Towards an Evaluation of Pius XII

Pietro De Marco 

My Christian formation took place in the Church of Pius XII. My parish priests, my religion teachers were men of the Church of Pius XII. No anti-Semitic attitudes were transmitted to me, unless one maintains that the Creed, the Catechism, the Mass, and the Gospels were or are anti-Semitic. For years, I prayed on every Good Friday for the "perfidi Judaei," knowing since my youth that "perfidus" in Church Latin means "unbelieving" with respect to Christ. 

My high school religion teacher and spiritual director – mine, and of many others in Florence – until the time of his death, Fr. Raffaele Bensi, was a priest of the Church of Pius XII, even though he had been trained for the priesthood during the two preceding pontificates. He was a priest of the Church of Pius XII also in his intense activity to help the Jews and the men of the Italian anti-fascist Resistance conducted during the war. 

But I learned from Fr. Bensi that the Church, with the same courage and freedom with which it sought to help the Resistance and the Jews, also meant to save the lives of the men on the other side, when the defeated were made beasts to be hunted. 

The Church of Pius XII was then still the sovereign Church in its judgment of history, in the decisions its men faced, in the horizons of ultimate choice to which these were called. It might err, in men just as in this or that act or judgment, but it drew its capacity for judgment and for jurisdiction from its own supernatural foundation: and in that, no circumstance founded otherwise could replace or compel it. This is the meaning of its "perfectio," which is strictly connected with martyrdom, because collision with other powers – even the most legitimate – is certain. 

I add that the tested and enlightened humanity that emerged from the second world war and from its chains of retaliations and massacres understood the meaning of this limitless and sovereign exercise of charity (and forgiveness) by the Church, according to which it had one day saved an Italian resistance fighter and the next day had wished to withdraw from summary execution a German or a fascist. It was the right to give sanctuary, the right to bind and loose, as a manifestation of the lofty and meek justice of God. 

Fr. Bensi spoke to us with admiration and, at the same time, detachment of the book "Pastoral Experiences" by the "rebel" Fr. Lorenzo Milani. But Milani himself, perhaps his most beloved pupil, had been born for the priesthood and always held to the austere, difficult, virile dialectic of the Church of Pius XII; he was never "conciliar." Bensi himself had no tolerance for the fashions and the choruses of the conciliar period; he taught us to keep our minds and hearts vigilant against catchwords, against "turning points" and "conquests," which are always equivocal in a religious tradition. 

Thus, even during my time as a young Catholic connected with projects of "reformatio Ecclesiae" and very close to the political left – the 1960's and '70's, to give an idea – the Church's more than spiritualistic transcendence and its ultimate primacy over the city of man remained for me undeniable facts. This meant a primacy that was also "social," in the meaning proposed by Henri De Lubac in "Catholicisme." It meant the Church-as-institution as an irrevocable form of the manifestation of the Holy. 

Together with the Church-as-institution and Rome, which represents it, not even the "white Father" of my adolescence was ever eliminated from within me by upheavals or revolts. My Catholic ties to pope Pius XII weathered the test of the 1960's. The aggression carried out against him by the "Vicar" of Hochhuth seemed to me – and still seems – despicable; but in reality it seemed that way to everyone, even in progressivist Catholic circles. It must be said, however: persons born, like me, at the time of the war, if they were not subsequently "remade" ideologically, retain an unparalleled sense of the complexity of daily life and of history, and an aversion to rhetoric. To the contrary; they retain a sense of and a need for truth that has little to do with an abstract raging, whether twenty or sixty years later, over events that have become incomprehensible in the meantime, even when their details are better known. 

Anyone who had told him that Pius XII should have "spoken," "born witness," "incarnated the Word," would not have been spared Fr. Bensi's reproof. The "white Father" did what his conscience told him: and it was the conscience of a pope; that is, of someone really, and not just rhetorically, responsible for the universal Church and for the spiritual and, at that moment, even physical health of many. Pius XII both wanted and knew how to avoid being impeded from action. And from the safety of his position between spiritual guide and head of state, he worked in practical ways for the good of many, and to an enormous extent, I believe. 

