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Two views of Pius XII

One Compelling and cruel; the other painfully honest


By John Cornwell
Viking, 410 pages, $29.95
To order: phone #

By Pierre Blet, S.J.
Translated by Lawrence J. Johnson
Paulist Press, 289 pages, $29.95
To order: phone #

This book is compelling, convincing and cruel. It’s great journalism, debatable history. Cornwell maintains a relentless narrative and skillfully arranges his text.

For example, the reader is aware that Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli), in World War II’s aftermath, stands accused of perfidy toward the Jews. An unstated accusation of personal cowardice hangs in the air concerning the pope’s unwillingness to publicly, unequivocally speak out against the Nazis.

Here’s how Cornwell tightens that screw.

The author has us in Kreuznach, Kaiser Wilhelm’s Rhineland headquarters. It’s 1917, World War I, and page 68 of Hitler’s Pope. Pacelli is nuncio to Bavaria and has carried Pope Benedict XV’s “peace plan” to the Kaiser.

Cornwell quotes from the kaiser’s memoirs as Wilhelm tells Pacelli to inform the pope he must speak out and free Catholic soldiers “from the horrors of war.” Pacelli’s aide suggests the pope might endanger himself by such a course of action. The kaiser records he then says to Pacelli (about Benedict XV, but with Cornwell dangling shades of the future Pius XII before the reader):

“Was I now to believe that his [Christ’s] viceroy on earth was afraid of becoming a martyr, like his Lord, in order to bring peace to the bleeding world?”

Masterly. And vicious.

Cornwell is cruel because Pacelli, as priest, bishop and cardinal and as Pius XII, never gets the benefit of the doubt. This reads like a vendetta: The chapter “Pope of Peace” is followed by one titled “Friend of Croatia.”

Cornwell’s findings are not necessarily incorrect; it’s that his tone banishes any pretext of impartiality. This a lover spurned. Let’s see why.

I take Cornwell at his word that he began this book to salvage Pius XII’s reputation from the ash heap of World War II and “Final Solution” history.

Imagine the coup for Cornwell -- and the Roman Catholic church. An author, mystery writer and scholar exonerates Pius XII right on the eve of the millennium and wipes clean the dirtiest blot on the Vatican’s 20th-century escutcheon.

A double coup for, in A Thief in the Night, Cornwell cleared the Vatican (and Archbishop Paul Marcinkus) of direct responsibility in the death of Pope John Paul I.

Yet as Cornwell turns history’s pages on Pacelli (often secondary sources -- hence more journalism than history) he finds not material for exculpation but greater culpability.

Cornwell was trapped -- the book reads as if written in reprisal or anger.

Even so, today’s readers with no inkling of life inside Germany while Hitler was in power, are suddenly presented with examples of a courageous German Catholic laity -- in the press and in politics -- and individual priests and bishops magnificent in their opposition to the führer.

Cornwell handles his material like a prosecutor.

Pacelli grew up in a middle class family of striving Vatican insiders, poorly paid Vatican lawyers who lived lives of “piety” and “penurious respectability” while murmuring the general anti-Semitic views common to the day.

Anti-Semitism was accepted. Society endorsed it. So did the Catholic church.

Tile by tile, Cornwell lays the mosaic that depicts the extent to which the Catholic church furthered anti-Semitism’s cause. It wasn’t just Crusaders breaking their journey to “kill Jews” to and from the Holy Land -- even the popes trampled on the Jews. The author retells the weird tale of Piux IX, Pio Nono who, despite an outcry from world leaders, adopted a Jewish boy against his parents’ will, raised him in the Vatican and saw him into the priesthood. (Scarcely surprising that the doghouse of Italy’s liberator, Garibaldi, was labeled, “The House of Pio Nono.”)

Cornwell has seminarian Pacelli’s mind “narrowed” at the Almo Collegio Capranica by the “aridity” of the Neo-Thomist revival. As a fastidious boy with stomach trouble, seminarian Pacelli is allowed, against all precedent, to live at home with mother. Meanwhile he’s reading the highly anti-Semitic and anti-Judaist leading Jesuit journal, Civiltà Cattolica.

The new Fr. Pacelli, at home one evening “playing the violin,” is visited by none other than Msgr. Pierto Gaspari, recently appointed undersecretary in the Secretariat of State’s Department of Extraordinary Affairs. Pacelli is recruited into Vatican service -- in an anti-democratic, anti-Americanism and anti-Modernism Vatican.

Connections. Connections. The family’s Vatican law practice has paid off.

