Come Clean on Pius XII

February 20, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI’s intention to elevate his World War II-era predecessor, Pope Pius XII, to sainthood has inexorably revived the polemic about whether Pius turned a blind eye to the Holocaust. In a transparent effort to calm the controversy it itself has recharged, the Vatican announced last week that it will soon make some of its WWII archives available on the Internet. The Holy See’s semi-official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, claimed this will “render service to the historic truth.”

But will it? Odds are that this will be a hi-tech rerun of what occurred in 1999. To counter British author John Cornwell’s book Hitler’s Pope, the Vatican appointed a panel – the International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission – to go over material kept zealously concealed from public scrutiny. Yet even this handpicked and specifically approved panel was denied full access. Only pre-1923 papers were made available. In reaction, the commission suspended its work in 2001, after producing no findings on the papacy during the Holocaust.

This time, too, it is already being indicated that of the 8,000 pages to be uploaded, none will directly relate to the wartime pope and that only in another five to six years will anything pertaining to Pius see light. Such promises for future lifting of secrecy have been made periodically over the years, and each time the target date is further postponed.

This automatically revives abiding questions about the ongoing concealment. It’s almost 65 years since WWII ended. One would reasonably assume that any remote pretext for refusing full disclosure has long since evaporated. The very fact that such records are still being kept under wraps, indeed, only intensifies suspicion that they are damning. Otherwise, surely, the Vatican would wish to eliminate suspicion rather than amplify it.

Pius is accused both by Jews and non-Jews of having betrayed the Jews during their darkest hours. Had he so much as cautioned devout Catholics throughout Europe that annihilating Jews is sinful, it is argued, more might have been rescued.

CORNWELL, A committed Catholic and one-time candidate for the priesthood, aimed to prove Pius’s innocence. He was therefore allowed to peruse parts of the secret Vatican archives. Following exhaustive research, Cornwell recounted, “by the middle of 1997 I was in a state of moral shock. The material I had gathered amounted not to an exoneration but to an indictment... The evidence was explosive.”

Cornwell said it showed Pius “was patently, and by the proof of his own words, anti-Jewish. It revealed that he had helped Hitler to power and at the same time undermined potential Catholic resistance in Germany. It showed that he had implicitly denied and trivialized the Holocaust, despite having reliable knowledge of its true extent. And, worse, that he was a hypocrite, for after the war he had retrospectively taken undue credit for speaking out boldly against the Nazi persecution of the Jews.”

Indeed, postwar – obviously free of Fascist and Third Reich intimidation – Vatican City and extraterritorial buildings in Rome became protective semi-official asylums for numerous wanted war-criminals. The exodus to Arab destinations and the Americas of Nazis and their collaborators would have been impossible were the highest Vatican echelons genuinely faultless or clueless.

ALL OF this underscores our misgivings about the Vatican’s routine but never-kept pledges to reveal pertinent documents at later dates.

Is the object merely to deflect criticism and win time? Is the Vatican’s latest move geared to relieve pressure as it proceeds to beatify Pius XII?

Posting on the Internet documents that do not relate to the main issue of contention appears aimed at creating a false impression of cooperation and openness.

We can only hope the pontiff pays attention to 18 top Catholic scholars from America, Germany and Australia, who in a heartfelt letter last week urged him to delay canonizing Pius XII because, with Vatican archives under lock and key, “currently, existing research leads us to the view that Pope Pius XII did not issue a clearly worded statement, unconditionally condemning the wholesale slaughter and murder of European Jews.”

This is the crux of the matter. All the rest is smoke and mirrors.

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