are the prerogative of the Pope, and this latest move follows Pope Francis’ policy of increasing transparency within the Catholic Church.

The American Jewish Committee, which has lobbied for the opening of the archives, said that the “necessary transparency” would enhance Catholic-Jewish relations and that the archives would “provide greater clarity as to what positions and steps were taken during this period by the Holy See and help resolve the persistent debates and controversy in this regard”.

Pope Francis, the current Pope, has stated that there has been “some prejudice and exaggeration” in the historical and public debate surrounding Pius XII’s legacy. In a message addressed to Rome officials three weeks ago, he mentioned that churches in the city had sheltered Jews during the German occupation that followed Italy’s capitulation in 1943.

Cardinal José Tolentino Calaça de Mendonça, the Vatican’s librarian and archivist, characterised the opening of the archives as a decisive historical moment in Vatican history and said the Church “should have the patience to wait and listen.”

 “The Church has no reason to fear history,” he added.

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