Kevin J. Madigan: Two Popes, One Holocaust

Roundup: Talking About History

[Kevin J. Madigan is the Winn Professor of ­Ecclesiastical History at Harvard Divinity School and the co-author, with Jon D. Levenson, of Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews, published by Yale University Press.]

During the first four years of his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI put the beatification proceedings of the controversial World War II–era pope, Pius XII, in abeyance. It was, Benedict announced, a time for “reflection”—not yet the time to grant sainthood. At the end of last year, however, the pope apparently decided that the time for “reflection” should draw to a close. In a Mass commemorating the 50th anniversary of the wartime pontiff’s death, Benedict moved Pius XII closer to canonization by declaring him “blessed” and “venerable.” Born Eugenio Pacelli, Pius XII presided over the church from 1939 until his death in 1958. In the mysterious, intramural language of the Vatican, venerabilis is a posthumous recognition that designates one who, in his lifetime, achieved acts of heroic virtue. Yet even if one puts aside the contentious debate over what he did or did not do for Jews being deported during the war, Pius XII’s reign was, in fact, conspicuous for its lack of heroism. Seen in that light, Benedict’s declaration of Pius XII as venerable made one wonder how different, in his relationship with the Jewish community, Benedict XVI would be from his beloved predecessor John Paul II.

As it happens, there are interesting questions involving Pius XII and his immediate predecessor, Pius XI. Born Achille Ratti, the elder Pius served as pope from 1929 to 1939. New research by Father Hubert Wolf, a distinguished church historian at the University of Münster, in the Vatican Secret Archives and those of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith has cast new light on the two popes who found themselves having to cope with the rise of fascism in Western Europe and Marxism-Leninism to the East. These materials, released only in 2006 and described in Wolf’s Pope and Devil: The Vatican’s Archives and the Third Reich,1 are, as he observes, “informative particularly as they relate to the person of Eugenio Pacelli” both in his diplomatic and early papal offices. They also allow us to wonder whether the right Pope Pius is being considered for canonization.

In terms of his attitudes to Jews and Judaism, Pius XI was, at the start of his service to the Vatican, certainly no saint. In traditional Christian hagiography, saints are often depicted as exceptionally holy from birth—even sometimes in utero. Pius XI does not fit this canonical model. His is a story of moral evolution, from an initial, unreflective acceptance of common but deplorable and dangerous anti-Semitic stereotypes to profound reflection on, and rejection of, his early opinions, and, finally, to decisive, vigorous denunciation of the Nazi persecution of the Jews. That is, he began, with respect to his attitudes toward Jews, as a moral mediocrity; but he ended his life, with respect to those self-same views, as a heroic if not prophetic and saintly critic—and one whose heroism is to this day largely unknown by Jews and Catholics alike....

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