ROME—Pope Francis said on Monday that he would open the Vatican archives on Pope Pius XII, bowing to decades of requests from historians and Jewish groups who have questioned why the wartime pope stayed silent during the horrors of Nazi-controlled Europe.
Pope Pius has been criticized for his failure to speak out against the Holocaust, as well as for his earlier record as the Vatican’s Secretary of State, when he negotiated a concordat establishing the Holy See’s relations with Nazi Germany.
Some historians have accused him of legitimizing the Nazi regime. A best-selling book on the subject published in 1999, bore the title “Hitler’s Pope.” The pope’s defenders stress his efforts to help Jews behind the scenes, which they credit with saving thousands of lives.
Addressing Vatican archivists on Monday, Pope Francis said researchers would have access to the Vatican’s documents for the entire pontificate of Pope Pius, which lasted from 1939 to 1958. Researchers and Jewish groups welcomed the announcement, but scholars warned that whatever is in the archives is unlikely to settle the often bitter arguments over Pope Pius’s record.
Rabbi David Rosen, director for International Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said the pope’s decision to open the archives was to be applauded. The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem and the Israeli Foreign Ministry welcomed the move, as did the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. But Rabbi Rosen cautioned that the newly available documents wouldn’t be able to resolve the central debate over Pope Pius and the Holocaust, which he said boils down to a hypothetical question: Could the pope have done more to resist Adolf Hitler’s genocide of Jews, by opposing it more vigorously in public?
“We know that Pope Pius played an important role in efforts to save Jews from the clutches of the Nazis,” said Rabbi Rosen. “I’m sure he thought he was doing the right thing according to his understanding.” But Jews and Catholics would likely continue to disagree over whether the pope did enough, the rabbi said.
Pope Francis said on Monday that the new access would vindicate his wartime predecessor and show how Pope Pius attempted to “keep lit, during the periods of most intense darkness and cruelty, the flame of humanitarian initiatives, of hidden but active diplomacy.” Pope Pius directed Holy See diplomats as well as monasteries and convents in Nazi-occupied Europe to assist Jews, according to a 2012 book, “The Pope’s Jews.”
But access to the Vatican archives is unlikely to shed new light on how much the pope knew about the Holocaust, said the Rev. Roberto Regoli, a historian at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University, since the Vatican’s Secretariat of State and Germany’s Catholic bishops have already published much of the relevant documentation.
“What we don’t know is what the debates were within the Vatican about whether or not to speak publicly,” Father Regoli said. The newly accessible documents “could show whether the reason not to speak was to save lives, or if there were other considerations.”
According to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, around 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
The debate over Pope Pius’s silence has flared up periodically for decades. A critical 1963 play about the pope, “The Deputy” by Rolf Hochhuth, portrayed the pope as uncaring about the fate of the Jews.
As Vatican secretary of state, the future Pope Pius helped draft the 1937 encyclical, “Mit brennender Sorge,” written in German and smuggled into Nazi Germany, which condemned the regime’s “myth of race and blood,” but didn’t specifically mention the Jews. In 1942, with the Holocaust under way, Pope Pius delivered a Christmas address over Vatican Radio in which he referred to “hundreds of thousands of people, who, through no fault of their own, sometimes only for reasons of nationality or race, are destined for death or gradual extinction.” The speech didn’t refer explicitly to the Jews.
The decision in 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI to make Pope Pius eligible for beatification, the church’s highest honor short of sainthood, drew protests from Jewish leaders. A group of Catholic historians and theologians said the move was premature until further research had clarified the late pope’s wartime record. The beatification process, which would lead to Pope Pius being declared as “blessed,” has stalled since then.
Pope Francis noted on Monday that Pope Benedict had begun the process of preparing for release the archives on Pope Pius’s reign.
Write to Francis X. Rocca at email@example.com