Insights into Vatican's diplomacy before World War II emerge from archives

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Documents from newly opened Vatican archives indicate a hardening stance by the Holy See on European fascism years before World War II began and a push for formal U.S.-Vatican relations after a break of decades, scholars say.

Historians who have studied just a fraction of the 30,000 files that were opened last month say the material also strengthens views that the future wartime pontiff, Pius XII, was a sometimes indecisive diplomat.

The files span the 1922-39 pontificate of Pius XI, which ended less than seven months before the outbreak of World War II. His successor, Pius XII, was the Vatican's top diplomat in the years before the conflict in his role as Secretary of State Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli.

Pius XI apparently kept no diary during his pontificate, the head of the Vatican secret archives, the Rev. Sergio Pagano, said Thursday in an interview with The Associated Press.

But Pacelli kept methodical, detailed, nearly daily notes of Pius XI's meetings in tightly scrawled, often hard-to-decipher handwriting.

As Pius XI's cardiovascular problems worsened, in the late 1930s, "Pacelli would record this (physical) tiredness but also his spiritual discomfort about totalitarianism, fascism, Nazism, naturally, and (Francisco) Franco's (period) in Spain but also about the political stands of some bishops he didn't share," Pagano said.

Asked what Pius might have said in confidence to Pacelli about the horrors of Hitler that were emerging as war loomed closer, Pagano said he couldn't answer since he has only had time to carefully study Pacelli's notes from 1930-31.

Still, Pacelli's notes even then make clear that Pius XI was vigorously opposed to the growing dictatorial regimes in some parts of Europe, Pagano said.

By 1930, only a year after a landmark treaty governing relations between the Italian state and the Holy See, "problems were already arising with the fascist regime" of Benito Mussolini and the church, Pagano said.

Mussolini's government often defied the 1929 Lateran Treaty, including by failing to give quick consensus on the pope's selection of Italian bishops, Pagano said.

"Pius XI was very angry because the concordat was not respected," Pagano said, citing Pacelli's notes. Pius XI also expressed worry about Italian interference in the formation of Catholic organizations, Pagano said.

"These problems worried the pope. He was already seeing that Mussolini was moving toward complete dictatorship," the Vatican official said, adding that he found no evidence of any direct correspondence between Pius XI and Mussolini on the dispute.

Early in his pontificate, Pius XI had been supportive of far-right regimes, considering them a bulwark against liberal secularism and communism.

Pagano said Pacelli "almost never" expressed his own opinions in his notekeeping. But as the Vatican's top diplomat, Pacelli was a key player in international matters.

Pacelli, who would become Pius XII, has been accused by Jewish groups of not using his moral authority vigorously enough during his 1939-58 papacy to denounce the Holocaust. The Vatican insists he used quiet diplomacy.

The Rev. Gerald Fogarty, a Jesuit historian from the University of Virginia, said notes from Vatican meetings he has found in the newly opened archives indicate that Pacelli was "very upset" about the Rev. Charles Coughlin, a U.S. priest who was stridently anti-Communist and pro-Nazi in widely followed radio broadcasts and who had launched vehement attacks on President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Fogarty said Pacelli was advised by both U.S. bishops, worried about their autonomy, and by the Vatican's apostolic delegate in Washington against saying anything about Coughlin. When Pacelli visited the United States in 1936, he publicly said nothing about the priest, Fogarty said.

The files are "reinforcing what we knew" about Pacelli, Fogarty said in a telephone interview. Pius XII was "frequently seen as being indecisive because he sees all the nuances," Fogarty said.

"When I say 'indecisive,' I'm not saying not having a position, but I mean he's always thinking like a diplomat," Fogarty said. He cited Pacelli's dismay that a U.S. bishop once had derided Hitler of being a "bad paperhanger" because of its diplomatic implications.

Fogarty served on a team of Jewish-Catholic scholars which, after studying some documents made available several years ago by the Vatican, concluded that Pius XII was bent on fruitless diplomacy while reports of Nazi atrocities poured into the Vatican.

As secretary of state, Pacelli pushed for formal U.S.-Vatican relations, using a friendship with the future New York Cardinal Francis Spellman, then an auxiliary bishop in Boston, to help him lobby, Fogarty said.

"I know Spellman was instructed to see FDR and he got to see him through Joseph Kennedy," the well-connected father of future President John F. Kennedy, Fogarty said, recalling his own notes on material in the newly released files.

Full-fledged diplomatic ties were re-established between Washington and the Vatican in 1984.

Pagano said he expected that it would take at least 20 years of preparation before Vatican archives could be open on Pius XII's pontificate. He said material from Pius XI's papacy, including documents from Vatican envoys' offices in the United States, China, Japan and Italy, was still being added to the archives opened last month.

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Michael Finn - 10/13/2006

As more Vatican files are relased regarding the tenure of Pius XII, it is becomming more clear that the Vatican was not in league with the Nazis, as some anti-Catholic authors would have you believe.

Clearly, some priests and even Bishops were, but they were not in line with the directive from Rome.