At St. Apollinaris, Pacelli’s doctoral thesis is on “the nature of concordats” (special treaties between the Holy See and nation-states) -- another notch on prosecutor Cornwell’s briefcase.

Pacelli is soon a monsignor himself and masterminding the new (1917), written-in-secret Code of Canon Law. The code, writes Cornwell, “exhaustively regulates conditions within the church” and, with its “creeping infallibility,” is “unlike anything the church has previously possessed in its 2,000-year existence.”

Hard to dispute, though, whether Pacelli masterminded the 1917 code to the degree Cornwell suggests is a historic bone for others to chew on. And they’ve already started.

As Cornwell has it, Pacelli later uses the code to skewer Germany’s bishops and demolish the anti-Hitler, anti-Nazi German Catholic Center Party. Pacelli (now secretary of state) “favored a quiescent, docile church and collaboration with the Nazi Party over the continued existence of the Catholic Center Party, which represented the final obstacle on Hitler’s path to dictatorship.” Comments the author: “How well these two men [Hitler and Pacelli] seemed to understand each other.”


Cornwell contrasts that with German Catholic criticism of Nazism, “vehement and sustained” in the press and from the pulpits, with a Mainz diocese bishop and priest both telling the Nazis that “Hitler’s Party’s” policy of “racial hatred” was “un-Christian and un-Catholic.” Pius XII never speaks out that directly.

Cornwell produces a 1930 editorial in the Vatican’s official paper L’Osservatore Romano. It declares Nazi (National Socialist) Party membership “incompatible with Catholic conscience,” but it does so only by adding that membership in any socialist party is incompatible.

In 1939, Pacelli is Pius XII. In 1940, in private, he utters the most important words (by my measure) that he and history have to offer in his defense.

They are not exoneration, but they are illustrative. Contrast Cornwell’s handling of the incident with that of Pierre Blet.

The incident: The war is on. Italian ambassador Alfieri conveys to Pius XII Mussolini’s protestations over the pope’s telegrams to the sovereigns of Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. By interference, the telegrams criticize the Nazi invasion. Pius never mentions the Germans directly.

Cornwell: “Pacelli replied that he was not afraid of being put in a concentration camp. He said he had been reading the letters of St. Catherine of Sienna, who reminded the pope of her day that God would judge him harshly if he failed in his duty.”

Blet: “The pope calmly replied that he did not fear being shipped off to a concentration camp. Alluding to the most critical moments during his stay in Munich, Pius XII added: ‘We did not fear the revolvers that were aimed at us the first time around; we will have even less fear the second time.’ Furthermore: ‘The Italians are certainly well aware of the terrible things taking place in Poland. We might have an obligation to utter fiery words against such things; yet all that is holding us back from doing so is the knowledge that if we should speak, we would simply worsen the predicament of these unfortunate people.’ ”

That was Pacelli’s view. Rightly or wrongly, he stayed with it. But it sorely haunted him (see Pius and the nurses in Stransky’s preface to Blet in accompanying review).

Cornwell writes of 1942 when the U.S. charge d’affaires at the Holy See tells the U.S. State Department that the pope was (in Cornwell’s words) “diverting himself, ostrichlike, into purely religious concerns and that the moral authority won for the papacy by Pius XI was being eroded.”

In rebuttal to such an accusation, Pius XII’s defenders frequently turn to the pope’s Christmas Eve radio address of that year as a pontiff speaking out as clearly as he dared under the circumstances. Without referring to Hitler or the Jews, Pacelli said, “Humanity owes this vow to those thousands who, without any fault of their own, sometimes only by reason of their nationality or race, are marked down for death or gradual extinction.”

This was diplomatese. Cornwell provides Mussolini’s quite devastating comment, in part: “This is a speech of platitudes which might be better made by a parish priest of Predappio [Mussolini’s backwater village birthplace].”

Despite its condemnatory tone, Cornwell’s book is an honest challenge to the church, to history and Christians. Canonization will not cleanse Pius XII’s reputation. Only Pius XII himself could have done it. The pope had 13 years between the end of World War II and his death to explain himself. He had a duty as head of the Roman Catholic church to do that. Do it in some detail, even if it was not to be released until after his death.

He didn’t.

Post-Cornwell, what next? A repeat of what happened after Rolf Hochhuth’s play, “The Deputy,” opened in 1963 in Europe (1964 in the U.S.) is likely. The play accused Pius of being Hitler’s deputy. The furor developed a life of its own and resulted in a book, The Storm Over The Deputy.

Hitler’s Pope is developing a life of its own (deservedly so).

