The Search for the Historical Pius

José M. Sánchez

The four-decades-old controversy over Pius XII and the Holocaust has always been more political than historical, but never more so than now. The International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission appointed to review the Vatican-published documents on the wartime pontiff has foundered on politics. Books on the contentious topic come out almost monthly, most of them biased for or against Pius and usually citing one another for historical veracity. Those done by scholars are often no better, and their preconceived notions damage their authors’ reputations for objectivity.

On the one hand, some Jewish groups welcome and award almost any work attacking Pius for his alleged silence on the Holocaust; on the other, some Catholics allege that every work critical of Pius is inspired by anti-Catholicism. John Cornwell’s publication of Hitler’s Pope in 1999, while almost universally criticized for its methodology, conclusions and lack of historical rigor—even by academic historians who are themselves critics of Pius—has gained wide acceptance outside the scholarly community. And now, in the Jan. 21 issue of The New Republic, Daniel Goldhagen, author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners, has out-Cornwelled Cornwell with the most vicious attack on Pius in years.

In the first years of the controversy, there was some hope that historical truth would be served. Rolf Hochhuth’s drama, “The Deputy” (1963), sensationally charged Pius with ignoring his duty to denounce the Holocaust in order to serve the narrow interests of the Vatican. This play prompted a flurry of responses and countercharges and led to Pope Paul VI’s decision to publish the wartime correspondence of the Vatican secretariat of state. Over time, from 1965 to 1981, a team of four Jesuits edited and published 11 volumes of documents. The controversy died down as scholars went through the Vatican documents, although the charge that the Jesuits had selectively edited the documents to present a favorable view of Pius was not forgotten.

There were a few extreme views expressed during the 1970’s and 80’s, but they did not gain wide acceptance. But by the mid-90’s the controversy picked up again, and the quest for the historical Pius was overtaken by the pursuit for the political Pius. Thus in 1997, the religious historian Richard L. Rubenstein said, “Over time I have become convinced that during World War II Pope Pius XII and the vast majority of European Christian leaders regarded the elimination of the Jews as no less beneficial than the destruction of Bolshevism.”

No defender of Pius has made such an outrageously undocumented statement. But many, lacking historical (and commonsensical) perception, have cited, over and over again, the Israeli diplomat Pinchas Lapide’s unsubstantiated statement that “the Catholic Church, under the pontificate of Pius XII was instrumental in saving at least 700,000, but probably as many as 860,000 Jews from certain death at Nazi hands.” This has been carelessly cited by some as if it meant that Pius himself saved that number of Jews, and none have challenged Lapide’s nonexistent documentation.

The controversy heated up again in 1998 with the publication of the Vatican document We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, the work of the papal Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. It confessed to the world that “many Christians in countries occupied or ruled by the Nazi powers or their allies were horrified at the disappearance of their Jewish neighbors and yet were not strong enough to raise their voices in protest.”

At the same time, the document defended Pius XII, pointing out that “during and after the war, Jewish communities and Jewish leaders expressed their thanks for all that had been done for them, including what Pope Pius XII did personally or though his representatives to save hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives.” The argument this short statement raised was intensified the next year by Cornwell’s best-seller, Hitler’s Pope. Adding fuel to the controversy, the Vatican announced plans (apparently now shelved) to beatify Pius XII, and Pope John Paul II actually beatified Pope Pius IX, despite that 19th-century pope’s role in the kidnapping of the Jewish child, Edgardo Mortara. Now the critics and defenders are out in full force.

Just as disturbing, the dispute has also been recast among Catholics into the broader ecclesiological controversy over papal power, so that almost automatically, the defenders of papal supremacy and centralization defend Pius, while the critics of papal authority attack him. The original debate—about papal silence in the face of the destruction of the European Jews—is almost forgotten. Appeals to the documents are brushed aside, with the critics citing one another and the defenders citing one another in “earless repetition” (to paraphrase the great literary scholar Douglas Bush’s comment about Shakespearean studies). The quest for the historical Pius has been relegated to a secondary and even tertiary position relative to the political and ecclesiological controversies. As always in such disputes, the truth is the first casualty.

What is most discouraging is that the controversy has affected Jewish-Catholic relations and damaged scholarly reputations. The International Historical Commission charged with examining the published Vatican documents disbanded itself last summer after preparing a preliminary report, which was made public last fall. Jewish groups apparently hoped that the commission’s report would encourage the Vatican to allow scholars into the archives within a few months (an unrealistic assumption, considering the vast number of documents that have to be catalogued before anyone can be allowed in), and they charge the Vatican with refusing to allow independent scholars into the archives for fear that there are documents there that will support Pius’s critics. Peter Gumpel, S.J., the postulator for Pius’s canonization, brought countercharges of irresponsibility and misrepresentation against the Jewish groups.

And what can the academic community think of reputable scholars who, in the face of widespread help for the Jews by Italian clerics during the war, indict Pius, claiming that there is no written document by Pius directing the Italian clergy to do this, an argument reminiscent of the Holocaust-denier David Irving’s offer of $1,000 to anyone who could find a written order by Hitler authorizing the Holocaust?

What can we expect in the future?

One would hope for less sleight-of-hand in the use and citing of documents by both critics and defenders of the pope. More important, attention should be paid to context. Papal statements ripped out of context (as Goldhagen has done, most notoriously) are the bane of serious historians working on the topic. The Holocaust historian Michael Marrus, no partisan of either faction, has put it most succinctly: modern writers, he says, have “prompted unwarranted moral judgments that apply our standards, our appreciations, our sensibilities, our knowledge, and our hindsight to the events of half a century ago.” It would also be most helpful if reviewers of the books pouring out of the presses lived up to their responsibilities and checked the facts before showering praise or blame according to their biases. But I do not expect this to happen soon. The Vatican will probably open its archives after it finishes cataloging them, a process that may take years. But that will not stop the controversy—witness what Cornwell did by selectively using the beatification documents to attack Pius. There is no assurance that future historians will not use the documents to confirm their prejudices.

In the interest of pursuing the quest for the historical Pius, I am almost driven to the opinion voiced by an elderly gentleman at a conference at which I spoke last year. He cornered me after my talk and said, “I don’t know why the Jews don’t leave us alone. We don’t bother them about their church matters, why should they bother us about ours?” Unenlightened as this view is—for the controversy does concern the Jews as well as Pius—it would be refreshing if historians could study and write about the documents without having to address the concerns of those who use the controversy to pursue their own political or ecclesiological agendas.

José M. Sánchez is a professor of history at St. Louis University and the author of Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy (Catholic University of America Press).