- Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy
For the past several years an ongoing controversy has swirled throughout the academic world regarding the papacy of Pius XII. This controversy has found its way into the popular press as well. Cornwell, Blet, Marchione, Phayer, Zuccotti, Marrus, Carroll, Conway—these are some of the names in the current debate. Their views range from stauch defenders (Blet and Marchione) to moderate critics (Conway and Marrus), to strong critics (Phayer and Zuccotti), to severe critics (Carroll and Cornwell). It is not easy to find a way through this controversy since in the main all the authors base their views on the same basic documentary evidence. José Sanchez, from the department of history at St. Louis University, has provided a very helpful map of the current, often intense, conversation about Pius XII.
The volume does not focus so much on Sanchez’s own viewpoint (though his personal leanings on key issues are apparent at times). Rather it lays out in a succinct fashion the thinking of the major players in the discussion.
Sanchez is usually quite generous in showing the positive aspects of each of the major authors’ works, though he is not hesitant to critique them where he finds their scholarship weak. He is particularly harsh on a few of the writers on Pius XII, most notably Margherita Marchione, whose books Sanchez finds overly pietistic and marked by what he terms a “sickly adulation” that cannot countenance any criticism of the Pope. Sanchez’s criticism of Marchione is important because some members of the Catholic hierarchy have heralded Marchione’s books as exemplary whereas most other authors dealing with Pius XII regard her arguments as rooted in shoddy scholarship.
In the opening part of the volume Sanchez sets the background for Pius’ papacy and raises some fundamental issues. One of the most important, he argues, is doing away with the term “silence” in reference to Pius XII. He feels, as I do as well, that this term undercuts a solid, objective analysis of Pius XII’s papacy. He then considers what Pius knew and said about World War II.
The remaining chapters (5–14) examine various aspects of the current discussion. A summary chapter and an extensive bibliography conclude the volume.
Sanchez begins his analysis with what he calls the least likely reasons for Pius’ position during the war and then proceeds to go through most of the frequently made arguments. These include the need to protect German Catholicism, the cautious nature of Vatican diplomacy which was the setting for most of Pius XII’s career, the predominant fear of Communism which made Nazism look like a lesser evil, Pius XII’s desire to serve as a mediator during the war which required a certain neutrality on his part, his reserved personality, and his belief that a public protest on behalf of Jews and Poles would have made things worse for these two victim groups.
There are a few places where I would raise questions regarding Sanchez’s presentation. For one, he too easily accepts the notion of a significant role for Pius XII [End Page 134] in the editing of the encyclical Mit Brenender Sorge when he was Pius XI’s Secretary of State. This encyclical strongly condemned Nazism. In fact, there remains considerable scholarly dispute over the precise nature of Pacelli’s role in the drafting of this encyclical. This issue may come into clearer focus after the Vatican opens the archives for Pius XI’s papacy, something that is expected in the next year or so.
I also believe Sanchez lets Pius XII off the hook a bit too easily on certain issues such as his response to the Nazi persecution of the Poles. While he does bring out the strong criticism of Pius XII by Bishop Karol Radonski, he then seems to accept the Vatican view, contrary to Radonski, that a public protest would have resulted in greater suffering for the Polish people. Leaders of the Polish government-in...