It could well result in The Storm, Part II.

In contrast to John Cornwell’s you-are-there Hitler’s Pope, this is a strange and rather subdued book. With painfully honest Jesuit Fr. Pierre Blet, one is wandering in the Vatican archives where, despite its nation-by-nation format, Blet seems an almost reluctant guide. Not driven toward a one-two-three summary, his conclusion is: “Pope Pius XII’s high ideals, transcending as they did opposing interests and rival passions, will always make difficult the task of understanding his policy and personality.”

What then, in 289 pages, has been learned that wasn’t already known?

Mainly good background. Blet gives his “take” on the 12 volumes of Vatican research he edited with Robert A. Graham, Angelo Martini and Burkhart Schneider. It suggests that the Allies didn’t (and by extension today’s Western European and North American readers don’t) understand the situation from the pope’s perspective.

Here’s Blet as Myron Taylor, Roosevelt’s personal representative to the Vatican, meets Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Domenico Tardini.

“The American first spoke to him about ‘the advisability and the necessity of the pope coming out against the atrocities committed by the Nazis.’ ” This desire, said Taylor, has been expressed by many. In fact, just before Taylor’s arrival, the ambassadors of Poland, Belgium and Brazil, as well as England’s minister (to the Vatican) and Roosevelt’s charge d’affaires (Harold Tittman), joined together asking that the pope issue a solemn condemnation of Nazism and its crimes.

“Tardini, who had endured many attacks from diplomats, repeated to Myron Taylor that the pope had already spoken on numerous occasions condemning crimes no matter who their authors might be. Some wanted Hitler condemned by name, but this was impossible.

“Taylor replied: ‘I never asked for that, I never asked that Hitler be named.’

“And when Tardini replied that in this case the pope had already spoken, Taylor’s rejoinder was: ‘He can repeat it.’ Tardini agreed.”

If this book could be taken out of the context of the atrocities of War World II, it would read like a political novel that revolves around an imperial court, told from the point of view of the courtiers and ambassadors but rarely the emperor. A novel based on a diary with neither authors nor readers able to summarize the plot.

The central character is a shadow. And as the history of the period fades, the shadow undeservedly becomes sinister.

World War II at the outset was not quite as cut and dried as it looks 60 years later. Blet reports that the 1939 Berlin Vatican diplomatic view was that “the Holy See had reason to hope that the German [Hitler’s] government would do everything possible to avoid provocation, to avoid any incident that would lead to conflict.”

That was not only the Vatican’s view. That view was held by many in Britain. Not by Churchill and his coterie, but certainly by pacifists like Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, fascists, and many undecideds.

Blet writes there is only one way of “returning from the fiction to reality, from legend to history, and that is by going back to the original documents, for these directly reveal what the pope said and did.”

Any historian knows, and Blet acknowledges, that documents reveal only some of what any person says or does. The winks and nods, the agreements, hints, suggestions and silences over the dinner table and the desk, in the corridor and on the stairs, is where political history takes place. What is recorded is what someone chooses to record. This isn’t a problem limited to papal archives.

Yet this book is expected to bear the burden of proof, a proof that could only be shown had Eugenio Pacelli, that most meticulous of men, kept a personal daily diary.

The first quotation in this book -- in Paulist Thomas Stransky’s preface -- is not from the Vatican archives but from The Tablet of London (June 29, 1963). Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini (the future Paul VI) took “The Deputy” playwright Rolf Hochhuth to task for “an inadequate grasp of the psychological and political realities” in those “appalling conditions of war and Nazi oppression” during which Pius XII tried “so far as he could fully and courageously to carry out the mission entrusted to him.”

It’s axiomatic in journalism (though many writers ignore it) that “a quotation isn’t proof.” And Stransky isn’t proving anything by quoting Montini, except perhaps Montini’s own anguish.

Next, the reader is teased by the question Stransky raises at the outset that Blet never answers, because Pius XII never answered it. Stransky mentions Pius XII’s May 1952 address to nurses when the pope asks himself, “What should we have done that we have not done?”

The fact that the question was still plaguing the pope -- when Blet tells us that the “wave of systematic disparagement” did not begin until 1963-64, 12 years later and five years after the pope’s death -- speaks volumes.

But this volume doesn’t explain him. Did the pope actually believe he could have done nothing more?

We do not know.

Arthur Jones, NCR editor-at-large, in 1963-64 wrote the first extensive articles in the United States on the anti-Pius XII play, “The Deputy,” in the Catholic Star Herald of Camden, N.J.

National Catholic Reporter, November 19, 1999