Pope Pius XII, head of the Church from 1939-58, gives a blessing at the end of a radio message Sept. 1, 1943. CNS photo

Don’t judge Pius XII yet, expert warns

  • May 8, 2020

One document uncovered during one week of research isn’t enough to draw new or final conclusions about Pope Pius XII’s guilt or innocence regarding the Holocaust, warns Canada’s leading expert on the wartime pope.

“There’s certainly no discovery here. It’s not news that the Vatican was receiving reports (of Nazi atrocities). That’s abundantly clear,” King’s University College historian Robert Ventresca told The Catholic Register.

The world of Holocaust research was rocked late in April when Fr. Wolf Hubert, a church historian and expert consultant on the possible canonization of Pius XII, revealed to a German newspaper that his team of seven researchers discovered a memo that cast Pius in a potentially unfavourable light. Written by a staffer at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, it warned Pius against believing reports of German atrocities he’d received from Jewish sources and from the Ukrainian Catholic Patriarch Cardinal Andrey Sheptytsky.

The Vatican official, then Fr. and later Cardinal Angelo Dell’Acqua, said that Jews “easily exaggerate” and that “Orientals” (Ukrainian Catholics) “are really not an example of honesty.”

“This doesn’t paint that individual (Dell’Acqua) in a flattering light. But I mean, what does it tell us?” Ventresca asked. “That there was prejudice and bigotry in those circles? Well, we knew that.”

Still, the Dell’Acqua memo may be an important finding, said Ventresca. In 1942 American officials had asked the Vatican whether it could confirm reports the U.S. had received from the Jewish Agency in Geneva that the Nazis had murdered hundreds of thousands in Lviv, Ukraine, and the Warsaw Ghetto. The Vatican had reports from its own sources, including the letter from Sheptytsky, but chose not to share the information or confirm the massacres.

“The issue for us always is, why did they make the decisions that they made? What’s the motive behind the caution?” Ventresca said.

Ventresca is the author of the award-winning 2013 book, Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII. He’s currently working on The Vatican and the Holocaust for Cambridge University Press.

While the Dell’Acqua memo might be a clue, it’s not proof of any Pius misdeed without the broader context of the entire archive, he said. The problem is that Hubert’s team and all the other researchers had to leave when COVID-19 shut down the Apostolic Archive just one week after the Pius XII documents became available.

Ventresca wrote about Pius XII’s reluctance to share information about the Holocaust in his 2013 book.

“I said to my wife this morning, this is frustrating because it shows that people don’t always read very closely what you wrote,” he said.

Scholars have known for a long time that Pope Pius XII knew about a pattern of massive atrocities being committed against Jews by the Nazi government in the context of the war. They also knew that Pius chose to say nothing publicly against it. The debate has been about whether Pius believed speaking out would only accelerate the Nazi death campaign, whether he saw it as a non-issue for the Church or whether he in some way agreed with Nazi ideology.

The question of motive remains unanswered, Ventresca said. Real research into such complex history never comes down to single documents and “gotcha” moments, he said.

“Those kinds of documents that Wolf Hubert is finding, that’s what we’re looking for. That’s the context; that’s the nuance. That’s going to help us get a deeper understanding of things,” he said.

“I’m just cautioning people against rushing to judgment without taking the time to go from evidence to conclusions and judgment. That takes time.”

Ventresca was scheduled to visit the archive in June. With the toll that COVID-19 has taken in Italy and the long line of historians and researchers who got bumped when the archive closed, he’s not expecting to get in before fall.

“What we’re seeing is the start of a new wave of research that I know will, in time, bring us to a deeper understanding,” he said.

Ventresca is not alone in cautioning against quick and easy conclusions. Polish historian Jan Zaryn has also cast doubt on whether or not the Dell’Acqua memo is conclusive.

“I’ve never personally encountered a situation in which 11 volumes of material, published over two decades, are suddenly countermanded by a single document, found after a few days’ research,” Zaryn told a Catholic News Service correspondent.

The 11 volumes referred to by Zaryn are a collection of wartime documents assembled by Jesuit scholars over two decades in response to Pope Paul VI’s call for an open accounting of the Vatican’s actions during the Holocaust. By the mid-1960s Pius XII was already being called “Hitler’s Pope.”

The Pius XII section of the Apostolic Archives (formerly known as the Secret Archives) contains at least 200,000 boxes with over two million documents.

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