The unfavourable comparison with Gandhi – newly proposed in recent days – is unsustainable. The Church, the Christian people, is not a nation, does not mobilize itself as a great ethnic group; the German army of occupation cannot be compared to the English troops; the British leaders were not the SS. Pope Eugenio Pacelli did not have decades before him, but a meager ration of days, each of which might have been the last of his rule. Nor did Gandhi – I hazard to say – have the complexity of a Christian saint; he was imbued from the start with Tolstoy's simplified Gospel. It is foolish to imagine the pope at the head of a non-violent demonstration in St. Peter's Square, on any day whatsoever of 1943. Such an exhibition, supposing it would have been thinkable for the rigorous mind of Pius XII, would not have disconcerted the German high command. 

It was, instead, pope Pacelli's impenetrable brilliance and his capacity as a leader that stopped Hitler at the gates of Vatican City. Words could not have had any effect on Hitler, but he probably was affected both by the manifestation of the bond between the Vicar of Christ – yes, the Vicar! – and his universal people, i.e. an extraordinary degree of political-religious charisma, and by the fear that laying hands on the pontiff would have had a delegitimizing, profaning effect upon him, Hitler, and not only among Catholic peoples. 

In short, the only foundation and the only arena of political action that remained for Pius XII in the face of Hitler was his person, as the "Pope's body," and his charisma of authority. He wanted these to remain free and operative, and he kept them so for as long as he could. Pacelli's freedom was the residual "libertas Ecclesiae," and this represented, and saved, the lives of many. 

It is too simple to insist today – perhaps recalling as a counterexample the sacrifice of Fr. Kolbe – that Pacelli, in the midst of that turbulence, should have gone to meet a personal "martyrium." Martyrdom would have been only a liberation from the burdens of office, from the daily exercise of charisma. I have reread "Murder in the Cathedral" by T.S. Eliot. It was published and performed in 1935, but I don't know if Pacelli was familiar with it at the time. Shortly before his death the protagonist, Thomas Becket, faces temptations old ("real goods, worthless but real," as he says) and new, presented to the archbishop by the ultimate Tempter, himself. In the face of the supreme temptation, that of certain sanctity through martyrdom, Thomas examines and chooses the option of sufferance, of non-action: neither going towards nor drawing back from martyrdom. 

Pacelli chose action. But there's a difference between him and Becket. Thomas could rely on the pope to make up for the blood spilled and the void left in Canterbury by his own defenseless self-offering to his assassins. But Pacelli was the pope, and there was no principle of order greater than him on the earth. 

In Pius XII, therefore, there is manifested the heroism of the one who works under extreme responsibility, in the exceptional situation: it is the sanctity of the rock, the marvelous Catholic sanctity that flows from decisive action, and not from homilies. It is a sanctity that, perhaps after torment, knows it cannot stop because of torment and indecision. 

The miracle of Pius XII is that of the house built upon the rock (Mt. 7:24), which he kept intact in silence – and by virtue of silence – and which was thereby capable of providing shelter and protection in a place that words would have destroyed. 

Of course, Pacelli has nothing to do, in part because of his aristocratic birth, with the famous "clasa discutidora" of Donoso Cortés. Pacelli had already experienced the dangerous vacuity of revolutionary wordmongering as a nuncio in Munich, Germany, in 1919. 

Rationality, incarnating the role of the guide – "pasce oves meas" – and work: in part because of all these the "gentle Christ on earth" looked upon the horror with eyes that, in my mind, fortunately do not resemble those of the Dostoyevskian reprises of Christ so attractive for us. He was a model of sanctity neither smiling, nor utopian, nor sacrificial. 

For this reason, too, it is a source of riches for us – and a gift of the Catholic "complexio oppositorum" – that the sanctity of Pius XII should be so, and that the Church should intend to propose it to us. Raised to the altars, he will be a lofty model of charismatic responsibility and rational rigor, of which we have a tremendous need. 

For more details on the January 18, 2005 meeting between 130 Jewish rabbis and John Paul II, see the Newsletter by John L. Allen, Rome correspondent for the "National Catholic Reporter": 

“The Word from Rome”, January 20, 2005